Moscow issues suspiciously repetitive denials about radioactive leak

mayak The Mayak Chemical Combine. (Photo: po-mayak.ru)

Moscow has again insisted that a spike in the radioactive isotope ruthenium 106 detected over Europe as well as by Russia’s own weather service didn’t come from the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine, claiming instead that high measurements of the substance came from a crashing satellite.

The fresh denial comes at the same time as the government began publically soliciting bids to clean up a radioactive accident at the facility at Mayak, heightening suspicions that Russia may be writing a new chapter in its long history of dishonesty about nuclear disasters.

The cause of the ruthenium leak, which was detected by French and German regulators in early November, was likely an error with a filtration system on an oven used to bake nuclear waste into glass – a process called vitrification – a routine procedure that Mayak regularly performs at a facility known as Factory 235.

Yet on Friday Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom said a panel of experts had determined nothing was amiss at Mayak, and once again floated a conspiracy theory ­– advanced last week by Maksim Shigarkin, a member of Parliament’s environment and natural resources committee –saying the ruthenium came from a spy satellite that could have burned up in the earth’s atmosphere over Europe.

Mayak header A fence surrounding the closed Mayak Chemical Combine. (Courtesy of Alisa Nikulina/Ecodefense)

That version was immediately assailed by numerous physicists in Russia and the West. Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist, said that a satellite plunging to earth would have produced many other isotopes that regulators would have detected.

Adding to the intrigue was a tender the Russian government announced on November 29 on its official website, in which it advertises for a contractor to clean up a “radioactively contaminated section on the territory of Factory 235” at the Mayak Chemical Combine.

Days later, the business daily Kommersant ran a story suggesting that the clean up effort would actually addressed toward rehabilitating parts of the Mayak facility that were affected by a disaster that occurred 60 years before.

bodytextimage_pi4mayak.jpeg A weathered radiation sign warning people against swimming in the Techa River. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: bellona

But that in itself is a nod to another cover up: In 1957, during Moscow’s scramble to advance the nuclear arms race, a tank of atomic weapons waste exploded at the Mayak and showered more than 200 towns and villages in the Urals region with fallout. In the immediate aftermath, 272,000 people were exposed to radiation.

It wasn’t until 1986, when the Soviets were finally fessing up to the disaster at Chernobyl, that any facts about the earlier catastrophe came to light. Until then, the location of radioactive tank explosion had been kept secret even from the Russians who were affected. At the time, Soviet authorities told them that the fallout from Mayak was dust from a coal plant explosion in the nearby town of Kyshtym.

A decade after what came to be known as the Kyshtym disaster, Urals residents were again exposed to radiation from Mayak’s waste. In 1967, Lake Karachai, a water reservoir where the facility dumped nuclear waste, dried up, and powdered radioactive dust was blown over the southern Urals. Rosatom finally addressed that catastrophe in 2015 when it sealed the lake off.

Since its founding in 1947, Mayak has dumped unfiltered nuclear waste into the north-flowing Techa River, exposing the 450,000 Russians living along its banks to radioactivity. Rosatom has said Mayak ended that practice in 2006, but numerous studies by environmental groups since then have flatly contradicted that.

mayak_reflecton A reflection of Mayak's abandoned caisson plant on the river Techa. (Courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/ echo.msk.ru

The cycle of blame over the ruthenium cloud began on November 9, when the research wing of France’s nuclear regulator reported that high levels of the isotope detected over Europe likely came from the southern Urals region of Russia. Germany’s nuclear regulator corroborated those findings.

Ten days later, Russia’s state weather service, Rosgidromet, released a statement saying it had found “extremely high pollution” of ruthenium of some 1,000 times above normal in two towns located mere kilometers away from the Mayak facility.

Almost as quickly, Rosgidromet qualified this announcement by saying none of its measurements indicated any danger, and it hastily put out a release saying it wouldn’t be trying to ferret out the culprit as nothing illegal had occurred. The agency had evidently been chastised for stepping off script.

For its part, Rosatom responded with ridicule to reporters’ inquires about a possible accident at Mayak, sarcastically inviting them via Facebook to visit what it called “the cradle of ruthenium.” Thousands of journalists responded, but Rosatom chose 20, mostly from reliably compliant regional news outlets. No reports from their visit have yet been published.

When their dispatches to arise, it will be hard not to greet them with skepticism. Rosatom has thus far followed a well-worn choreography of denial that does nothing but recall a half-century of dishonesty about two of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. When the truth of the ruthenium leaks does emerge, it’s doubtful that Rosatom will be the one telling it.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no