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Massive Russian Fires Could Go Nuclear August 10, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

UPDATE: Andy Revkin at DotEarth took up the call and has provided more information about the nuclear question.  According to experts that he has consulted with previously and contacted again for these fires, fires in the Red Forest do not pose a severe radiation threat.  While they are capable of releasing radioactive materials from the environment into the air, one of two things happen in such a scenario: those radionuclides either settle back where they were or they do get dispersed much more broadly but at drastically reduced concentrations.  Either way, there is not much increased danger from this event.

The only exception to this is for firefighters themselves, who can double their elevated radiation exposure by working on fires in that area because breathing in those airborne radionuclides then exposes them to radiation internally in addition to the higher ambient doses externally.

Revkin’s correspondence with these experts did not explore the notion of fire reaching the sites themselves.  That omission may attest to the low risk of such an event or be an oversight.  But regardless of the nuclear aspect, these fires are still worthy of coverage.

Original Post:

Russia is on fire.  Western news coverage has been relatively light for an event of this magnitude, in part because it is hard for us to appreciate the scope of this situation from here.  But let’s try.

Fires spread across roughly half of the world’s largest country.

The country is in dire straits. 35 regions are in a state of declared emergency on account of the flames themselves or crop failures from drought; both maladies have been brought on by record heat that the Russian Meteorological Center says they haven’t seen in a thousand years.

Scorching weather allowed peat fires to ignite across Russia.  Peat forms from decomposing plant material in marshy areas.  It is used in agriculture and can burn when dry.  Under those dry conditions, enormous peatlands can smolder in underground fires that can burn for literally centuries.  Just for the record, coal seams can do the same thing.

Although these fires are obviously the more immediate threat, peat has a high carbon content.  Massive peat fires are a significant concern for climate change.

Underground fires can cause surface damage, but they can also ignite surface fires as has happened in Russia.

Fire seems like a relatively mundane threat.  Yes, we’ve all seen footage of California homes and forests aflame, but it appears to be a straightforward hazard.  The Russian situation is especially serious for two major reasons.  The first is its scale.

At the height of this fire, nearly 2000 square miles were ablaze.  It’s centered around the most populous parts of the country.   Currently, the fires are more under control and have been reduced to about 40% of that maximum size.

Government resources are obviously overwhelmed, with firefighting efforts hindered by years of cutbacks and neglected infrastructure.  Even a Russian naval base has reportedly sustained serious damage.  That is unfortunate, but there are other government installations that we especially do not want afflicted by these fires…

Fire is threatening the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and a secretive nuclear research facility in Arazamas-16.  Yet even if those facilities are successfully protected or spared, this fire could well have nuclear consequences.

The fires are approaching the Red Forest, home to the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  This is the region most heavily affected by fallout from the 1986 disaster.  Despite extensive cleanup efforts, the soil is heavily contaminated with radioactive molecules including cesium-137 and strontium-90.  If the fire rages through the forest or those facilities, it could spread these previously settled radionuclides to new areas.

The health effects of this fire could become more severe, but they have already proven lethal.  Thick smoke laced with carbon monoxide and suspended particulate matter is blanketing Moscow and much of the countryside.

So far, 52 people have died as a direct result of the fires, but the DAILY death toll in Moscow has reached 700 as a result of the air quality and extreme heat.  The city’s morgues are nearing capacity.  People are fleeing Moscow.

The toxic view in Moscow.

The situation has had such a profound impact on the Russia that President Dmitry Medvedev has abruptly embraced the need to address anthropogenic climate change.  This from a country that had until now stubbornly maintained its intent to increase its greenhouse gas emissions.

Does one brutal summer prove global warming? Not on its own, no.  But there is plenty of other evidence and this global heat wave, massive floods in Pakistan, and devastating mudslides in China are precisely with climate scientists have warned us could occur.

Russians view this as a wake-up call.  I hope we can answer it with them.

More photos here and here.



1. nicolahughes - August 13, 2010

The Wired article you linked to puts the burning area at it’s largest at 500,000 hectares. That’s 5,000 square kilometers and far short of 2/3 USA.

I believe your calculations are wrong. 2 million sq miles is 500 million hectares

Jamie Friedland - August 13, 2010

Very true and corrected. Thank you for commenting.

2. Tiago Simões - August 16, 2010

Hi Jamie,
First of all, sorry for my bad english, i´m brazillian.
It´s so sad to read your post, because here in Brazil we suffer with the destruction of our forest and because of that, the weather is going crazy.
I don´t know where we going at this rate.
Thanks for your post.
Best regards from Brazil,

Tiago C. Simões

Jamie Friedland - August 17, 2010

Thank you for your comment. What is going on in Brazil is also definitely a tragedy. Unfortunately, if something terrible happens for long enough without us doing anything about it, most people just forget about it or acknowledge it but don’t care anymore. At least until it happens in our backyard.

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