MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fires have scorched forests contaminated with radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a Russian forestry official said on Wednesday, but it was unclear how dangerous the smoke might be.
Kremlin leaders are already grappling with Russia’s deadliest wildfires since 1972 and a drought that has destroyed crops after what weather monitoring officials say was the country’s hottest summer in a millennium.
Fears of stirring up nuclear pollution from the Chernobyl disaster could take the crisis to a new level, though officials said radiation levels were normal in Moscow and once scientist said the level of risk depended on exactly where the fires were.
“Yes, there have been fires,” Vasily Tuzov, deputy director of Russia’s forest protection agency, told Reuters by telephone when asked if there had been fires in forests polluted by the Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster.
“Most of them have been extinguished now,” Tuzov said.
He refused to give more details about the fires, referring to a statement on the agency’s website which said that fires covering an area of 39 square kilometers (15 square miles) had been registered in regions with forests polluted with radiation.
The regions affected included Bryansk province, which borders Ukraine southwest of Moscow and was polluted by radioactive dust that billowed across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Europe after a series of explosions at Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986.
Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said on August 5 that in the event of a fire in forests in the Bryansk region, radioactive particles could be propelled into the air.
Kim Holmen, head of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said trees, other vegetation and the ground had absorbed some of the nuclear material spewed out in the 1986 accident and blazes were releasing some again into the air.
“The sins of our fathers revisit us,” he told Reuters.
“There is a remobilization of Chernobyl material. That is a side of biomass burning that is under-communicated. There is plenty of this still around ... In order to say anything useful about the amounts you have to see where the fires are.”
Greenpeace Russia said in a statement that three fires had been registered in badly contaminated forests in the Bryansk region, which was polluted with the nuclear isotope caesium 137.
Radiation levels in the Moscow region were unchanged and within normal limits on Thursday, said on Yelena Popova, the head of Moscow’s radiation monitoring center.
Asked whether fires in the areas contaminated by Chernobyl could bring radioactive particles in the Moscow region, she said the risk was still “theoretical.”
“There is a possibility that winds could bring contaminated air from Kaluga or Tula regions if major fires erupt there,” she said, referring to two Russian provinces a little under 200 km (125 miles) southwest of Moscow that were also polluted by Chernobyl.
“But our monitoring stations have not registered any increase in such activity so far,” she said.
The wildfires have killed at least 54 people in Russia.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she had called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to express solidarity with Russia over the crisis.
Strong winds cleared the toxic smoke that has choked Moscow for three weeks on Wednesday, but weather forecasters warned it could return in 24 hours.
The heat and smoke in Moscow — which sent pollution levels to the highest levels in decades — almost doubled mortality rates in the capital and disrupted flights, consumer activity and even trading in Russian stocks and bonds.
Muscovites got a glimpse of clear skies on Wednesday after a thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds in the early hours dispersed the smoke. Some young Russians rejoiced in the rains, dancing in the downpour and cheering the thunder and lightning.
The Emergencies Ministry said the area of burning forests in Russia had almost halved in the past 24 hours to 927 square km (358 square miles) from 1,740 square km (676 square miles), and that nearly 166,000 people were fighting more than 600 fires.
“As soon as there is windless weather again, the smoke will return,” Roman Vilfand, the director of the state weather forecasting center, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
“It has got easier in Moscow but not where the fires are burning.”
Writing by Alexei Anishchuk and Guy Faulconbridge; additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; editing by Philippa Fletcher