Forest Fires: Beware the Radioactive Fallout

3 Aug 2010

Forest fires and slash and burn farming are a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gases which in his book “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization”*, Professor Robert Harrison suggests to call the “fever effect”.

Russia is an expert in the matter. Satellite observations show that the extent of forest fires is always downplayed by the authorities. 2 million hectares were declared burnt in 2003 while 14 million were observed. During the summer of 2006, cinders and soot from fires around St Petersburg caused high concentrations of particles and air pollution in Finland, Scotland and Northern England. Forest fires are an important source of mercury scattering in the atmosphere.

Lack of prevention and the use of ancient agricultural burning techniques make this scorching summer in Russia the field of a global vegetal fire, embracing and threatening on its way dumps, warehouses and industrial facilities. Of particular concern is the secret site Arzamas 16, situated 60 km from the town of Sarov which houses since 1946 a Russian centre for nuclear experimentation and nuclear activities. From Stalin to Putin, Arzamas 16 -also known under the name Los Arzamas in reference to the American nuclear site Los Alamos- served as a storing facility for plutonium, enriched uranium, assembly and dismantling of nuclear bombs but also without doubt also as a waste dump. Fires in Western Russia could also concern forests contaminated by Chernobyl fallout. Air born radioactive pollution is remobilised by the fires.

In 2003, radioactive emissions from a fire in a non-deciduous forest in East Kazakhstan close to the nuclear tests centre in Semipalatinsk, were detected in Canada. Fires around American nuclear sites in Hanford and Los Alamos caused localized “hot spots”.

In consequence, Robin des Bois is asking The Nuclear Security Agency and equivalent European authorities to communicate on the likelihood of transboundary radioactive pollution subsequent to the fires in Russia.

For more information see Robin des Bois’s report “Waste post-natural disasters, health and environmental risks” chapter on forest fires page 52 available on the following link (in French only)

*Robert Harrison « Forests: the shadow of civilization” University of Chicago Press, 1993 – 304 pages.

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