Fires that are sweeping across Russia threaten to re-release nuclear contamination from the Chernobyl disaster into the air, but not in levels dangerous to human health, experts said Friday.
Radioactive cesium 137 from the 1986 explosion of Chernobyl nuclear power plant is locked up in the trees and dead leaves in forests in certain areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, according to Philippe Renaud, head of the environmental radiation laboratory at France’s IRSN nuclear safety institute.
“If these trees burn, the cesium would be released into the air where they could be breathed in by people and with the wind even end up in France,” said Renaud.
However he said the previous major forest fires in Russia in 2002 showed that the exposure risk was minor, with radioactivity in neighbouring countries rising a thousandth of a becquerel unit and in France a millionth.
“This isn’t dangerous at all,” said Renaud.
Jean-Rene Jourdain, an IRSN researcher who leads a study into the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster on children who live near the former reactor, agreed with this assessment.
“The radioactivity in these woods isn’t sufficient to pose health problems. If the forests burn, then local residents will be exposed to two times the normal radiation,” he said, adding that the toxic fumes from the fires pose a far greater health hazard.
Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday they were also working flat out to prevent the fires spreading to a region in western Russia where the soil is still contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.