Russian Wildfires Threaten With Radioactive Smoke

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Environmentalists warned this week that wildfires in Russia were burning forests near Chernobyl, sending radioactive smoke downwind. Russian officials immediately denied that anyone was in danger, but a group of international scientists has been studying the risks and says the danger is real.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

With hundreds of wildfires burning across Russia, environmentalists in Moscow sounded a new alarm this week. They say fires could spread into forests that were contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 and release radioactive smoke. NPR's Dan Charles reports that scientists who've been studying this risk say it's a real problem, but not as big as people feared.

DAN CHARLES: The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers a thousand square miles of Ukraine. There's a whole abandoned city in there and a forest. Actually, the forest is a pine plantation and the trees would be ready to harvest.

But no one's allowed to take lumber out of the area. It's slightly radioactive. So for the past 24 years, no one has been managing this forest, thinning out the trees or cutting down diseased ones.�And according to Sergiy Zibtsev, a forestry expert in Kiev, whole sections of the forest have died.

Mr. SERGIY ZIBTSEV (Forestry Expert): At the moment, there is one million cubic meter of dry timber, dry trees. They are standing or they are already down on the land.

CHARLES: Zibtsev only started thinking about the danger of this forest burning when he visited the United States as a Fulbright scholar at Yale University in 2004.�

He heard about catastrophic fires in the western United States. And some of the conditions that led to those fires, such as the buildup of fuel on the ground, reminded him of the area around Chernobyl.�

Chad Oliver, a professor of forestry at Yale, remembers Zibtsev coming to talk to him about fire risks in the contaminated forest.

Professor CHAD OLIVER (Yale University): He invited me to come visit, and took me to see the forest. And without prompting me in any way, I reached the same conclusion.

CHARLES: The forest was ready to burn, perhaps catastrophically, vaporizing radioactive material on the forest floor and sending it downwind.

Two years ago, Zibtsev, Oliver, and other scientists presented Ukrainian officials with a list of things they should do to make a really big fire less likely. It includes clearing out some of that dry timber, installing new technology to detect fires when they start, and buying better fire-fighting equipment. But Ukrainian officials ignored it.

Sergiy Zibtsev, who teaches at Ukraine's National University of Life and Environmental Sciences, thinks part of the reason may be Ukrainians have never seen a truly ferocious wildfire.

Dr. SERGIY ZIBTSEV (National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine): People dont know what does it mean, big fires. What can happen?

CHARLES: Zibtsev says he hears that Ukrainian officials now are taking the threat more seriously.

Now, all along Zibtsev and Chad Oliver had assumed that radioactive smoke from forests around Chernobyl would kill people. Three million people live in Kiev, just 60 miles away. But one of Chad Oliver's graduate students, Aaron Hohl, recently created a computer model of such a fire and its smoke. Hohl is now teaching at Humboldt State University in California. His preliminary results, which other scientists now are reviewing, are surprisingly reassuring. Even in the worst possible fire, people downwind would only be exposed to a very small amount of additional radiation.

Professor AARON HOHIL (Humboldt State University): This could potentially cause additional cancers, but it would be very difficult, based on our results, to detect those versus a background level.

CHARLES: That's good news, Sergiy Zibtsev says. But remember: A Chernobyl fire could still be deadly to firefighters who might breathe in particles of plutonium. And, Zibtsev says, it would almost certainly provoke mass panic in Kiev.

Dr. ZIBTSEV: I mean, we already have four days ago a kind of panic.

CHARLES: Zibtsev says an opposition politician claimed falsely that Chernobyl's forests were burning, and immediately cars clogged the main road heading south out of the city. If a real fire happens, he says, few will believe scientists who say there's nothing to worry about. When it comes to Chernobyl, they're inclined to assume the worst.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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