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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 18:07 GMT
Russia challenged by nuclear woes
By Leonid Ragozin
bbcrussian.com, Moscow

The new boss of Russia's nuclear industry, Sergei Kiriyenko, has announced ambitious expansion plans which alarm environmentalists worried about continuing radioactive contamination.

Geiger counter with warning sign in background
Mayak remains Russia's nuclear flagship (Photo: G. Kabirov)
This week prosecutors charged the director of Russia's main nuclear waste processing plant - Mayak in the Urals - with violating safety rules.

Vitaly Sadovnikov is accused of allowing many tons of liquid radioactive waste to be discharged into the River Techa in 2001-2004.

In a separate investigation, the former head of Russia's Federal Agency for Nuclear Energy (Rosatom), Yevgeny Adamov, was arrested in Switzerland last year on corruption charges and extradited to Russia.

The Mayak plant was also the scene of a major nuclear accident in 1957, when a waste storage facility blew up, releasing 20 million curies of radiation into the atmosphere. The scale of the disaster was kept secret by the Soviet authorities at the time.

Despite that experience, and the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the new Rosatom boss believes nuclear power is vital for Russia's future.

Contamination

Mr Kiriyenko argues that the world's hydrocarbon resources are in decline and only nuclear power can prevent an acute energy crisis.

The village of Musliymovo in the Chelyabinsk region
Thousands still live inside the contaminated area (Photo: G. Kabirov)
Mayak remains the flagship of Russia's nuclear industry and is still discharging tons of liquid radioactive waste into poorly isolated reservoirs.

The Russian parliament's environmental committee has recommended that Rosatom move towards halting nuclear waste processing at Mayak.

The committee's chairman, Vladimir Grachev, has warned that the dams standing between the radioactive water and the Ob river basin may collapse.

Environmentalists say dangerous waste water has been seeping into the soil for years.

Gosman Kabirov, an environmental activist who has spent years near the Mayak plant, says "the situation is indeed very dangerous, because the reservoirs have accumulated 1.2bn curies - that is 22 Chernobyls".

Every time they failed to produce weapons-grade plutonium, they simply discharged it into the river
Gosman Kabirov, Russian environmentalist

In January, President Vladimir Putin announced plans to create a network of international centres for uranium enrichment.

Environmentalists fear that Mayak could play a significant role in that - and want the plant closed.

But Rosatom's spokesman Vladimir Novikov told bbcrussian.com that Mayak "theoretically... could be included in these plans".

Mr Kiriyenko has approved a project to prevent the waste reservoirs at Mayak overflowing and announced a tender for a comprehensive solution to the plant's environmental problems.

Rafail Arutyunyan, deputy director of Russia's Institute for Nuclear Safety, insists the plant's current activities "do not increase the environmental risks".

He warns that "once a facility is decommissioned, the level of attention and scale of work always decrease".

1957 disaster

When Mayak was built in 1949 under the supervision of Stalin's secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, nobody worried about the environment.

Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko
Mr Kiriyenko is pushing for sweeping reforms in the industry

"Every time they failed to produce weapons-grade plutonium, they simply discharged it into the river", Mr Kabirov says.

Then came the 1957 explosion at Mayak - and nobody knew how to deal with such an emergency.

Local villagers, soldiers and workers from the plant were mobilised to clear up the mess without any protection. Children from nearby villages had to dig up potatoes with their bare hands in fields still wet from radioactive rain.

"My wife's father was one of the first people to die from leukaemia. He was a policeman and had to shoo people away from the River Techa," Mr Kabirov says.

Some of the villages were evacuated, but others remained as they were, their residents becoming an invaluable resource for Soviet research centres studying the effects of a nuclear war.

In one such centre, specially created in Chelyabinsk, sick people were kept in the same building as cows and pigs from the contaminated area.

'Guinea pigs'

No similar accidents occurred over the next 50 years, but contamination continued.

Natalia Mironova, leader of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk, says that even today plutonium isotopes can be found as far as 400km (250 miles) from the plant.

Local villagers call themselves "guinea pigs".

"One in four children has genetic mutations," Mr Kabirov says.

According to Ms Mironova, the occurrence of deformities in new-born babies is twice the national average.

And tragic incidents still occur.

"In the village of Tatarskaya Karabolka a girl who visited her grandmother on holiday went to wash a carpet in the river. Very soon she developed symptoms of acute leucosis and died", Ms Mironova said.


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