New study reveals radiation threats to Polesia

An expert analysis of the radioactivity likely to be released by construction of the planned E40 waterway across Polesia, ‘Europe’s Amazon’, argues that it presents a radiation risk for millions of people. This is of great concern to the ELP-funded project in Polesia, led by Frankfurt Zoological Society, as these risks would undermine the entire project.

Construction of the proposed E40 waterway could put millions of lives at risk from radiation. Photo caption: Sergiy Kantsyrenko.

Crossing the national borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, Polesia is a massive lowland region covering more than 18 million hectares. It is one of Europe’s largest natural complexes of transitional mires, fens and marshes, and many parts of Polesia are of international importance for nature conservation. 

This region supports numerous species of nationally and internationally threatened flora and fauna, including populations of brown bear, wolf, lynx and European bison. Birds such as the globally threatened aquatic warbler depend on Polesia for shelter, and every year millions of migratory birds rest and refuel here.

The ethereal landscape of Polesia is a vast labyrinth of mires, wetlands, fens and marshes, and of critical biodiversity importance. Photo credit: Viktar Malyshchyc.

Surveys coordinated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society identified over 109 valuable, conservation-worthy areas, many of which lacked protection status. To help conserve this remarkable landscape, the Endangered Landscapes Programme is funding work which aims to protect, manage and restore this wilderness, and secure one of the largest natural landscapes in the heart of Europe.

The entire ecology of the area is shaped by the Prypiat river, which flows for 500 km through Polesia. However, Polesia’s status as a one of Europe’s most important havens for wildlife is now threatened by the planned construction of the E40, a 2,000 km waterway extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic. If it goes ahead this project would have disastrous consequences by deepening the riverbed, straightening the river course and creating dykes and dams. This would adversely impact the natural hydrological regime of several protected areas, disrupt natural processes and threaten the ecological integrity of the river and its floodplain.

Ruffs arrive in enormous numbers during their migration to the River Pripyat. Photo credit: Daniel Rosengren / FZS.

The E40 waterway would pass as close as 2.5 kilometres from the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Exactly 34 years ago, on 26 April 1986, Chernobyl hit world headlines when its nuclear power plant exploded. A vast area of what is now the borderlands of Belarus and Ukraine was showered with radiation, becoming one of the most contaminated places on earth.

A report published last week argues that the Governments of Belarus, Poland and Ukraine would be putting human health at grave risk if the project goes ahead. The expert study on the radiation impacts of the E40 waterway was released by the French non-governmental organization “Association pour le Contrôle de la Radioactivité dans l’Ouest” (ACRO). The E40 waterway would require dredging inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone and could, according to the scientists:

  • Disturb several radiation hotspots;
  • Resuspend contaminated sediment, which the International Atomic Energy Agency recommends leaving undisturbed;
  • Expose construction workers to dangerous levels of radiation; and
  • Pose an increased radiation risk through contaminated water for millions of people.

David Boilley, one of the authors of the study, nuclear physicist and the chairman of ACRO, said about the E40 waterway plans: “Taking the results of our radioactivity analysis into account, constructing the E40 waterway through the Chernobyl exclusion zone is not feasible. This undermines the entire project.”

Campaigners are working tirelessly to stop construction of the E40 waterway and protect this amazing landscape – and in turn the human and wildlife populations which depend on its health. Photo credit: Viktar Malyshchyc.

Despite these hazardous risks, construction of elements of the E40 waterway look set to start in Ukraine and Belarus. In official studies, such as the 2015 feasibility study commissioned by the promoters of the E40 waterway, potential radiation impacts have not been adequately considered. That’s why ‘Save Polesia’, a coalition of the Frankfurt Zoological Society and five other civil society organisations, commissioned the expert analysis.

To find out more about the ELP-funded Polesia project, please see their dedicated project page.

The original version fo this article can be found on FZS’ website.