First Drone Survey Finds New Radiation Hotspots in Chernobyl’s ‘Red Forest’

By Tiffany Meier

Specially-equipped drones have mapped one of the most radioactive places in the world—Chernobyl’s eerie Red Forest—to measure previously unknown radioactive hotspots.

Researchers from the UK’s University of Bristol, in conjunction with the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), recently mapped the radioactivity in that area using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the first time, which allowed them to measure gamma radiation and neutrons at the site, revealing never-before-seen radioactive hotspots, the University of Bristol said in a statement.

Over a 10-day period, researchers deployed fixed-wing drones on 50 separate occasions to map a grid over an area measuring about 6 square miles (15 square kilometers), according to the statement.

The drones used a remote-sensing method called lidar, or light detection and ranging, to create 3D maps of the terrain. After that, lightweight gamma spectrometers scanned the area for signatures of radioactive decay.

Beginning in the relatively low-risk village of Buriakivka, the drones eventually made their way towards the ground zero zone of Chernobyl.

“Some of the radioactivity has died away, so the overall levels have dropped significantly,” project leader Tom Scott told ITV. “But there are certain radioisotopes present that have very long half-lives, and so they’re going to be around for a long time.”

Knowing which areas have high levels of toxicity prove vital in knowing which areas are safe to visit, and which will stay dangerous for decades to come.

chernobyl radiation sign
A radiation sign stands near electricity pylons inside the exclusion zone near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, near Chernobyl, Ukraine, on Aug,. 19, 2017. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The scientists used the data from the drone surveys to create a map—the most detailed to date—of the radiation in the forest, even discovering “previously unsuspected locations where the contamination was unusually intense,” according to the statement.

In an article published in the Nuclear Technology journal in 2017, scientists published a new theory on the Chernobyl disaster.

Scientists are now saying that the first of the two explosions on April 25, 1986, reported by eyewitness accounts, was actually a nuclear explosion, and not a steam explosion, as had been previously thought.

Instead, experts believe the first explosion was a jet of debris ejected to an altitude of almost two miles by a series of nuclear explosions within in the Chernobyl reactor. Just seconds later, the steam explosion broke the reactor and sent more debris flying into the air at lower altitudes, according to the article.

chernobyl destroyed reactor
A view of a radioactive sign near a shelter and containment area built over the destroyed 4th block of Chernobyl’s old nuclear power plant in Ukraine, on Aug. 25, 2013. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chernobyl Disaster

One of the most deadly manmade disasters, the Chernobyl explosion of 1986 caused widespread environmental disaster. Early on April 25, operators conducted a test on the Chernobyl reactor prior to a routine shutdown. However, unknown to the operators, the “reactor core was in an extremely stable condition when they went to insert the control rods to shut down the reactor,” according to the Bristol University statement. The resulting power surge caused an explosion with “400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II,” according to IFL Science.

chernobyl radiation sign
A sign with the radiation warning symbol is seen in front of the construction of the ‘Duga’ Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system near Chernobyl on Nov. 22, 2018. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Many died as a result of the explosion itself at the number four reactor, while others died later from acute radiation sickness.

While there are varying estimates for the final death toll resulting from the Chernobyl disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that the total number of deaths from the disaster is around 4,000, according to a 2005 report.