August 8, 2010

Russian Wildfire Causes Nuclear Contamination Warning

Experts said Friday that fires sweeping across Russia are threatening to re-release nuclear contamination from the Chernobyl disaster into the air, but not in levels dangerous to human health.

According to Philippe Renaud, head of the environmental radiation laboratory at France's IRSN nuclear safety institute, radioactive cesium 137 from the 1986 explosion of Chernobyl nuclear power plant is locked up in the trees and dead leaves in the forest in certain areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

"If these trees burn, the cesium would be released into the air where they could be breathed in by people and with the wind even end up in France," Renaud told AFP news.

He said the previous major forest fires in Russia in 2002 showed that the exposure risk was minor, with radioactivity in neighboring countries rising a thousandth of a Becquerel unit and a millionth in France.

"This isn't dangerous at all," said Renaud.

Jean-Rene Jourdain, an IRSN researcher who leads a study into the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster on children that live around the former reactor, agreed with Renaud's evaluation.

"The radioactivity in these woods isn't sufficient to pose health problems. If the forests burn, then local residents will be exposed to two times the normal radiation," he told AFP, adding that the toxic fumes from the fires pose a far greater health hazard.

Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday they were working to try and prevent the fires spreading to a region in western Russia where the soil is still contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.

Health officials also warned residents to stay inside and avoid physical exertion due to the thick haze brought about by the fire.

The wildfires have sent smoke pouring into the capital that has already been subjected for weeks to a relentless heatwave.

Coughing residents lined up to buy sanitary masks that they hope would make it easier to breath.

"I don't know if it really helps, they're meant to protect against viruses, but they're very popular. We used to sell them individually, now we're only selling them in batches of 10," pharmacist Svetlana Gugova told AFP.

"But I don't see anything else that can really help," she said, adding that she had sold more than 300 masks on Friday morning alone.

The air quality was so bad in some areas that visibility was less than 300 feet.  Monuments were barely visible behind the thick smog.

The emergencies ministry said the total area on fire was down slightly at 444,000 acres, but there were still 588 fires across the affected region in European Russia and 248 new fires had appeared over the last 24 hours.