Radioactive waste threatens Moscow

Publish date: June 17, 2003

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Radioactive waste sites are found every year in the newly-built districts of the Russian capital.

For the past two years, a group of nuclear workers and technicians have been wielding spades and plastic bags to remove more than 70 tonnes of radioactively contaminated soil from an embankment of the Moscow River on the city’s south near the Kashirskoye Highway.

These workers come from Moscow’s representative of Radon, a loose conglomeration of 15 plants throughout Russia that store radioactive waste. These plants essentially bury, in special tombs, low- and medium-level radioactive waste. But the Moscow plant is the only one to process the waste through vitrification in blocks that are then buried in special casks.

The Moscow group is sponsored by City Hall, and is perhaps the city’s single barrier against the radiation emanating from thousands of the shallow graves where radioactive waste was dumped by some two thousand Cold War research institutes and industries around what were then the outskirts of Moscow. But the city grew and, thanks to that practice, the sites where this dangerous waste was buried now form the foundations of many residential neighbourhoods where Muscovites are routinely exposed to radiation levels several times higher than is considered safe.

In an effort to help avoid this, Moscow’s Radon has had the responsibility of conducting radiation surveys in areas slated for construction since 1996. In one such case, in 2000, the scheduled construction of an apartment complex near the Noviye Cheryomushki metro station was halted for five years while Radon dug, and continues to dig, radioactive waste—some of it emitting up to 2 microsieverts, or 2 microSv, per hour—out of the ground. The normal background radiation in Moscow is 0,25 microSv per hour.

Of the 65 plants in Russia that participate directly in Russia’s nuclear cycle—and are under the oversight of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom—20 are located within the 11-million-resident city of Moscow.

The most dangerous among them is the Russian Research Centre ‘Kurchatov Institute,’ which has piled up more than six metric tonnes of radioactive waste containing more than 1017 becquerels. Other dangerous radioactive offenders in Moscow include the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, the All-Russian Research Institute of Chemical Technology, the Plant of Polymetals and the formerly defence-related Molniya Machine Works.


started more than two years ago,” Ter-Martirosova said. Last year, Radon removed about 60 metric tons of contaminated soil. And since spring of this year, another 16 metric tons has followed. At Radon, this radioactive waste is being vitrified or pressed in metal, and buried in concrete.

Stalin time norms
According to Ter-Martirosova, the riverbank territory was contaminated between the 1940s and 1960s, when industrial radioactive waste—emitting more than 30 microSv per hour—was carted out of town and buried there. At the time, the city limit of Moscow was near the Oktyabrskaya metro station, which is now 11 stops from the end of this line.

The depth at which the radioactive waste was buried—at that time it was between 3 and 8 meters—was considered safe.

Another safety test of the times stipulated that the gamma radiation on the surface had to be less than 2 microSv per hour. That exceeds by 10 times the present norm of 0.2 microSv per hour. This waste site, like most of the others that Radon deals with, never appeared on any specialised maps denoting the location of Moscow’s nuclear waste burial sites—until one by Radon appeared, which is not yet completed.

In 1961, the Radon combine was established, and the Stalin era regulations were changed for more safety-oriented standards. Since then, waste has not been buried outside the city limits, but brought to the Radon combine for vitrification and safe storage.

Radiation in the city
“Several dozen radioactive waste sites are scattered within Moscow’s borders, and full decontamination will take a lot of time,” Ter-Martirosova said. “The spot on the Moscow River bank is the most odious, because the territory is large and the contamination is about seven to eight meters deep.”

Because the contaminated site is so close to the river, it is theoretically possible that radionuclides from this waste grave will contaminate the water. This, Ter-Martirosova explained, is why the excavation of the tainted soil is being carried out with spades instead of bulldozers.

“Though the bank isn’t sliding, we don’t want to risk it,” she, and other Radon representatives, said.

Furthermore, bulldozers, though they may speed up the process, would dig up more soil than Radon would be able to accept.

According to Ter-Martirosova, Radon’s depository ground was designed with a 50-year capacity in mind, and even with the new technologies that compact waste by 50 to 100 times for the subsequent burial, the depository’s space limitations will only allow for another 20 years of work.

“There is a point of view that the site on the Moscow River bank and the similar places can be simply covered with concrete or soil, but we strongly object to this,” Ter-Martirosova said. “Two revolutions more, and everybody will forget where the radioactive waste is buried in Moscow. We don’t have the right to leave such a heritage for our descendants.”

Radon’s data indicates that more than 70 percent of all the radioactive sites found in Moscow are located in the residential areas where intensive construction is taking place, or in Moscow’s parks.

According to Moscow City Hall figures, 11 nuclear research reactors currently operate in the city. More than 2000 organisations are using about 150,000 sources of ionising radiation, and almost 90 percent of them have exceeded their predicted periods of service.

Moscow has long considered moving its most dangerous nuclear plants and institutions—like the Kurchatov Institute—out of town, but that won’t happen any time in the near future. To move a facility of Kurchatov’s size—which includes 14 separate research institutes and hundreds of specialists—would require the construction of a whole new town.

But from an environmental point of view, even that might not help. In a 2000 aerial study by the Aerogeophysica Research Enterprise of background gamma radioactivity emanating from Moscow’s radiological institutes, the Kurchatov Centre topped the list.

The results of the study, which were recently published in Baryer bezopasnosti, or ‘Barrier of Safety’ magazine, also showed that the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, the All-Russian Research Institute of Chemical Technology and the Polymetals Plant all exceeded background radiation norms.

More News

All news

The role of CCS in Germany’s climate toolbox: Bellona Deutschland’s statement in the Association Hearing

After years of inaction, Germany is working on its Carbon Management Strategy to resolve how CCS can play a role in climate action in industry. At the end of February, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action published first key points and a proposal to amend the law Kohlenstoffdioxid Speicherungsgesetz (KSpG). Bellona Deutschland, who was actively involved in the previous stakeholder dialogue submitted a statement in the association hearing.

Project LNG 2.

Bellona’s new working paper analyzes Russia’s big LNG ambitions the Arctic

In the midst of a global discussion on whether natural gas should be used as a transitional fuel and whether emissions from its extraction, production, transport and use are significantly less than those from other fossil fuels, Russia has developed ambitious plans to increase its own production of liquified natural gas (LNG) in the Arctic – a region with 75% of proven gas reserves in Russia – to raise its share in the international gas trade.