The enduring glow of a radiation disaster: Villagers near Russia’s Mayak still struggle to survive on contaminated lands

The gathering took place in Muslyumovo, of Kunashak District, one of the settlements that remain severely affected both by the infamous Kyshtym disaster – the Mayak Chemical Combine’s 1957 radioactive waste explosion accident that threw some 20 million curies of radiation into the atmosphere and left some 23,000 square kilometers of area contaminated – and by decades of continuous dumping of radioactive waste by Mayak into the local rivers and lakes.

In the late 1990s, the locals’ fight to have Muslyumovo and adjacent areas evacuated eventually resulted in decisions made to resettle the affected populations. Yet, what looks like steps finally taken in the right direction masks years of continued inaction and neglect, paralyzing bureaucracy, and disingenuous pretenses at attempts to provide solutions to the area’s radiation-related health woes.

The community meeting was organized with the help of Greenpeace Russia, and was not the only one this year. In late April, a Greenpeace activist in Chelyabinsk staged a one-man picket drawing the authorities’ attention to the dire situation in the villages after two community meetings – one on February 21 and a later one on April 22 – barely compelled officials to take any action.

The April 22 meeting in Brodokalmak, a Greenpeace  release on the protest action said, was attended by about 120 people and in fact started with a scandal: For an hour and a half, elderly villagers who wished to participate stood at the closed doors of the local house of culture, where they were refused entry because of a leak in the basement. The discussion at the meeting, when it eventually got underway, focused on the problems of resettlement and healthcare, the statement said. As at least one promising result of the two gatherings, the local Ministry of Health gave the villagers an official promise not to close down a hospital in Brodokalmak where locals could receive treatment for radiation sickness.

At the February 21 meeting, 120 participants summed up their grievances in a resolution, which they decided to send to the Russian president and prime minister, the State Duma and Federation Council, the Ministry of Health and Social Development, the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, the governor and administration of Chelyabinsk Region, the administration of Kunashak District, regional and federal human rights commissioners, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – agencies and ministries and officials of various stripes that should have long ago brought their efforts together to duly compensate local residents for creating an unbearable living environment on these lands.

Vladimir Chuprov, energy program coordinator at Greenpeace Russia, has been involved for many years in assisting residents of Chelyabinsk Region’s radioactive villages in their fight for their rights and also chaired the February 21 meeting. Bellona’s Environment & Rights magazine asked Chuprov to comment on the problems that the villagers summarized in their resolution.

Coping with the tragedy alone

From the villagers’ resolution: The state system of providing citizens with compensation for damages resulting from radioactive accidents, including the legislation, does not assure meaningful compensation for the damage caused; the court system often fails to protect the citizens’ interests.

Vladimir Chuprov: The tasks before the state and the [State Corporation] Rosatom are simple and clear: They must return the quality of life to a level no lower than what it was before the radiation accident. But the quality of life for people [residing] in territories affected by […] Mayak has drastically deteriorated.

Yes, a law has been adopted on social protection of citizens of the [Russian Federation] who were exposed to radiation as a result of the 1957 accident at the Production Association Mayak and discharges of radioactive waste into the river Techa. There are executive orders aimed at implementing this law. But, as a matter of fact, they do not unfortunately provide for adequate compensation. Many cannot receive even those pitiful compensations that they are entitled to.

One concrete example: Just one half of the residents of the village of Russkaya Techa have received their compensations. All because the village sits on both banks of the river [Techa]. One of the banks is low, the other is steep. Officials have decided that the steep bank has less contact with the Techa, so residents on that side are not entitled to compensation.

Many residents cannot prove the link between their illnesses and radiation. In 1957, children, school kids, were put to work destroying contaminated agricultural produce, dismantling radioactive buildings, etc. As witnesses describe it, whole schools were sent to do this work. Those who participated at a young age in cleaning up the consequences of the infamous Kyshtym accident cannot get access to the archives to have their participation in the cleanup works confirmed and obtain the accident liquidator status. This, today, is the situation with the liquidators who have not been officially recognized as such: The state has abandoned its people to cope alone with a tragedy that it itself created.

Twisting villagers’ arms does not equal choice

From the villagers’ resolution: The story of resettlement of part of Muslyumovo village under the resettlement program of 2006 to 2012 reveals the ‘forced voluntary’ nature of how a significant number of the population were being resettled into the so-called Novomuslyumovo block. In particular, construction was started on as many as 200 houses there even as only 38 applications for resettlement had been filed; decisions were being dragged out to pay out money to relocatees for buying their own homes.

Vladimir Chuprov: When the resettlement program was launched several years ago, people were given these options: 1. Move to a new neighborhood in the same village of Muslyumovo; 2. Receive a payout of 1 million roubles for relocation; 3. Receive housing in any other place but Muslyumovo.

Mostly, people wanted either money or new housing somewhere farther away. Back then, one million roubles could even buy one an apartment in [the regional center of] Chelyabinsk. But getting a cash payment turned out to be an extremely complicated matter. One acquaintance of mine, an impressively tenacious character, spent four months in court fighting for his money. Local residents testify that they were constantly being pressured: “We’ll be out of everything any day now, you’ll be too late, you’ll get neither [money] nor [housing].” In the end, many gave up, and were relocated to Novomuslyumovo. In other words, into the same village. Meaning, their cows go to pasture on the Techa banks, children go to the river for a swim – everything has stayed the same.

Notably, those residents who have won their one-million payouts, they have no complaints. They took their destiny into their own hands and did what they thought they needed to do. But those who were successfully pushed, in this voluntary-compulsory manner, into relocation to Novomuslyumovo, were left with their problems. Not just in terms of compensations, but in terms of the remaining daily lethal danger as well.

Where is the money?

From the villagers’ resolution: The houses built in Novomuslyumovo, according to documentation from [the state real estate technical inventory, appraisal, and legal registration office], cost on the order of RUR 400,000 each, but in the purchase contracts, the price is 1 million roubles.

Vladimir Chuprov: According to the documents, each new house costs 1 million roubles. In other words, the quality of each house was to match this amount. But, at taking occupancy, the appraisal commission determined the real value to be 600,000 roubles less than that. The special fund at [State Corporation] Rosatom would diligently allocate the funding, builders would just as diligently build, yet at the end of the day, the buildings mysteriously ended up two times as cheap. Why? There is still no answer to this question.   

No proper paperwork – no rights?

From the villagers’ resolution: The household resettlement program has not been completed in Muslyumovo, and some 15 households on the river Techa remain to be relocated, including the home of Zulfiya Khakimova, whose house is in an advanced state of disrepair and where five children reside, the house of the former spouses Nigamatyanov, and other households.

Vladimir Chuprov: There are families living near the radioactive river who don’t have all their papers in order. Lots of Russian citizens still go by documents dating back to the Soviet time that are in some way incomplete or were made out with errors. This is a routine occurrence, a mundane problem that is easy to rectify. It cannot be held against these people. But this is exactly the pretext that is used to deny them aid under the resettlement program.

Let me say it again, these are real people, who live in a contaminated area…

The health challenges

From the villagers’ resolution: The level of healthcare in non-relocated or partially relocated villages is not satisfactory. This is evidenced by, among other things, the closure of the rehabilitation unit of the Chelyabinsk Regional Clinical Hospital, the closure of the pediatric unit of the Brodokalmak District Hospital, the possible closure of the in-patient facility of the Brodokalmak District Hospital, shortage of medical personnel, the impossibility for the physician assistant [receiving patients in the area of] the railway station of Muslyumovo to approve sick leaves, absence of medications…

Vladimir Chuprov: There is, as a rule, just one physician or physician assistant only in these villages – one for several thousand patients with ruined health. There is a shortage of the most basic of drugs. People sometimes have to travel dozens of miles just to get the most common medications, spending dozens of times more on getting there than they pay for the drug itself.

Under the guise of reforming the Russian healthcare system, a special rehabilitation center in Chelyabinsk was closed down where victims of radiation exposure were able to receive comprehensive help – because they don’t just have one or two illnesses, but a whole complex of them, caused by radiation. Patients now complain that each time they have to get referrals and seek treatment (if there is a bed available in the in-patient facility!), they can only do so for just one illness at a time. Any other, they have to get treatment for next time. At this rate, one can spend months, easily, in waiting rooms and hospital wards. Before that, at the rehabilitation center, everything was set up in such a way that there were practically no delays in getting treatment.

The reform affected the fate of the children’s unit of the Brodokalmak Hospital as well. Sick children and their parents now have to travel dozens of miles to wait their turns in the lines at healthcare facilities in Chelyabinsk.

The villagers’ demands

The resolution lists over a dozen of demands, among them: amending the Russian law in order to ensure full compensation of damages to victims of radiation accidents; transparency in allocating financial aid and compensations; adopting a program to provide insulation in the houses built in Novomuslyumovo (the new housing has proven too cold to live in); re-opening the rehabilitation unit of the Chelyabinsk Regional Clinical Hospital and the pediatric unit of the Brodokalmak District Hospital, etc.

The meeting decided to make the resolution open for signing by all residents of the villages affected by radioactive contamination as a result of discharges of radioactive waste into the river Techa.

A catastrophe spanning for over half a century: Bellona’s legal commentary

The Kyshtym accident can justly be referred to as a nearly six-decade-long disaster. On the one hand, the federal legislation does provide for compensation to those who resided or continue to reside in areas of radioactive contamination. But on the other, the size of such compensations looks meager compared to the damage that has been done to the victims’ health, the costs incurred with treatment, relocation, and other rehabilitation measures.

For instance, in accordance with the federal law, the amount of monthly financial compensation to individuals who resided between 1949 and 1956 in the localities exposed to radioactive contamination as a result of discharges of radioactive waste into the river Techa comes, since January 1, 2013, to RUR 235.14 ($7.54), adjusted for the cost of living.

The neglect of the problem shown by both federal and regional authorities violates the right of residents of Muslyumovo and other contaminated areas to a favorable living environment and to protection of life, health, and property rights that are straigthforwardly guaranteed in Articles 27, 41, and 42 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation and provisions of such international conventions as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1953.

The blame for the absence of proper compensatory measures lies with both the federal and regional bodies of executive power, and the only recourse that can help secure compensation for actual damages as well as pain and suffering is a court decision based on the provisions of the civil law which assign strict liability to the owner of the source of ultrahazardous activity even in absence of culpability. Victims are entitled to file civil suits against Mayak, which is obligated to compensate the damage being inflicted conditioned on the established fact of the citizen’s residence on the contaminated territory. The demand to restore the social infrastructure in the affected region should be directed to the government of Chelyabinsk Region and the Ministry of Health and Social Development of the Russian Federation.

Yevgeny Usov