MOSCOW – Last Wednesday, August 18, a group of journalists and environmentalists joined representatives of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) to visit Bryansk – a region in Central European Russia where wildfires threatened to spread into areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl fallout, releasing radiation. The following is a first-person account of the trip by one of Bellona’s regular contributors, co-chairman of the ecological group Ecodefense!, who was among the participating environmentalists.
… Or rather, it had all started back on Tuesday, when an extremely aggressively-toned letter addressed to Ecodefense! arrived from the MChS. The letter began with a series of angry rebukes and finished off with an invitation to visit radioactively contaminated forests in Bryansk Region to see for ourselves what the situation was there.
Earlier, the previous Friday, the Russian media had broadcast a demand from Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu to get to the source of those “rumours” about fires spreading through the radioactively contaminated forests of Bryansk Region, and that was followed by a shutdown of the official website of the state Russian forestry agency Roslesozashchita. That same website where on August 6 official data had been posted on fires spreading through Russian regions that have been partially contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl, as well as recommendations for regional authorities on how to best keep the local population informed and protected. A certain piquancy was added to the situation by the fact that just prior to these events, Shoigu had himself made statements warning of the danger of fires breaking out in forests in the contaminated areas.
Ecodefense! made public its strong criticism of Shoigu’s Friday statements and urged the ministry not to close access to information, but, rather, make all efforts to provide exhaustive information to the people. The same sharp criticism over Shoigu’s actions was voiced by our colleagues from Greenpeace Russia as well. The stir that was caused in the media by the shutdown of Roslesozashchita’s website – which had released quite accurate, and even somewhat “tempered-down” data on ongoing fires – was so palpable that Shoigu simply could not have let it slide unnoticed. It became clear from what was being said by the ministry’s officials who chaperoned us on this visit that the minister, vexed by the statements made by environmental organisations following his outburst, had personally given the order to arrange for this trip and make sure, by all manner of means, that we were there. In the end, there were three of us representatives of environmental organisations – Alisa Nikulina and I, from Ecodefense!, and Ivan Blokov from Greenpeace Russia.
The very way those invitations came – that’s a whole other story. However deeply buried under a layer of flat-out hostility, some sort of invitation did arrive in Ecodefense!’s mailbox, but as for our colleagues in Greenpeace Russia, they never got one. On Tuesday after lunchtime, a lady who said she was deputy head of the MChS’s information department started calling me, of all people, to ask whether I knew anything about Greenpeace’s reaction. I told her she would be best advised to call Greenpeace with that question and that their phone numbers could easily be found on their website, which seemed to strike her as quite a revelation. But none of the questions we had about the trip could be answered by the MChS press service people. No one had an answer for a question as simple as which area in Bryansk Region we were going to. The only thing we were able to get from the inviting party was a firm promise to take along someone who is probably the best expert on the problem – the Bryansk Regional Duma member, Lyudmila Komogortseva, who has been working with issues of radioactive contamination for twenty-some years.
On Wednesday morning, it dawned on me why it was that nobody could answer any of our questions. Upon arriving at a military airfield in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, we were drawn into an all-out spat with two MChS officials – the director of the MChS’s All-Russian Natural and Technogenic Disaster Monitoring and Prevention Centre Antistikhiya (Anti-Calamity) and an air force general, who was sent by Shoigu himself to pilot the helicopter with the journalists and us, the environmentalists, on board. As we were approaching the chopper, Antistikhiya’s head Vladislav Bolov became somewhat agitated as he went into a barrage of questions, grilling us on where they were supposed to take us. When the logical answer came that it was the MChS that had issued the invitation, to show us – as had been said the previous day – the work of their radiation monitoring field labs in Bryansk Region, as well as to let us see with our own eyes the contaminated forests that had been aflame a short while ago – it was already the general who thundered with a Quote of the Year reply: “The minister instructed me thus: They’re the ones who’s kicked up the stink, why don’t they show us where they wanna go.”
It was then that I remembered how on the eve of all this I’d been trying to get at least **some information as to which parts of the region we might be going – just so I could understand if we would be able to visit the contaminated areas, what the travel plan was. Every single official who had been in contact with me from the MChS said they didn’t know and that we would be told everything right before take-off. If, then, a direct order from Shoigu had it that we and the press were supposed to be taken precisely where we chose to go, why not let us know beforehand? Meanwhile, a journalist from Bloomberg, who was there while the bickering at the airfield was taking place, said that an MChS press release mentioned that the environmentalists would advise on the destination. Seeing as the journalists had been invited by the same press service that invited us, and that the invitations were sent all in the same time frame, it looks like we were deliberately prevented from knowing about the whole concept of the trip and about our role in setting the itinerary in particular. Was that done in the hope that we would be exposed as amateurs who could not be bothered to prepare enough to name particular places? Maybe I am seeing a conspiracy where there is none, but on that Wednesday morning, standing next to the MChS helicopter, it was absolutely clear to me that the trip organisers were looking to stage a little show-and-tell for the press – a performance devised to prove that environmentalists have no credible information to speak of and all our statements are nothing but hot air. To be sure, we did have satellite images of the scope of wildfires in Russia as of August 15. Better yet, we had an even more reliable source of information – Komogortseva, on the ground in Bryansk.
The hassle at the airfield continued, then, but for a whole new reason. It turned out the “firm promise” given to us before to take Komogortseva along with us and visit the burning contaminated areas with her participation had not been followed through on. The thing is, Lyudmila Komogortseva had toured the contaminated areas several times this August, accompanying this or that TV crew, and was probably much better versed in the current situation there than anyone of those gathered at the MChS chopper at the Zhukovsky airfield last Wednesday. On the previous afternoon, the press service people, as they were inviting us for the trip, all said as if reading off a teleprompter that an invitation had been sent to Komogortseva and that she would join us in Bryansk. Come Wednesday morning, it turns out no one had invited her after all. Fighting through a series of excuses, we managed to insist that Komogortseva be brought along and were promised once again that she would be among the officials meeting us in Bryansk. As it turned out later on, the official delegation that had set out to meet us at Bryansk airport had left without her. It was only thanks to an earlier call she received from us before the take-off that Komogortseva did arrive at the airport in time. There, she finally joined the welcoming party.
A two-hour flight on board of a MI-8 took us to Bryansk. A storm front was moving in our direction, so the chance of us flying into the western part of the region – the areas that were heavily contaminated as a result of the Chernobyl fallout – was reduced to iffy. We were met by a deputy regional governor, local MChS authorities, representatives of the forestry agency, and other officials. Travelling with us from Moscow, besides the air force general and the head of Antistikhiya, was a representative of Rosgidromet, the Russian Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency. Earlier, MChS officials had said Rosgidromet was the one other agency that was also monitoring the situation with radiation safety in various locations across Bryansk Region. In fact, it was from this person that some of the most interesting information regarding radiation monitoring there came from later. But back to the events as they were unfolding. We did, after all, get our clearance to fly westward; the storm had moved sideways, skirting our destination.
In Bryansk, all the officials were very civil, perpetually eager to show their readiness for a frank exchange of information – a welcome change of tone, after that war of words that morning. The heads of local administrations in the districts where we headed then were also quite open to dialogue.
The first place we visited was a locality north of the town of Klintsy. As we were flying over, we could see a procession of burned-down fields below – a direct confirmation of our fears that the risk of more fires erupting still held. We landed and boarded a bus to take a ride to a small area in a nearby forest destroyed by fire. The locals who had joined us for the flight, besides Komogortseva, included also the deputy governor under whose authority the local heads of administrations worked. On the bus, the heads of administrations reported to us on the current fire situation. The gist of those reports was that in that particular area, major fires had luckily been averted, but “small fire breakouts” – brushfires – had been regularly happening, which were all put out in a timely fashion. When we reached a small patch in the burned forest and disembarked, two MChS radiation lab specialists, donned in white overalls, for effect, one would presume, started taking radiation measurements in the scorched forest. A bit away from them, I was doing the same, using my digital radiation detector, the Inspector Radiation Alert. This was when we happened to witness one of those “small fire breakouts.” About half a kilometre away from us, a column of smoke was rising up from a neighbouring field covered, from what we could discern, with dry grass and featuring a lone haystack. The MChS guys made a couple of quick calls to wherever they were supposed to call and thirty or forty minutes later the smoke disappeared. As for the radiation measurements, the ones taken by the MChS guys were off, compared by the ones rung up on my Inspector, by a factor of about three. Three times as low. Furthermore, as it turned out, they never measured alpha radiation to begin with – they just don’t. Once again, the head of Antistikhiya initiated a debate, apparently hoping for a second go at a feud that never quite went his way that morning. Most notable in his speech was the claim that it made little sense measuring anything but gamma radiation, because everything else posed no threat whatsoever. The question whether it really was no danger at all to inhale an alpha particle into one’s lungs never generated an intelligible answer. Not that it was needed, not after Chernobyl anyway.
When, in a conversation with Bryansk officials, we broached the subject of the risk of radiation carried elsewhere by air currents as a result of wildfires, we were told that the migration of radionuclides was, of course, a possibility. And that corresponds exactly to the earlier warnings sounded by Russian environmental organisations. At some point, locals shared with us also that if radionuclides had already been spread by winds from the burning forests, then the regions where they most likely ended up were not the areas around Bryansk, but the neighbouring Belarus and Ukraine. Taking into account that in Bryansk Region, MChS only takes gamma radiation measurements at the ground level – and, according to a local official radiation specialist who I spoke with at dinner, it’s not certain that this kind of measurements are supposed to indicate anything at all of value – it is anyone’s guess how much radiation is there or how much has been transferred by winds, and where. Honestly, hard as I might, I couldn’t understand how one could make such peremptory assertions as the MChS had, that background radiation levels in the area were normal, when essentially there was no substantive information to back that up. To have the basis to make such assertions, one will have to take aerosol measurements – check the content of radioactive particles in the air – for which the MChS apparently has no equipment, pure and simple. If they do have it, they chose not to show us. Furthermore, it wouldn’t hurt to check the levels of alpha radiation, too, not just gamma radiation. Airborne concentrations of alpha particles, which could cause irreparable harm to the health of the local population and the fire-fighters, may not necessarily be something gamma radiation measurements would pick up on.
By the way, before we took our return flight from Bryansk to Moscow, the Rosgidromet specialist gave us some more food for thought regarding radiation monitoring in the region. Earlier, MChS officials said radiation levels were being monitored on a continuous basis in Bryansk and that Rosgidromet was taking measurements in several locations. As it turned out, to our surprise, this was only true for one location – and precisely for three days, August 13 to 15, when a lab was deployed from this agency for field measurements. That is, exactly when the MChS said no more major fires had been happening in the region. In other words, a curious picture is shaping up: When the fires were burning in Bryansk, and aerosols needed to be measured for radiation levels, no one was doing that. Not to mention that taking measurements in one location only is, to put it mildly, an underachievement. That’s the whole sad story, where the main headline is that the MChS’s assurances that Bryansk Region is suffering no radiation safety problems because of the fires are, in fact, a fickle smokescreen barely covering a complete lack of hard facts.
It was also not entirely clear why exactly the organisers of the trip decided to take us on a visit to another place – one that had not sustained any damage from fires, but showed high levels of radiation instead. This was a forest not too far from Novozybkovo. My Inspector revealed gamma levels exceeding the norm by about ten to twelve times. I tried to find out from Komogortseva what she thought the reason was for bringing us there if this area had had no fires. According to Komogortseva, there are much more interesting places on the contaminated territory of Bryansk Region, where consequences of far larger wildfires were visible, but the MChS officials failed to take us there, citing the tight schedule and the need to deliver us back to Moscow before dusk.
Walking through this heavily contaminated forest, we resumed our lengthy discussion with the local authorities about how immensely serious and immediate the radiation threat would be if major fires did come raging through the area. And we realised that not only were local officials in complete agreement with our assessments, but they understood very well that should the contaminated areas go up in smoke, this would be a total catastrophe. In fact, this entire tour of Bryansk forests was a confirmation of all the fundamental risks we and other environmental organisations had warned about before. Additionally, Komogortseva told us, the total mass of radioactively contaminated deadwood found in Bryansk forests was currently estimated at one million cubic metres (!). All possible measures must be taken to prevent that dry mass from bursting into flames.
Around 7 p.m., our chopper returned to Bryansk for refuelling before taking off for Moscow. As we approached the city of Bryansk, we saw another plume of smoke rising from a forest below. Fortunately, this fire – or a “small fire breakout” – was away from contaminated areas, but it seems to be an obvious conclusion than one cannot yet rule out completely the threat of major wildfires erupting in Bryansk Region – including in contaminated locations – so the risk is still there.
We were waiting for our departure from Bryansk, and meanwhile, the trip organisers were trying to get us to say something on camera, the gist of which would, basically, be that the trip had given us ample opportunity to testify to the MChS’s complete transparency and to the absence of fires in Bryansk Region. Apparently, in the minds of those who had designed this tour, such comments would somehow exonerate the agency in its shenanigans with putting a gag order on information about Bryansk and closing down Roslesozashchita’s website, which followed after Shoigu’s public reprimand the previous Friday. (If there is a rational link between these two events, it is a mystery. The headline-making shutdown of Roslesozashchita’s website is an accomplished fact that cannot be reversed. Furthermore, if the MChS indeed pursues a policy of transparency and open access to information, it would behove the ministry to start giving that information directly to the people – including information on issues related to radiation safety, something that has lately been generating a lot of public interest. That, however, would warrant the purchase of equipment necessary to take reliable radiation measurements.)
As that attempt to squeeze some sort of endorsing comment out of us goes, the strategy here, in my view, was perhaps the following. Earlier, environmental organisations had distributed warnings that satellite imagery showed wildfires breaking out in Bryansk Region. A statement from us saying that no fires, on a closer look, seemed to be there would undermine the veracity of what we were saying earlier. (Like, “Now, did you have your look? Need any more convincing?”). But that fires had indeed been erupting in the region since mid-June (Roslesozashchita had more specific data, which it posted on August 6 before its website was taken down) is an indisputable fact. So the whole argument is moot as to whether the absence of fires on August 18 even disproves the statements that fires had occurred earlier and could well have led to the release and migration of radiation. That such risk was and remains possible was never even in dispute.
All that we tried to convey in the interviews we gave after the trip to a number of media outlets – including Vesti, Bloomberg, and Moskovsky Komsomolets. We can’t know, of course, how the journalists will use it, but we hope this will make for some balanced coverage.
In conclusion, this is what I’d like to say. It is without doubt that Bryansk Region has been exceptionally lucky so far. Especially if we compare its situation to the nightmare that has been happening in other regions in Central Russia. But should a couple dozen major fires break out here, as they have in other places, no resources will be enough to keep the situation under control. It could well be that the rueful consequences of the collapse of the Russian forest management industry are not as starkly seen there as in regions around Moscow or Ryazan. But it is unlikely that the forestry is in a principally less sorry state there than it is in the rest of Russia. The reason for this, as many believe, is the revised Forestry Code. And, of course, the failure of federal authorities to put together what resources they need to monitor radiation safety on severely contaminated territories – that, for the lack of a better word, is plain shocking. Of all places in Russia where appropriate radiation safety measures are sorely needed, Bryansk Region, regardless of the fire hazard, is a leading candidate – and, from what we’ve observed, it is yet to see them.
Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Russia’s Ecodefence! is a frequent contributor to and commentator for Bellona Web.