Russian authorities have said that the wildfires are threatening to stir radioactive particles left over from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster back into the air over western Russia. (photo, from nytimes.com)
Even though doses would be small, environmentalists and forest experts warned that the radioactive dust could be harmful.
“The danger is still there,” Vladimir Chuprov of Russian Greenpeace told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
According to the Emergency Situations Ministry, at least six wildfires were spotted and extinguished this week in the Bryansk region. That’s the part of Russia that suffered the most when a reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded during a test in 1986, spewing radioactive clouds over much of the former western Soviet Union and northern Europe.
Last week, the ministry had also reported sporadic wildfires, but said they were all put out.
On Wednesday, Irina Yegorushkina, the ministry spokeswoman, said that radiation experts from Moscow determined there has been no increase in radiation levels in the Bryansk area, located on the border of Belarus and Ukraine.
After the Chernobyl disaster, radioactive particles settled on the forest floor that still holds them now. Environmentalists warned that these particles could be thrown into the air by the fires raging across western and central Russia.
“A cloud may come up in the air with soot and spread over a huge territory,” Alexander Isayev of the Moscow-based Center for Forest Ecology and Productivity, told the Associated Press.
Neave Barker, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Moscow, said: “There have been a number of really serious concerns regarding the potential for radioactive smoke.
“Huge swathes of land, following the Chernobyl disaster, were contaminated with radiation.
“The fear here is that fires on these territories could send plumes of radioactive smoke billowing in the direction of built-up areas.”
Cesium and strontium are the most dangerous radioactive elements left by the Chernobly accident. With repeated exposure, they could raise the risks of cancers and genetic disorders.
During what is the hottest summer ever recorded in Russia, hundreds of wildfires have engulfed large areas of the country’s west.
As the the country’s capital was recently blanketed with toxic smoke, the mortality rate in Moscow has doubled.
While morgues have been overflowing, residents have been desperately seeking ways to stay cool amid soaring temperatures and air pollution.
On Wednesday some 165,000 workers and 39 firefighting aircraft were battling more than 600 blazes nationwide over 220,000 acres, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry.