In a year when it’s celebrating the 60-year anniversary of giving the world its first nuclear disaster – which took place in secrecy, was obscured by misdirection, and was only acknowledged decades later – Russia this week seems intent on replicating that success.
Since late September, it’s become clear that a huge release of the radioactive isotope ruthenium 106 took place at the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s notorious and sprawling nuclear fuel reprocessing complex located near Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural Mountains.
The cause was likely an error with a filtration system on an oven used to bake nuclear waste into glass – a process called vitrification. During such procedures, which Mayak performs routinely, ruthenium 106 can become volatile and change form, and these changes determine the kind of filter that’s required. Without the right kind of filter, gaseous ruthenium can end up in the atmosphere – which is exactly where the Europeans have been finding it.
But you won’t be hearing that from the Russians. That’s because for several weeks the Mayak facility, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, and even Vladimir Putin’s spokesman have been busily denying anything is amiss, rubbishing reports from the western agencies that discovered the radioactive cloud, and launching a kaleidoscope of conspiracy theories to account for its existence.
It’s not the first time there has been a rush to lie for Mayak’s sake. In 1957, during Moscow’s scramble to advance the nuclear arms race, a tank of atomic weapons waste exploded at the facility and showered more than 200 towns and villages in the Urals region with fallout, exposing 272,000 people to radiation.
In the aftermath, thousands withered and died of radiation sickness. The government continued to lie and obfuscate, denying to the many that they had been exposed while quietly evacuating the few. For three decades after, official Moscow wouldn’t even accurately identify where the disaster took place, saying the explosion occurred in the village of Kyshtym, several kilometers from Mayak’s closed hometown of Ozersk.
It was only because of yet another nuclear disaster the Soviets were trying to hush up that any information about the so-called Kyshtym disaster ever came to light at all – and even that happened by accident.
When the government of Mikhail Gorbachev finally owned up to the Chernobyl disaster, it ironically included details about the older catastrophe in a sheaf of documents it submitted to the United Nations – at long last blowing Kyshtym’s cover in 1986.
That disaster is now acknowledged as the third worst nuclear accident in human history, sliding into the bronze medal spot only recently, since 2011, when three Japanese reactors melted down after Fukushima was overwhelmed by a tsunami.
Other Mayak-produced catastrophes, however, have continued to percolate while shadowed from view by Moscow. In 1967, ten years after its waste tank explosion, Lake Karachai, a water reservoir used by Mayak for nuclear waste disposal, dried up. As a result powdered radioactive dust was blown over the southern Urals. Rosatom only recently got around to addressing that issue, finally sealing the lake off in 2015.
Mayak had another surprise for Russia and the world in 2005, when a lawsuit and criminal charges directed at its scandal-tarred director revealed the facility had been dumping unfiltered nuclear waste into the Techa River over the near half century of its existence.
Rosatom said Mayak had ended the practice in 2004, but numerous studies by various ecological groups have convincingly challenged that assertion ever since.
The strongest testament to the contamination, though, is the 450,000 people who – the government admitted in a candid moment in 1993 – have been exposed to Mayak’s waterborne radioactive bilge.
To follow the northerly flow of the Techa River is to chart a grim map of disease and death: Along its banks, cancer rates are 3.6 times higher than the Russian national average; birth defects are 25 times more likely than they are elsewhere; miscarriages connected to the contamination are common, and children carried to term are born with malformed limbs and organs.
With such a legacy of misinformation, tragic neglect, and preventable illness, it might be thought that Rosatom, in its newly-sewn Western guise, would be at pains to reassure its own population, as well as the world at large, that it was doing what it could to limit further radioactive exposure from the ruthenium relaease, investigate where it came from, and bring the responsible parties in its own apparatus to account.
Instead, it was German and French nuclear safety regulators that went public with evidence of the radioactive cloud placing its origin somewhere in the Southern Urals or nearby Kazakhstan. Helpfully, the French regulator offered that if such a release had occurred on its own territory, it would have issued evacuation orders and suspended the sale of contaminated crops.
Rosatom didn’t take the hint. Instead it has responded with sarcasm and issued statements needling western journalists about their concern. In one Facebook posting, the company printed a taunting invitation to reporters to come tour the plant, which it jeeringly dubbed “the cradle of ruthenium.”
Photo: Bellona Archive
Russia’s weather service, Rosgidromet, for its part last week grudgingly confirmed an “extremely high” radiation emission – by its account nearly a thousand times more than normal – in the region of the southern Urals.
Yet the very next day, evidently chastised for stepping off script, the service said that the release wasn’t really technically more than normal in a relative sense, and hastily added that it wasn’t interested in seeking out the guilty parties, as nothing dangerous had occurred.
But the cat was out of the bag. Chelyabinsk regional public safety minister responded to the revised narrative by telling his constituents to ignore the prospect of radioactive contamination by “drinking beer and watching soccer” instead.
Lawmaker Maksim Shingarkin, who sits on the parliament’s environment and natural resources committee, declared that an American spy satellite had cruised over Russia and Europe and showered them with ruthenium along the way.
By the time Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s cynical spokesman, was confronted by the ruthenium question, he decided he’d heard just about enough of all this. He told the press that none of Russia’s ministries or bureaucracies had told him anything about any accidents or anything else that would account for the ruthenium releases, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of that.
It’s tempting to look at Moscow’s long history of lies and deceit and say hasn’t learning anything from its fumbling around Chernobyl and its other nuclear disasters and mishaps, but that would be inaccurate. To its usual fare of blanket denial it has added the garnishment of bad faith, the taunting jeer, the thumbing of the nose, and the stupid denial of fact.
In the midst of this childish comedy, there’s the unfunny truth of a radiation accident that Rosatom has signaled it has no interest of clearing up, much less speaking about with serious adults.
For what its worth, we responded in the affirmative to Rosatom’s glib invitation on Facebook to come visit Mayak. So far, we have unsurprisingly heard nothing.
Until then, not only should we say that Rosatom has failed to learn from its past mistakes, but seems hell bent on repeating them. It can only be hoped that its dishonesty is rewarded with the success of its past ineptitude.