Fires still threaten Russian nuclear site as smog returns

Russia on Sunday reported success in reducing fires burning close to its main nuclear research centre but in Moscow shifting winds brought the acrid smell of smog back to the capital.

Amid the worst ever heatwave in its history, Russia has for days battled to cut back hundreds of blazes across the country, including flames in a nature reserve near its top nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.

The secret nuclear research centre tucked into the woods in central Russia straddles two regions — the Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia regions — and the emergency ministry said on Sunday the number of fires in both regions had been reduced.

“Despite the continuing hot weather, man is prevailing over the wildfires. There has been a firm trend of cutting the number of wildfires in the region for the first time in the past days this week,” the emergency ministry’s Volga regional branch said in a statement.

The area of forest fires in the Nizhny Novgorod region has been significantly reduced over the past day, allowing officials to focus efforts on the fires in the state nature reserve close to the nuclear centre in Sarov, Mikhail Turkov, a spokesman for the ministry’s Volga regional branch, told AFP.

At the same time, two fires were still burning in the village of Popovka and the village of Pushta in the nature reserve where more than 1,200 people and over 150 pieces of equipment were involved in extinguishing the flames.

The fire in Popovka still covers 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) but it has been partially contained and the area of the most active blaze covers just 30 hectares (75 acres), the ministry said.

The fire near the village of Pushta covering 200 hectares (500 acres) has been contained, the ministry said.

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, said he had personally inspected the area around Sarov and added there was no danger of nuclear explosions or other environmental threats even if the fire reached the territory of the centre.

The threat of the fire reaching the premises of the nuclear centre, which is surrounded by forests on all sides, was “very real” several days ago but the situation is now under control, he said on Friday in comments released by Rosatom on Saturday.

“The fire is constantly spreading from the Mordovia reserve and as long as it has not been put out, this risk for Sarov will remain.”

“The threat of fire from the Mordovia natural reserve will only be fully eliminated once protracted rains have come. Until then, we’ll have to be on high alert,” Kiriyenko added.

“But it’s already clear today that people are doing their best.”

Across Russia there were 498 fires covering an area of 53,500 hectares (132,200 acres), down from 56,000 hectares (138,500 acres) the day before, a quarter of the area of almost 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) reported at the peak of the crisis.

Authorities managed to reduce an area of wildfires around Moscow by almost 25 hectares (62 acres) over the past day and there were seven burning peat bogs over an area of a mere eight hectares (20 acres), a Moscow-based emergency ministry spokeswoman, Yelena Chernova, told AFP.

But an acrid smell returned to Moscow as shifting winds brought back smog from the neighbouring Ryazan and Vladimir regions in central Russia where three major peat bogs were burning.

A spokesman for air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring, Alexei Popikov, told AFP carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 1.3 times higher than acceptable levels due to the smog.

Shifting winds are expected to clear the smoke later in the day, he said, as weather forecasters say the worst of the heatwave and smog might be over.

A week ago the noxious smoke had seeped into apartments, offices, stores and even underground into the Moscow metro forcing Russians to flee the debilitating combination of smog and high temperatures en masse.