Recipe for disaster: wildfires, radioactive smoke, covid-19, and corruption. Hell broke loose in Ukraine’s capital on April 4. Thick, toxic smoke generated by the ex-Soviet nation’s worst wildfires in decades smothered Kiev for almost three weeks. Already immobilized by the coronavirus lockdown, three million residents closed their windows and turned on air conditioners and humidifiers. But they still breathed the world’s most polluted air and often woke up at night fighting for breath and watching the milky-white smoke crawl into their apartments. “It felt like a gas chamber the size of a city, with no way out,” Alevtina Semashko, a 29-year-old housewife and mother of two, told WhoWhatWhy. “But I am freaking out about the future, the long-term consequences.” Increasingly frequent and devastating in recent years, wildfires destroy timber, dry moss, and other vegetation that have been absorbing radioactive isotopes for 34 years. They turn radioactive particles into inhalable aerosols and pose an “especially dangerous threat given the dry winter and the enormous fuel load present in the region as a result of fires in previous years,” Timothy Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, told WhoWhatWhy. Stop Corruption claims that many fires in the Zone were, in fact, the result of arson that was committed to justify the felling of decades-old oaks, pines, and ash trees. Some Ukrainian officials agree with them. “I have no doubts why fires near Chernobyl emerge — they are an attempt to hide illegal logging,” Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliamentary commission on the environment, told reporters in May 2015, during one of the longest and fiercest fires that burned hundreds of hectares of the Zone’s forest. These days, homeless people or refugees from the separatist Donbass region smuggle out the Zone’s radioactive scrap metal, but bigger theft is masterminded in the administration halls of the shutdown Chernobyl plant where government-appointed officials implement security measures in the Zone. In 2016, a Kiev court found Ihor Hramotkin, the plant’s director general, guilty of selling thousands of tons of decommissioned scrap metal from the gigantic plant’s reactors “at deliberately low prices” and embezzling more than $700,000. But the investigation did not end with a conviction, and Hramotkin resigned in 2018. Meanwhile, villagers from dozens of impoverished villages around the Zone illegally fish and pick berries and mushrooms that appear at markets in Kiev within days. Last year alone, food inspectors intercepted at least 16 batches of forest-picked blueberries with a high content of Cesium-137, a radioactive isotope and product of nuclear fission in the Chernobyl reactor, according to the TSN television network.
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