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Russian fires might emit radioactive smoke

NYT: There is growing alarm here that fires in regions coated with fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 24 years ago could now be emitting plumes of radioactive smoke.
Image: Firefighters attempt to extinguish a wildfire outside the settlement of Kustarevka in Russia
Firefighters battle a wildfire outside the settlement of Kustarevka in the Ryazan region, some 211 miles southeast of Moscow, on Tuesday. Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

As if things in Russia were not looking sufficiently apocalyptic already, with 100-degree temperatures and noxious fumes rolling in from burning peat bogs and forests, there is growing alarm here that fires in regions coated with fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 24 years ago could now be emitting plumes of radioactive smoke.

Several fires have been documented in the contaminated areas of western Russia, including three heavily irradiated sites in the Bryansk region, the environmental group Greenpeace Russia said in a statement released on Tuesday.

“Fires on these territories will without a doubt lead to an increase in radiation,” said Vladimir Chuprov, the head of the energy program at Greenpeace Russia. “The smoke will spread and the radioactive traces will spread. The amount depends upon the force of the wind.”

Officials from Russia’s federal Forest Protection Service confirmed that that fires were burning at contaminated sites on Tuesday, and expressed fears that lax oversight as a result of recent government changes in the forestry service could increase the chances that radioactive smoke would waft into populated areas.

It is unclear what kinds of health risks the radiation could pose, or to what extent radioactive particles have spread in the weeks that wild fires have been raging throughout Russia, consuming villages and blanketing huge tracts of territory with thick smoke.

The danger comes from radioactive residue still coating large swaths of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the result of the explosion of the infamous Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

“The Chernobyl catastrophe occurred and these areas were littered with radioactive fallout,” said Aleksandr Nikitin, director of the St. Petersburg office of Bellona, an international environmental group. “This contaminated the trees and the grass,” he said.

“Now, when there is a fire and when all of this burns, all of this radioactivity together with smoke comes out and spreads to other territories including populated areas where people breath it in as smog.”

Russia’s emergency minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, warned last week that the fires could trigger the release of radioactive particles as they consumed contaminated trees, grasses and underbrush.

But with the government coming under criticism for its handling of the fires, which have left over 50 dead and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, little official information has been made available about the radioactive threat.

Responding to the Greenpeace statement on Tuesday, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief sanitary doctor, played down the danger.

“There is no need to sow panic,” Mr. Onishchenko told the Interfax news agency. “Everything is fine.”

Mr. Onishchenko and other officials have already come under fire for appearing to cover up information on above average mortality rates resulting from the high temperatures and heavy smoke. On Monday, Moscow’s chief health official announced that the death rate had doubled in the capital because of the heat.

Russia has a history of whitewashing potentially embarrassing national disasters, a lingering legacy of the Soviet era. It took days for the Soviet government to inform its people of the Chernobyl explosion, leaving thousands unknowingly exposed to deadly radiation.

No one is saying that the radioactive fallout from this year’s forest fires could reach the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster. In fact, scientists have known for years that fires in the contaminated zones had the potential to spread radioactive materials in small amounts.

“There is a real danger from forest fires in radioactive zones and this has always existed,” said Andrei S. Kotov, director of a branch of Russia’s forest protection service in Kaluga, another region in western Russia contaminated in places with Chernobyl radiation.

But Mr. Kotov said changes in the forestry service in recent years led to cuts in resources and personnel, making it more difficult for officials to quickly identify and extinguish fires in the dangerous zones and limit the amount of radioactive particles released into the air.

“Earlier, before the reforms to the forest service, the territory consumed by the fires did not exceed 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, and they were found and extinguished,” he said. “Now the incidence of fire is higher, and from the time the fires are discovered to the arrival of firefighters an entire hectare could be consumed.”

The forest protection service has identified seven Russian regions where dozens of fires have been burning in contaminated zones, with attention focusing particularly on the Bryansk region of western Russia, which was one of the most heavily contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.

A spokeswomen for the Emergency Situations Ministry said that the region, home to a million people, was one of the least affected by this year’s fires, and that firefighters had mostly kept the area under control.

But with the breezes beginning to pick up and little sign of rain in the forecast for the next week the chance of new fires remains high.

“That these fires occur in these territories is a fact and will remain so,” Mr. Kotov said. “And we have to get used to it.”

This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.