Nearly 30 years after the world's worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl's fallout continues to cast a long shadow over Europe.
A new study says that wildfires could release radiation that remains in the upper layers of soil in the dense forests near the former nuclear plant in Ukraine and Belarus, New Scientist reports.
The study, led by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, used satellite images of real fires in 2002, 2008 and 2010, along with measurements of radioactive material detected in the area, to compare with models of air movements and fires.
The team found that the three fires released 2 to 8 percent of the caesium in smoke, distributing it over eastern Europe, as far south as Turkey and as far west as Italy and Scandinavia.
The abandoned forests around the Chernobyl site are more vulnerable to retaining the radioactivity because the ions stored in dead leaves fall to the ground and re-enter the soil, said Nikolaos Evangeliou, who participated in the study.
The study also found that forest fires in the area are increasingly likely due to drier conditions and drought, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts will worsen.
Still, the actual amount of radioactivity redistributed by recent fires is about a tenth of what was spread around on Europe in 1986, when Chernobyl exploded.
It's not clear how many people were killed in the Chernobyl disaster, which took place on April 26, 1986 when the nuclear reactor exploded following a test. A 2005 United Nations study said 4,000 people ultimately died in the accident and subsequent radioactive fallout, while the environmental group Greenpeace put the number as high as 93,000, citing fatal cancer cases in the area.