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Radioactive smoke? Russia wildfires rage near Chernobyl

Greenpeace says Russia wildfires are spreading across six provinces that were heavily contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. One Russian official accused Greenpeace of 'panic-mongering.'

By Correspondent / August 11, 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with residents of the village of Kriusha, where 54 houses burned to the ground in a forest fire, Ryazan region, 111 miles southeast of Moscow, Tuesday. Putin has been a very visible leader in the battle against the fires, which have caused billions of dollars in damage and left thousands homeless in the past two weeks.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

The cloud of toxic smog that has blanketed Moscow for weeks lifted dramatically on Wednesday, but environmental experts point out that much of Russia is still aflame. And they warn there is a new threat of radioactive smoke from forest fires raging near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

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Some experts worry that clearing air over Moscow will trigger a rapid drop in official interest in the very real emergency that's still gripping large parts of Russia, and they say it does not bode well for long-term cleanup and prevention prospects.

"It seems like Russian politics is based on one single calculus: How does this affect Moscow?" says Vladimir Slivyak, cochair of Ecodefense, a Moscow-based grassroots environmental group. "They're already saying it was just a once-in-a-thousand-year accident, and declaring that it's over. But it's not over."

IN PICTURES: Russia's fires

On Tuesday, the environmental group Greenpeace Russia published a map based on satellite images, that shows wildfires still spreading across wide regions of southwest Russia, including six provinces that were heavily contaminated by long-lasting radioactive fallout during the disaster 24 years ago.

Russian officials have denied the existence of the fires, and Russia's chief medical officer Gennady Onishenko accused Greenpeace of "panic-mongering," but the organization insists that its conclusion is based on solid evidence and official sources.

Russia's state forestry service, Roslesozashchita, admitted in a statement posted on its website Wednesday that, as of Aug. 6, there were 28 forest fires covering about 270 hectares burning in the Bryansk region alone, which is considered the most radioactively contaminated part of Russia.

"We're not talking about a repeat of the Chernobyl catastrophe, but the danger is not insignificant either," says Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy program. "The worst scenario is the continuing spread of radioactive particles through the area. The danger is first of all to firefighters and local people, but the contamination can spread with smoke to new areas."

When the Chernobyl reactor melted down, the resulting steam explosion poured atomic radiation equal to 100 Hiroshima bombs into the air, much of which settled on surrounding regions of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Though the immediate Chernobyl zone is not currently menaced, environmentalists say dozens of fires have spread around contaminated Russian regions, including Bryansk, Kaluga, Tula, Oryol, and Ryazan.

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