A forgotten Cold War relic in Ukraine still crackles with lethal radiation

An aged hammer and sickle adorns the administrativie offices of the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant in Ukraine.
An aged hammer and sickle adorns the administrativie offices of the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant in Ukraine.

Publish date: February 14, 2022

In November, Bellona was given the unique opportunity to visit what used to be one of the most secret places in the Soviet Union — the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant in central Ukraine. Formerly the cradle of the Soviet nuclear weapons industry, the site was shut down 30 years ago. Today, the poorly secured artifact is the most radioactive place in Europe. This is the first in a periodic series of articles Bellona will publish about the site.

In November, Bellona was given the unique opportunity to visit what used to be one of the most secret places in the Soviet Union  — the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant in central Ukraine. Formerly the cradle of the Soviet nuclear weapons industry, the site was shut down 30 years ago. Today, the poorly secured artifact has become one of Europe’s most contaminated areas. This is the first in a periodic series of articles Bellona will publish about the site.

Kamianske, Ukraine ­­– The most radioactive place in Europe used to be one of the best places in the Soviet Union to work. On top of high salaries, workers at the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant in south central Ukraine – which produced the bulk of yellowcake uranium used in Soviet nuclear bombs – got 45 paid vacation days a year. Those days were spent at posh Crimean resorts, the kids at summer camps nearby, all on the State’s dime.

For the rest of the year, the stores of Dneprodzerzhinsk, the closed city that housed their secret factory, were well stocked and the workers got first crack at new cars produced by Volga, Zhiguli and Moskvich – the crown jewels of the Soviet auto industry that only a privileged few could lay their hands on.

Their children went to good kindergartens and primary schools and played in clean, dotingly landscaped parks. Comfortable apartment blocks were abundant and affordable. And after punching out there was a lot to do: Movie theaters, sports complexes and houses of culture sprang up as the plant’s workforce swelled. When they felt under the weather, they went to see doctors at state-of-the-art polyclinics. In a desert of shortages, the Pridniprovksyi workers lived in an oasis of contented plenty.

Even work itself took on a hint celebration. Each day at the end of their six-hour shifts workers were treated to a decanter of wine or a mug of beer in the plant canteen, where they raised a glass before they headed home.

For Leonid Polevoi, an engineer returning from service in the Red Army in 1961, going to work in the massive factory that helped keep America’s nuclear bombs at bay was a coveted opportunity.  In fact, he chose the plant over a job offer from the KGB.

“We were well provided for,” he said. “There were seven canteens at the plant and two in the town. They gave out vouchers to people for the canteens on weekends. One voucher cost eight kopeks and you could eat well on that. They took good care of us.”

Besides, the enormous weapons factory that formed the backbone of the city was already something of a family business.  His father, brother and sister worked there, too.

For reasons of secrecy, the city of Dneprodzerzhinsk was not on any map.  But as far as Polevoi was concerned, it was the place to be.

The fall of a Soviet uranium plant –– the rise of a radiation crisis

Decades later, in 1991, it would fall to Polevoi to liquidate the entire place –– a monumental job that’s been left largely undone in the years since.

Now the site occupies a sort of derelict industrial limbo. Its structures are dilapidated, swallowed by weeds and mostly abandoned. But it sizzles with lethal radiation hotspots, many reaching levels as high as 4.4 millisieverts an hour — a dosage exceeding Ukrainian norms by 220 times. Radiation professionals would only be allowed to work in such conditions for a bare five hours a year.

pridniprovskyi peaceful atom monument A monument to the 'peaceful atom' among the Pridniprovskyi Plant's abandoned weapons uranium processing buildings. Credit: Bellona

It was a limping industrial death, Polevoi recalls. The late stages of Gorbachev’s Perestroika saw salaries at the plant shrivel. Eventually, when the money ran out, the plant administration paid workers in the non-radioactive metals that the site produced, hoping those could be traded for food. By the time Gorbachev resigned it was clear that the days of the Pridniprovskyi plant – and the way of life it supported – were numbered.

“The plan disintegrated because the Soviet Union disintegrated,” said Polevoi. “The economy got skewed and the factory ceased to exist. “

What now remains of the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant constitutes Europe’s biggest radioactive mess. Located near the banks of the Dnepr River, the plant site is wedged between two other Soviet-era industrial behemoths, one a metallurgy plant and the other a nitrogen producing facility for fertilizer. The landscape is one of blight exhausted by Soviet excess, and the city’s tap water has long been off-limits.

Since 2016, Dneprodzerzhinsk has been known by its pre-Soviet name of Kamianske, but it still maintains a monument to former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, the town’s most famous native son.

As the Soviet Union unraveled, the Pridniprovskyi plant fell into Ukraine’s newly-independent hands as a sort of toxic parting gift –– and there weren’t any guidebooks on how to clean it up. In fact, most of the technical documentation that would be useful to the remediation effort was taken back to Moscow, where it now sits in nuclear archives under top-secret lock and key.

pridniprovskyi uranium offloading rail One of the points where uranium ore was offloaded from train cars at the Pridniprovskyi Plant. Credit: Bellona

An uncertain course

Yury Tkachenko, a Ukrainian expert who works with the European Commission to devise remediation measures at the plant, says that the site holds 15 times more radioactive waste than is found within the rubble of Chernobyl’s No 4 reactor, which exploded in 1986.

But while billions of dollars in funding from abroad have been poured into mitigating that more infamous disaster, the dangers at the Pridniprovksyi plant, just a few hours by rail to Chernobyl’s south, have been largely overlooked.

Much of Pridniprovskyi’s waste lies in the open air, wholly unshielded from humans and the surrounding environment. Some of that is marked off by fencing that gives little indication of what it encloses –– and what fencing there is contains gaps wide enough for a person to easily slip through.

In other places at the site, long neglected waste from uranium processing –– called uranium tailings –– emits toxic gasses and leaks into ground water and waterways, or becomes radioactive dust carried by seasonal winds.

What’s more is that several kilometers around these tailings site are marked with no fencing at all, meaning anyone can wander into areas contaminated with searing radiation –– and carry anything they might want out, as many times has been the case.

Indeed, there isn’t much to distinguish these sites from any other barren field. Only with the aid of a Geiger counter can someone ascertain that he’s standing in the middle of a radiation hot spot.

pridniprovsky geiger 1 A Geiger counter measuring 4.28 millisieverts of radiation in one of the uranium tailings storage sites at the Pridniprovsky plant. Ukrainian radiation workers would only be allowed to work for only five hours at year at such levels. Credit: Bellona

Combined, the Pridnieprovskyi plant’s five tailings sites contain more than 40 million tons of solid radioactive waste. Protective coverings over these sites are virtually nonexistent. Tkachenko says that, by international practice, they should be covered by a sort of sandwich of geotextiles, clay and soils at least 5 meters thick.

These sites are held together by dams and dikes whose status is precarious. Surrounding it all is the Dnepr River — one of central Europe’s most important waterways — and several of its tributaries, all of which are at risk of contamination from an avalanche of radioactive sludge should those dikes fail.

For the past three decades, the Pridniprovskyi site has been only irregularly tended, with Ukrainian government efforts aimed at its cleanup both insufficient and poorly funded. Foreign governments have tried to pitch in, but their efforts are focused only on urgent problems. While these efforts help stabilize the radiation situation, they don’t solve the problem as a whole.

The burden of securing the radiation dangers on the territory of the plant has fallen on the shoulders of an underfunded outfit named Barrier, whose 20 specialists haven’t been paid by the state for months. They patrol the site daily taking radiation measurements but can do little else. With what little funding that does come, the most they can do is draw up piecemeal projects to tamp down the dangers in the hopes that more funding will someday arrive.

pridniprovskyi uranium tailins this one One of the Pridniprovsky Plant's five uranium tailings storage areas, kilometers of which have no fencing. Credit: Bellona

The result is a patchwork of quick fixes performed by a shifting cast of government contractors operating with little coordination. None of these efforts have served to make this enormous Cold War castoff any safer.

To make matters worse, the Pridnieprovskyi factory is having a hard time keeping the contamination to itself. Though the territory of the plant had robust radiation detection and decontamination points during its Soviet heyday, none of those have survived into its present state of decay. Now, there are only a handful of detection points, none of which are equipped for decontamination, and none of them were functional when Bellona toured the site late last year.

This almost certainly means that those working within the confines of the plant are bearing contamination home with them on a daily basis, and that trucks and other vehicles that visit the site are spreading that contamination even further afield.

The curse of private enterprise

And in a curious twist particular to Ukraine, the site itself holds more than two dozen private companies that are operating in the midst of the radiation emergency.

In 2007, when the Pridnieprovskyi Chemical Plant officially went bankrupt, parts of the site were auctioned off to more than two dozen private businesses on the cheap. These companies, dealing mostly in fertilizers, paints, roofing tar and building equipment — and which employ 1,000 or so workers –– now stand wedged among some of the most contaminated structures of the old plant: metallurgy workshops where uranium was extracted from ore with strong acids or smelted in blast furnaces, their brick walls suffused with radiation.

According to Denis Mikitas, deputy director of Barrier, one helpful step the Ukrainian government could take toward solving the site’s radiation problems would be to declare it an exclusion zone — similar to what was done with the area immediately surrounding Chernobyl — which would close the area off in the interest of public safety.

pridniprovskyi barriers offices The entrance to Barrier's offices, next door to a food store. Credit: Bellona

In wake of that better-known disaster, Soviet authorities permanently depopulated some 2,600 kilometers of territory contaminated by the reactor explosion, thereby isolating the radioactive particles that had penetrated the soil and foliage and laid within the remains of the worker’s city of Pripyat.

But in Ukraine’s post-Soviet efforts to embrace western economic principles, lawmakers overcooked legislation on private property, making such a takeover of former plant territory — even on grounds of mitigating a radiation hazard –– impossible because of the private organizations operating within it.

How bad things are for those private businesses is hard to say, says Mikitas. Ukrainian state radiation authorities have never really bothered to inspect them or implement any monitoring because it’s too much trouble. All the while, those that work for these firms are exposed on a each workday to high levels of radiation.

“There is no civilized, normal decontamination here,” said Tkachenko. “People come in clean and leave dirty, and then wander wherever.”

Brighter beginnings

The possibilities of the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant were trumpeted in a 1947 letter to Joseph Stalin from Lavrenti Beria, the sadistic head of the Soviet secret police, who was also charged with developing a response to the US nuclear threat.

Beria was insistent that Ukraine’s ores would fit the bill. Reporting to Stalin on the first tasks of the newly minted Plant No. 906 –– as the Prindniprovskyi plant was initially called –– he wrote that the site would be capable of pushing out 100 tons of uranium at 40 percent concentration per year.

The plant opened in 1948 to work the ores of the Pervomaisky mine in the Kryvyi Rih basin, tucked about two hours to the west of a bend in the Dnepr River. In the fever to match the firepower unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was thought that that Pervomaisky’s yellowish minerals might contain strains of uranium that could be enriched to levels high enough to be used in a nuclear weapon.

pridniprovskyi weed choked this one The weed choked remains of some of the Pridniprovskyi's plants most contaminated uranium extraction workshops. Credit: Bellona

It was Gulag prisoners who did the bulk of the labor to build the plant, but they were offered a deal: For every one day they worked building the plant, their sentences would be reduced by three days. As a result, the plant was built in record time, displacing an entire village that stood in its way.

Over time, the plant began to work with more ores from different regions — East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Kazakhstan, each requiring separate technologies ranging from chemical separation to smelting. At the end of these processes, they would be left with yellowcake, the main building block of both weapons uranium and nuclear fuel.

Eventually, the Pridniprovskyi plant’s output of yellowcake surpassed Beria’s expectations. Production boomed, and at its height it produced the uranium used in 65 percent of all Soviet nuclear weapons.

“Our uranium trains went all over Russia, and right in the middle of each was a car with armed guards” said Polevoi. “This raw uranium was transported to Russia for enrichment. In centrifuges, the Russians separated out the uranium 235 and uranium 238 and enriched it — with a 5 percent enrichment you get nuclear fuel, but for atomic bombs you needed 40 percent.”

The environment didn’t figure into the plans

As recounted in a memoir by Yury Korovin, a former director of the Pridniprovskyi plant, there was little understanding of the radiation hazards inherent in the work the plant was doing, much less any efforts to guard the local population from them. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1960 that the Soviet Union adopted its first sanitary rules for handling radioactive substances.

In one instance, a powerful smelting furnace that was integral to work not only at the Pridniprovskyi plant, but the neighboring metallurgy factory as well, was found to have released radioactive elements into city air. It was nonetheless honored with the Stalin Prize for science and engineering.

The furnace was eventually dismantled in 1982 and was buried at the Pridniprovskyi plant’s Sukhachevskoye uranium tailings site — an area crackling with high levels of radiation when Bellona toured it in November.

Yet, over the years, contamination became commonplace — as did the secrecy surrounding it.

“The engineering and technical workers of middle and lower ranks didn’t know ­– and didn’t have the right to know – what ores they were working with,” Grigory Olenchenko, a veteran of the Pridniprovskyi plant, wrote in his own memoir about working there. “There were constant spills and overflows of radioactive pulp in the workshop: the levels (of pulp) in the apparatuses were regulated by hand.”

And the dangers were long well known to the state. Olenchenko sites a study by the Soviet occupational health and diseases ministry from as far back as 1953, which reported that radioactive contamination throughout the Pridniprovskyi site was more or less general and all encompassing.

“Dust in workplaces was radioactive at levels 200 to 300 times normal levels,” Olenchenko wrote, citing the study. “Radon content in the air was 35 times normal; contamination on hands, bodies and overalls (of workers) was 130 to 300 times normal levels.”

But it would be decades before any of this became common knowledge. Plant doctors were themselves sworn to secrecy about what they observed among the workers they were supposed to examine and care for. To cement that approach, Olenchenko writes, Soviet authorities established a firewall between plant medical staff and the administration, ensuring that the illnesses doctors observed were to go unreported so as not to alter the uranium production process.

“Knowing now under what conditions decisions about uranium mining were made, it is clear that there was no discussion of any kind of environmental concerns,” writes Korovin in his memoir.

What needs to be done now

The past several years have seen small radiation safety projects funded by the European Union, Norway and Sweden.  The European Commission, for its part, maintains an ongoing presence at the site through the specially established subdivision called the Joint Support Office in Kyiv.

pridniprovskyi tkackenko map Yury Tkachenko showing Bellona a map of the Pridniprovskyi site at Barrier's offices. Credit: Bellona

But Tkachenko. says the Ukrainian government needs to develop a more robust response to the problem in order for international funders to take it more seriously.

At present, what remediation projects Kyiv has mounted have all been overseen by the Ukrainian governments Ministry of Energy, which Tkachenko asserts is a poor match for overseeing radiation safety projects.

“The folks there don’t have a good grasp of what’s at stake,” he said. “Whatever funding they do devote to cleanup at the Pridniprovskyi site usually ends up being diverted to other projects.”

A better fit, he says, would be the Environmental Ministry, whose representative have a better technical understanding of the problems the site faces, and have more authority to develop long term strategies for its remediation. But shifting the site from the purview of one ministry to the other would be a Herculean bureaucratic task.

Over the last few weeks, the uncertain fate of the Pridniprovsky plant has become even  more complicated as Russian troops apply presure along Ukraine’s eastern border and Belarussian borders. In that sense Moscow’s parting gift to the newly-independent Ukraine back in 1991 may again become Russia’s issue to solve — if Russia could solve it at all.

But regardless of how the coming weeks unfold, the Pridniprovskyi Chemical Plant will remain somebody’s problem.