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Enhancing Nuclear Safety


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12/08/2010

Questions raised by the forest fires in Russia

What are the sensible areas that might be affected by the fires in Russia? 

The territories contaminated by the fallout from the Chernobyl accident: they are located in the south western part of Russia about 200 km away from Bryansk, the capital of this administrative region located 380 km away from Moscow. 

The nuclear facilities located in the eastern part of Moscow: they consist of military research facilities (Sarov 500 km away from Moscow; Snejinsk 1500 km from Moscow), and a spent fuel reprocessing and nuclear waste storage plant (Mayak located 40 km away from Snejinsk).

Forest fires in Russia : location map

Forest fires in Russia : location map of the sensibles areas.
In blue, the territories contaminated by the fallout from the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
© Google Earth.

 What are the risks for the population living in the burnt-out areas?

If the contaminated territories of the Chernobyl area are affected, the air would be contaminated by radioactive particles (such as Cesium-137 or Strontium-90) generated when the forest wood burns. In such a situation, the particles may be inhaled by people living in the area. However, recognizing that the transfer of radioactivity from the soil into the wood is quite low, it is anticipated that the radioactivity would not be comparable at all to those released by the Chernobyl reactor accident in 1986. The radioactivity that would be measured in the contaminated territories is foreseen to be around the level of natural radioactivity due to the presence of radon gas in air. Consequently, no health consequences for the population are to be feared.

Regarding the nuclear facilities, it should be clearly stated that they are supposed to be designed as protected against risks from external aggression (natural hazards, industrial hazards, aircraft crash, etc.). The measures taken for protecting the facilities against those hazards are designed to prevent and limit their consequences to ensure safety, maintain the facility in safe conditions and limit the material deterioration. The risk associated to forest fires is primarily concerned with thermal radiation, recognizing indeed that the heat can cause building burning, especially those containing flammables, or may deteriorate the equipment. The other risks include the toxicity of smoke produced within the fire and the risks related to ashes deposit that might affect filter aeration facility, or settle on heat exchangers and electrical isolators. However, up to now, no nuclear facilities are directly concerned by the forest fires in Russia.

What are the risks for the population in western European countries?

If the winds are favourable, an increasing of ambient radioactivity, in particular of Cesium-137, might be expected. However, the measured activity would be extremely low, a million times less than the activity corresponding to the concentration of natural radioactivity in the air especially due to the permanent presence of radon. In any case, no health consequences for the European population could be expected.

It is important to consider similar events occurred from May to October 2002. In this period of time, important fires affected for several months the contaminated territories in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The maximum radioactivity measured in France was three times higher than the background activity in Cesium-137. However the level of activity was to low to be measurable in real time by the monitoring networks (alert system). (For online measurement results in France, see our website http://environnement.irsn.fr). This activity level was measured from the particles collected in the air by atmospheric aerosol filtration stations of monitoring network. The results of such measurements were known several weeks later. The activity was one million time lower than the level of natural radioactivity due to the permanent presence of radon in air.

Conclusion

Even though the contaminated territories are affected by the fires in Russia, the situation would not lead to health concerns for the population, locally and in other countries in Europe. A slight increasing of the radioactivity due to Cesium-137 might be measured in the environment but it would be very much lower than the natural radioactivity. It should be noted that the results of such measurements wouldn’t be available until several weeks after the events at least.

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