Muscovites have been choking on a polluting haze since smog engulfed the city and fears have emerged that the spread of the fire smoke could bring worse still. The fallout area from Chernobyl could add radioactive particles to the poisonous soup currently hanging over the Russian capital.
The fires could send radioactive dust in areas affected by the 1986 disaster into the air, Nikolai Schmatkov from the World Wildlife Fund’s Russia office and Vladimir Chuprov of Russian Greenpeace said.
But nuclear energy scientists say the real danger comes not from radioactivity but from other fine particles, already present in the thick cloud. "The concentration of radioactive elements will be so negligible that the smoke itself will be many more times more dangerous than the radioactivity in it," Ravil Bakin of the Institute for Safe Development of Nuclear Energy warned. "Fine dust that contains chemical pollutants is the real danger and is much more poisonous than radioactivity."
400 kilometers to the East of the city about 2,000 army troops and emergency personnel have been fighting fires surrounding Russia's top nuclear research facility in Sarov.
The situation there was "tense but not critical," Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov said after new robotic firefighting equipment was dispatched to the scene.
"There is no threat to the Federal Nuclear Center, and there is no reason for worry," Bulgakov said. The country's nuclear chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, said all explosive and radioactive material had been moved off site as a precaution.
Mixing with the smoke from forest and peat bog fires are airborne pollutants such as carbon monoxide. They are four times higher than normal and the worst yet seen in Moscow, city health officials reported.