Radioactive risk warning as Russian fires out of control

August 10th, 2010 - 7:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Aug 10 (DPA) Firefighters in Russia had yet to make headway against the worst wildfires in the country’s history Tuesday despite international help, with more than 550 fires still burning, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday.
The wildfires led experts to warn Tuesday that remnants of radioactive material could be stirred up and spread, although local authorities and nuclear plant operators insisted there was “no danger”.

The blazes covered an area encompassing more than 1,700 square km. Just under 70 are major fires, according to the Civil Defence Ministry, which said that the situation remained tense.

The fires have now spread to within 80 km of a nuclear waste-processing and storage plant, about 1,500 km east of Moscow.

The Mayak facility presents a particular risk, Greenpeace atomic expert Christop von Lieven said in Tuesday’s edition of the Hannover-based Neue Presse.

In 1957, a non-nuclear explosion occurred at the plant’s waste storage facility, causing widespread radioactive contamination considered to be among the worst in the world.

“There is a lot of radioactive material in the surrounding area, a lot of material was just dumped in a lake,” von Lieven said.

Local authorities, who held an emergency meeting in the nearby town of Ozyorsk to discuss the threat, and the plant operators rejected the concerns, radio broadcaster Echo Moskvy reported.

The risks were minimal, and panic should be avoided, Russia’s nuclear power company Rosatom Corp said. “There is currently no danger to the town or the facility,” spokesman Sergei Novikov said.

Mayor Viktor Trofimchuk was nonetheless planning additional steps to minimise the risk from wildfires. The mayor banned picnics in the town’s parks and surrounding woodlands, as Russia faced the hottest temperatures in a century and persistent drought.

Hundreds of thousands of emergency workers have tried for weeks to control the devastating forest and peat-bog fires. Among them are 400 foreign firefighters, including 100 from Bulgaria.

At least three emergency workers have been killed since Monday, including a soldier who was fighting a fire near the Sarov nuclear research centre that was eventually extinguished.

The deaths have pushed the official death toll up to at least 55, although aid agencies believe there have been far more casualties.

The fires have scorched a total of more than 7,600 square km - an area tenfold that of New York City. Authorities said that more than 26,000 fires have burned over the past week alone.

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