In familiar tactic, Russia clams up over heatwave

17th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia's record temperatures and wildfires have shown the authorities retain a Soviet-style reluctance to admit bad news, be it over a potential radiation risk in forests or the death toll from the heatwave.

It was after the USSR's worst environmental disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant that the Soviet Union imposed its most notorious information blackout, only admitting the calamity had taken place after over two days.

The 2010 wildfires have seen the authorities only acknowledge that military logistics facilities burned down or that nuclear sites were close to the wildfires sometimes days after the event.

The latest controversy surrounds the website of a forest protection agency linked to the ministry of agriculture which has been blocked since Friday after it revealed fires had burned in areas contaminated by Chernobyl.

The statement by Roslesozashchita sparked worries that radioactive particles from the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the soil of the Bryansk region of western Russia could be released into the air by the fires and pose a health risk.

The emergencies ministry had denied that there were any fires in the area. The Kommersant newspaper reported Monday Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu had said the site should be "sorted out" for publishing "false information".

"It is censorship. The authorities must inform the population, the fire brigade and volunteers on eventual radioactive danger and take measures for protection," Vladimir Slivyak, head of the Eco-Defence group, told AFP.

"The whole world could see from satellite photos that there were fires in the Bryansk region."

Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy programme for Greenpeace Russia, said it was evident there had been fires in the area and indicated Moscow had not learned its lessons from the Chernobyl disaster.

"Greenpeace, using satellite photos, observed on August 15 three new fires in the Bryansk region.

"The state is repeating the same errors as 25 years ago, when it hid or minimised the consequences of Chernobyl."

The authorities have insisted that radiation levels are normal throughout Russia and there is no reason to panic.

"The fires threaten Russia with a second Chernobyl," the Trud daily said angrily, noting the situation could have proved lethal under certain wind conditions if the Bryansk fires climbed higher into the trees.

The official media also announced a state of emergency in the area around the Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant in the Urals town of Ozersk due to the wildfires some three days after it was implemented.

The Mayak plant was the site of the USSR's worst pre-Chernobyl accident in 1957 that resulted in a major radiation leak that was only acknowledged over three decades later.

Russian officials only admitted wildfires had ripped through a naval logistics base in Kolomna, southeast of Moscow, several days after it took place and incontestable evidence of the disaster was posted online.

The damage was colossal: the staff headquarters, financial department, 13 warehouses containing aeronautical equipment and 17 storage areas containing vehicles were destroyed in the blaze.

A similar trend has also been observed in the authorities' reluctance to publish a toll for the number of deaths caused by the heatwave.

Moscow's top health official, Andrei Seltsovsky, said the mortality rate in the city had doubled but was rapidly slapped down by the federal health ministry, which said official figures were not ready.

The press has also accused the Moscow authorities of imposing an effective ban on the diagnosis of heatstroke as a cause of death or illness in a bid to keep a lid on the statistics.

News website even published a picture of what it said was an informal order pinned up in a Moscow hospital saying: "Attention! Do not use the diagnosis heatstroke!"

The local health authorities have denied the claims as "rubbish".

© 2010 AFP

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