Major Fire Near Chernobyl Sparks Fears of New Radioactive Danger
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Flames engulfed five deserted villages near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant today, spreading some leftover radioactive particles from the 1986 explosion and fire into the air.
The blaze was about 6 miles from the power plant, but the amount of radioactivity carried off in clouds of smoke from the fire was not immediately clear. An official, however, said it threatened to spread well beyond the 18-mile exclusionary zone around the plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident 10 years ago this week.
Firefighters from the Chernobyl station rushed to the cluster of villages after the fast-moving fire broke out, station authorities said. The authorities said the blaze, about 70 miles northwest of Kiev, began around noon (6 a.m. EDT).
No casualties were immediately reported. The cause of the fire was unclear, but emergency authorities said it might have been accidentally started by picnicking families who returned today to visit grave sites around their former homes.
The duty officer at Chernobyl, Oleksandr Belik, said there was no fire threat to the station or the workers and that they had not changed their work routine. He said he was not concerned about the radiation risk.
``We have forest fires here every year,″ Belik said.
However, this one was clearly larger than previous fires in the zone, which normally are extinguished within a couple of hours.
A Kiev-based spokesman for the international environmental group Greenpeace, Antony Frogatt, said: ``This is clearly a danger to the health of people, and not only in Ukraine. This is one of the major ways that radionuclides travel to uncontaminated regions.″
Ten years ago Friday, the explosion at Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exposed 5 million people to radioactive fallout, mostly in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. At least 30 people were killed as a direct result of the accident.
The Group of Seven industrial nations has pledged $3.1 billion to help close the Ukraine plant by 2000, but the Western democracies set no date for delivering the aid at their summit last weekend, despite an appeal from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
Ukraine insists it needs the foreign cash to offset the jobs and electricity that will be lost to the plant’s closing.
The Clinton administration is sending 1,500 tons of medical assistance to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion to mark the 10th anniversary of the accident.