14 August 2010

The wrath of the goddess

By Marguerite Finn

The fires currently sweeping through Russia seem to me to be part of an apocalyptic vision: floods of Biblical proportions in Pakistan, fires burning large areas of Russia, devastating landslides in China's Gansu province, covering houses and streets with a metre-thick layer of sludge deposited by the flood waters. Despite our technological advances we seem unable accurately to predict these climactic occurrences or take adequate steps to prepare for them. If this is not climate change then it's a run of remarkable coincidences.

One thinks of Russia as a vast country, well able to cope with climactic events – but in reality Russia is struggling to contain hundreds of peat fires that are approaching cities and nuclear power stations with equal temerity. Suddenly the superpower looks very vulnerable – and so does its neighbour Europe. Russia is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of grain and Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, announced a temporary ban on export grains until at least the end of the year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has cut its global wheat forecasts for 2010 due to the impact of poor weather and drought on crops in recent weeks. The price of wheat rose by 80 percent in little over a month and is likely to stay high as lower grain outputs are also predicted from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Canada.

As well as its wheat, Russia (and Europe) is worried about the safety of its nuclear facilities as temperatures soar to 40C (104F) with little sign of relenting. Two nuclear sites have come under potential threat. Safety barriers and clearing surrounding land of any vegetation minimises the eventuality of fire entering a nuclear power plant. The greater danger comes from the unexpectedly high ambient heat, which can bring about sudden changes in a reactor's operation, like emergency shutdowns and problems with the supply of water used to cool the reactor. Power lines, which transmit electricity from the reactors to cities and towns are melting, which may also trigger emergency shutdowns. Nuclear expert Andrei Ozharovsky explains: "Damage caused by a transformer or breakdowns in power lines are a greater risk than the state nuclear operator is admitting. Such events cause emergency stopping of the reactor - as happened in Chernobyl when, after several attempts to switch the reactor off and on, the reactor was out of control."

There is concern too about the safety of Russia's nuclear design and production facility at Sarov, a closed town 220 miles east of Moscow. Emergency action was taken by Russian troops who dug a five-mile canal to protect the site. All explosive and radioactive material was removed. A defence ministry spokesman confirmed that weapons, artillery and missiles at a depot in Alabinsk, about 70 kilometres southwest of Moscow, had to be transferred to a secure site because of the danger posed by fires in the region.

Meanwhile, the elemental firestorms show their disdain for man-made limits in another way. Russia has always played down the danger remaining in the ground from the longer-lasting radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster, by shutting off those areas completely, so that the fall-out stays undisturbed in the ground. This is not stopping the wild-fires, which rampage through any barriers, suspending radioactive material high in the air and in the smoke clouds above the raging conflagration, to be borne away by the wind, ready to fall who knows where, when the next rain falls.

I often think that we have been asking for trouble, letting the atomic genie out of its bottle, boring through the bed of the ocean after black gold and covering prime agricultural land with concrete, in the expectation that other countries will feed us. And isn’t the quest for relentless and unremitting material growth, on a limited planet, inviting the wrath of the Gods?

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