Thursday, August 12, 2010

Russia fires pose nuclear threat

The Russian government warned on Thursday (6 August) that raging wildfires could pose a nuclear threat to neighbouring countries, with the natural disaster already spilling across Russian borders in terms of food markets.

Russian emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu said heat from fires in the Bryansk region near the frontier with Belarus and Ukraine, which was contaminated following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, could release harmful radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

"In the event of a fire there, radionuclides could rise [into the air] together with combustion particles, resulting in a new pollution zone," he explained on national television.

Russia earlier this week removed radioactive material from the Sarov nuclear weapons research centre in the Nizhny Novgorod region as a precaution.

It also shifted conventional artillery rockets from a garrison near Naro-Fominsk, southwest of Moscow.

The fires, which have already killed 50 people, have also destroyed millions of hectares of crops, leaving Russians in doubt on food security as wheat prices continue to rise.

Russia wants to tame domestic prices by banning grain sales abroad from 15 August to 31 December, in what is the international grain market's fourth largest exporter. The ban is to apply to exports of maslin, rye, corn, barley, wheat and rye flour.

"We shouldn't allow domestic prices in Russia to rise, and we need to preserve our cattle and build up supplies for next year," Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Thursday while announcing the ban.

Mr Putin also proposed that Kazakhstan and Belarus, Russia's partners in a tentative customs union, should join the ban.

The announcement sent wheat prices to a two-year high on the international commodities market.

The Russian agriculture ministry has recently lowered the country's 2010 grain harvest forecast to between 70 million and 75 million tonnes. The previous forecasts were between 85 million and 90 million tonnes.

The zone of high pressure above Russia which has caused the fires is also affecting weather in central Europe and is responsible for high rainfall in other parts of the region since early May, the Financial Times reported.

The rainfall has caused flooding in Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, leaving more than 300 homes damaged beyond repair in Hungary and at least 20 dead in Romania.

Floods are also affecting the local agricultural industry. Hungary's wheat harvest is reportedly 20 percent down on last year. Slovakia's farmers also expect below average yields.


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