Russia urges against panic over Chernobyl-hit regions

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Fires in Russia have hit areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster but much of the pollution remains deep in the soil and there is no reason for panic, officials and experts said Wednesday.

"This phenomenon exists," said deputy director Alexei Bobrinsky for the state-run Russian Centre for the Protection of Forests, also known as Roslesozashchita. "But there is no reason for panic," he told AFP.

The state-run Forestry Management Office for the Bryansk region -- the area bordering Ukraine and Belarus whose soils were heavily contaminated by the 1986 disaster -- said "the situation is complicated but stable and under control."

A spokeswoman told AFP separately that the contaminated areas were not currently on fire.

The deputy head of the state organisation's regional firefighting unit, Vyacheslav Yakushev, said his unit closely monitored the contaminated area but added the threat of a spike in contamination was insignificant.

"Radionuclides (atoms with an unstable nucleus) have seeped into the lower layers of soil over the past 20 years," he told AFP.

Some 3,900 hectares of land in Russia deemed to be radioactive had been hit by the wildfires, according to the state forest watchdog Roslesozashchita.

Those included 28 fires covering an area of 269 hectares in the Bryansk region, 11 fires covering 173 hectares in the Kaluga region, 401 fires over 1,431 hectares in the Chelyabinsk region and 34 fires over 82 hectares in the Penza region.

Officials from the Russian emergencies ministry had earlier this week denied there had been fires in the Bryansk region, after concern was raised over nuclear particles being lifted out of the soil by the blazes.

Bobrinsky of Roslesozashchita said the fires would likely reshuffle the location of the contaminated particles by moving them to other areas. But he added that would unlikely lead to a spike in contamination.

"Part of contaminative substances will be shifted with the smoke," he said. But "what's burning is on the surface, part of the contaminative substances has gone into bed deposits which are the last to burn."

"The situation will not become catastrophic," Bobrinsky added.

Russian official sources moved quickly to dismiss the threat from the fires covering the contaminated areas.

"I am asking not to sow panic," Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia's health protection agency, said on the popular radio Echo of Moscow.

"There is pollution in the north-west of the Bryansk region but it's background contamination and there was a fire outbreak only in one area," he said.

The state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Alexander Isayev, the founder for the Centre for Problems of Ecology and Productivity of Forests, as saying that nuclear dust could be lifted into the air as a result of the fires.

"Still, this will not pose some kind of global danger even though the forests in these areas have to be specially protected so that they do not burn," Isayev was quoted as saying at a news conference.

Amid the worst heatwave in Russia's millenium-long history, hundreds of fires raged in Russia affecting nearly all areas of life and threatening to undercut Russia's fragile economic growth.

Russia's Nordic partners, who would be in the line of radioactive particles blown on by the wind, also played down the dangers posed by radiation.

Lenna Hietanen, a spokeswoman for Finland's Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority told AFP: "From our point of view, there is no risk at the moment. The amounts being released (by forest fires) cannot have any effect on health" in Finland.

Stig Husin, a scientist at the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, told AFP Wednesday the risks to Sweden were "small, insignificant."

© 2010 AFP

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