Wildfire nuclear contamination fears spark war of words

Fears Russia's rampant summer wildfires could release a soot cloud of radioactive particles sparked a war of words between government officials and environmentalists.

A sweltering summer heatwave left hundreds of fires burning across the country including in the Bryansk region, badly affected by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Environmental groups and forestry experts, voiced fears smoke from the fires could carry radioactive particles held in the soil, which may be harmful, even though doses would be small.

Vladimir Sliyvak, co-chairman of Russia’s Ecodefence, an environmental organisation, said: “It is evident that fires have taken place on (radioactively) contaminated areas and that there is a possibility of re-distribution radiation – it’s stupid to deny it.”

Environmental group Greenpeace accused authorities of downplaying the dangers.

Controversy raged over allegations Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the blocking of an official website warning of radioactive dangers from the wildfires though these were denied.

But government officials said radiation experts had reported no increase in radiation levels in the area, on the border of Belarus and Ukraine.

Some emergency officials reportedly threatened to “deal with” environmentalist and media reporting on the “rumours of radiation danger from the fires in the Bryansk region.

One government official, dismissed environmentalist fears, saying: “Don’t spread any panic, everything is calm there.”

Vasily Tuzov, of the federal forest protection service, said it was not clear if fires had spread radioactive particles into unpolluted areas.

He said: “All we know now is that there have been fires in the areas with higher radiation levels.”

Scientists have said the actual risks are small and the amount of radiation in the smoke would only be a fraction of the original fallout. They insist there is no cause for health concerns locally or in Europe.

Severe storms hit Russia at the end of last week wreaking havoc but also giving hope of an end to the heatwave and fires. Forecasters warn the storms could return this week.

The two-month heatwave caused hundreds of wildfires across central Russia, though the overall area ablaze has been reduced.

Peat fires burning deep underground, believed to be responsible for much of the smoke, which choked Moscow, are proving difficult to tackle.

More than 50 people have died in the fires while the mortality rate in Moscow doubled.

David Gibbs

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