Will there be a demand for irradiated agricultural products in Russia?

Publish date: October 4, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW – A dangerous experiment comprised of irradiating food products with gamma radiation now being conducted in the western Russian Republic of Tatarstan could be replicated throughout the country.

Russia’s nuclear industry is convinced of the safety of gamma radiation, where independent scientists object. If the experiment continues, thousands of containers of caesium will be sent to Russia’s agricultural regions.

Some 120 tons of planting seeds irradiated

In 2001, experiments with irradiating agriculture products with gamma radiation has been carried out seven regions of Tatarstan.  The experiment is being carried out by OAO Izotop, a division of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom via a protocol signed between Tatarstan’s administration and the nuclear corporation, according to a report by the RIA Novosti Russian newswire.
[picture1 left]Izotop’s general director, Andrei Silkin, told the news wire that, “in Tatarstan in 2010, we irradiated 120 tons field seeing materials  – wheat, barley, sowed these 120 tons, and gathered the harvest. And we can definitely say that in the conditions of contemporary agriculture in Tatarstan, the germinating power of the seed irradiated by us was more than in the control group. If we talk about it in percent, then you can say we saw a 20 percent improvement on germinating power.”

Izotop is also planning on irradiating grain prior to storage.

“In the spring, we will evaluate the viability,” said Silkin. “We are sure that grain that has been processed before storage will provide completely different parameters for viability. We will definitely achieve the 10 percent viability announced by the rest of the world,:” he said.

Though no official results of the trials have been made public, the experiment will continue. Izotop is intends to implement the construction of gamma installations and to deliver radioactive products to irradiate grain and other food products. “We plan to spread this experience in all the republics of Tatarstan – and as a result, to come out with a federal programme for gamma sterilization in agriculture,” said Silkin.

Caesium used for irradiation

In order to irradiate agricultural products, a chloride of the radioactive isotope caesium – 137 is used – a radionuclide made famous by Chernobyl. It half life is 30 years and it remains dangerous to all organic products for 300 years.
[picture2 left]The idea of spreading dangerous radioactive particles in agricultural regions would seem strange to many – but not Izotop, which is operating on state orders. Izotop’s Russian language web site gives information about the readiness to use radiation technology in agriculture. They point to the pre-sowing processing of agricultural seeds for raising crop yields; to the radiological disinfection of grain, groat, and legume seed cultures of parasites, pests, and their larvae; the processing of root vegetables to prevent their premature germination; the sterilization of food products with the goal of eliminating the sustenance of dangerous micro-organisms.  

Izotop is indeed ready to irradiate the gamut – wheat, potatoes, peas…if not for the financing. But this particular subdivision of Rosatom rarely has problems with that. However, as Silkin noted, Russia has no standards for gamma sterilization and no one oversees the irradiation.

“The essence of the method is that for the processing of food products they use ionizing radiation of such low energy that it does not stimulate residually induced radiation,” Izotop’s web site says. “But it destroys harmful micro-organisms that hasten the rot of food products.”

If the food products showed a notable induced activity, then they would become radioactive waste. But the irradiation of living seeds and food products could result in complex and small irradiation processes for both agricultural production and consumers.

Safety of the method leaves doubts

The developers of the foodstuffs irradiation method are sure of its safety, but scientists don’t share their optimism. Ivan Nikitchenko, a professor and a doctor of biological and agricultural sciences, as well as a member of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences told Bellona Web that “the ionizing radiation is fatal to all living things, and a seed is a living thing.”
[picture3 left]Nikitchenko continued to say that, “I am sure that gamma radiation is dangerous without exception to all organisms. And if one irradiates seeds and roots vegetables with gamma radiation, then, without fail, changes at the molecular level will occur. A natural particle under the impact of gamma radiation denaturalizes because so called free radical and ties are punched out of it.”


Heightened germinating ability of seed after irradiation is an established fact. But it appears that its mechanism is similar to that which is at work during heightened birth rates during epidemics, wars and other catastrophes: Stress mobilizes defensive strength for a short period of time. And the effects of irradiation can be far from harmless.
[picture4 left]The heightened germination of seeds after irradiation can be brought about by the so-called process of hormesis. The well know effect shows that small doses of radiation stimulate a number of organic functions. In the “ECRR 2003 Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk The Health Effects of Ionising Radiation Exposure at Low Doses for Radiation Protection Purposes” report (Brussels 2003) it is noted the that the effect of hormesis can be explained by the destruction of sensitive cells, a fortified process of DNA reparation, and a fortification for a short period of other defence mechanisms. However, the report notes that the observation of short lived positive effects after small doses of radiation, long term negative effects are entirely possible. The European Committee’s conclusion is that the long term effect of hormesis is most likely harmful.

As such, in order to speak about success with the irradiation of seed material is impossible without at least a year or two’s worth of experimentation. For the evaluation of probable negative results of small doses of radiation, comprehensive research of a few generations of plants is necessary. As is established in fruit flies, the negative effects are expressed in only every fifth generation of irradiated insects. This phenomenon is called the “fifth generation crisis” and is widely discussed in scientific circles. If such an effect would appear in wheat, potatoes and other agricultural products is still unclear.

The ‘Gamma Spike’ revisited?

During the Soviet period when information about radiation catastrophes remained hidden, and nuclear energy seemed to be the solution to all problems, similar experiments were conducted. But as a result of the collapse of the country, their results remain un-researched or consolidated.

In the early 1970s, radiation sources were placed in a number of Soviet republics in order to study the effects of radiation on plant life in a programme called the “Gamma Spike.” The chosen radiation source was caesium-137.  

“Despite significant amounts of research, all work in the USSR on the introduction of new methods in this sphere were halted in 1986 on the wave of ‘radiophobia’ following the Chernobyl accident,” Izotop’s web site said

How not to lose a source of radiation?

The problem, however, is not “radiophobia.” The fact is that control over many radiation sources was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  If a radioactive mixture is dispersed, its container turned into metal, then this could lead to the contamination of land districts or in the metallurgy field. If caesium were to fall into the hands of terrorists, then it could be dispersed in cities, on public transport and subways. This is a very real threat.

The “Gamma Spike” situation became a matter of concern for the United States, and they began financing projects to find and secure sources of “agricultural radiation.” According to the Washington Post, government officials are worried that if the sources of radiation fall into the hands of terrorists, they would be far worse than dirty bombs: They are small, easy to transport, and contain caesium chloride in the form of granules or powder.

“It is like talcum powder, and spreads very easily,” Abel Gonzales, the director of the radiation and safe storage of radioactive waste division of the International Atomic Energy Association, was quoted by the paper as saying. “You don’t even need a bomb, all you need to do is open the container and people start dying.”

IAEA experts, with the support of the US Department of Energy (DOE), located five canisters of caesium-137 in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and another four were founds in Moldova. In the Central Asian republics, matters are far worse, as in some countries, no records pertaining to “Gamma Spike” were kept and it is unknown how many caesium canisters may be on their territories.

Is there a need to continue the experiment?

If Rosatom and its subdivision OAO Izotop can still lobby for the continuation of the experiment and the caesium canisters go first to new regions in Tatarstan and, further, to other republics and regions of Russia, then the country will again find itself in a position were its citizens are forced to take part in an experiment by buying irradiated groceries, and hundreds of thousands of canisters of dangerous radionuclides will appear in far flung corners of the country.