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Russian wildfires kindle concern on Chernobyl dust

Radiation experts monitor air quality as flames spread

Hundreds of wildfires, including this one near the village of Tokhushevo, have created a sense of desperation in some parts of Russia. Hundreds of wildfires, including this one near the village of Tokhushevo, have created a sense of desperation in some parts of Russia. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)
By Mansur Mirovalev
Associated Press / August 12, 2010

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MOSCOW — Wildfires threatened to stir radioactive dust from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster back into the air over western Russia, and authorities boosted forest patrols to keep the flames from contaminated areas.

Environmentalists and forest experts warned that the radioactive particles could be harmful, even though doses would likely be small.

“The danger is still there,’’ Vladimir Chuprov of Russian Greenpeace said.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said at least six wildfires were spotted and extinguished this week in the Bryansk region, the part of Russia that suffered the most when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s reactor No. 4 exploded during a predawn test on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive clouds over much of western Soviet Union and Northern Europe.

Radiation experts from Moscow determined there has been no increase in radiation levels in the Bryansk area, on the border of Belarus and Ukraine, ministry spokeswoman Irina Yegorushkina said yesterday.

The forest floor holds radioactive particles that settled after the Chernobyl disaster. Environmentalists warned they could be thrown into the air by the fires.

“A cloud may come up in the air with soot and spread over a huge territory,’’ said Alexander Isayev of the Moscow-based Center for Forest Ecology and Productivity.

The most dangerous radioactive elements left are cesium and strontium, which with repeated exposure could raise the risks of cancers and genetic disorders, environmentalists said.

“There is a higher threat of cancers and future mutations, especially for children, embryos, if a woman is pregnant,’’ said Anton Korsakov, an environmental researcher at Bryansk State University.

A leading nuclear security scientist, however, dismissed the danger. Even if forests in the most polluted areas catch fire, the amount of radiation will be many times lower than the natural background radiation, said Rafael Arutyunyan, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Safe Development of Nuclear Energy.

The Bryansk forest protection service has increased patrols around the Bryansk forests.

Hundreds of wildfires sparked by the hottest summer ever recorded in Russia have engulfed large areas of western Russia.

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