Irradiated Nuclear Cleanup Workers Denied Medical Care for More Than a Month

Publish date: September 26, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

All eleven radiation cleanup workers who were irradiated at the Gremikha Naval Base on the Kola Peninsula on July 11th and 14th while dismantling solid radioactive waste are not, as Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, has said, in good health and none received medical care until 44 days after the accident, a Gremikha source told Bellona Web.

All eleven radiation cleanup workers who were irradiated at the Gremikha Naval Base on the Kola Peninsula on July 11th and 14th while dismantling solid radioactive waste are not, as Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, has said, in good health and none received medical care until 44 days after the accident, a Gremikha source told Bellona Web.

According to information released by Minatom, “15 technicians with SevRAO suffered a radiation accident on July 11th.” They were, as Minatom said, treated in Murmansk’s Central Hospital after receiving radiation dosages of 50 millisieverts—30 millisieverts more than the annual norm. One patient, Yury Plishkin, whom doctors considered to be in more a precarious condition, was sent to Moscow’s Institute of Biophysics for further examination on August 28th. Plishkin had received a dose of 200 millisieverts.

SevRAO is a Minatom-run radiation waste disposal agency on the Kola Peninsula, which deals primarily with nuclear waste from the Russian Northern Fleet’s submarines. Gremikha, which is now under SevRAO jurisdiction, is located on the eastern Kola Peninsula and is one of two sites used by the Northern Fleet to store its radioactive waste. The other naval nuclear waste dump is Andreyeva Bay, located 45 kilometres west of the Norwegian border.

Minatom reported that the 15 patients were treated for skin burns and not whole body gamma radiation, and that all had been released from hospital in good condition, including Plishkin, who Minatom says was signed out of the Institute of Biophysics on September 12th. A spokesman for the Institute of Biophysics repeated this claim in a telephone interview with Bellona on Friday. The Gremikha source, however, said the cleanup operation most likely involved 11 SevRAO workers.

Friday accounts by the Gremikha source and by doctors in the Murmansk region further contradict Minatom’s glowing reports of radiation dangers averted, and show that the patients were shuffled from hospital to hospital, and that possibly as many as three more of the workers—besides Plishkin—went to the Institute of Biophysics for further help.

Plishkin, according to the Gremikha source, remains under observation at the institute, which is one of Russia’s foremost radiation health research facilities.

The Accident
The work that was being carried out by SevRAO technicians involved cutting up a nuclear reactor control rod—but not spent fuel—into three pieces with a blowtorch to put it into a container, said the Gremikha source. However, during the first day of this procedure, the technicians—who were working with insufficient radiation protection—were contaminated by radioactive gases that were generated when the heat of the blowtorch was applied to the radioactive control rod and by gamma radiation that the rod was emitting.

The work was delayed because of the accident, but the workers—in an apparent contradiction to Minatom press statements saying that the technicians were restricted from working at the facility for at least six months—returned three days later to fill the container into which they had put the sawed control rod with cement in order to reduce the radiation emanating from it.

Despite the obvious risks that the situation posed to their health, none of the workers were sent by SevRAO to a hospital for care until late August, said the Gremikha source. Valery Lobanov, chief physician of medical and sanitary unit No 120 in the Murmansk region town of Snezhnogorsk, confirmed this in a telephone interview with Bellona on Friday.

All 11 of the workers have been taken off radiation duty at SevRAO for the next six months to a year, having received, on average, radiation dosages sufficient for two years, both Lobanov and the Gremikha source confirmed. They did not specify if that order had been issued after July 14th.

“These patients began arriving around August 26th or 27th,” said Lobanov. He said the patients were inspected for internal radiation doses and all but one was transferred to Murmansk’s Central Hospital. Most patients, he said, had suffered local radiation burns rather than whole body gamma radiation.

Lobanov confirmed that Plishkin had received a dose of 200 millisieverts—ten times the annual norm—but had not been diagnosed with radiation sickness at the Institute of Biophysics. To have radiation sickness, said Lobanov, one would have to receive a dose of 1000 millisieverts.

Nonetheless, while in the care of the institute, heavy metals were discovered in Plishkin’s body, and examinations revealed that his thyroid gland was swollen to two to thee times normal size, which suggests internal radiation infection, the Gremikha source said.

Soon after the remaining 10 patients were released from the Murmansk Central Hospital, up to three of them, still in physical discomfort, made the trip from the Murmansk region to Moscow—on their own initiative—to undergo further treatment at the Institute of Biophysics, the Gremikha source said.

A spokesman for the Institute of Biophysics in Moscow, who spoke with Bellona Web by telephone, confirmed Minatom’s information that Plishkin was admitted to the institute for observation on August 28th and released on September 12th. He said nothing of the other patients who, according to the Gremikha source, sought help there.

A duty doctor at Murmansk’s Central Hospital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the remaining patients were released shortly after their arrival, but could not fathom why their medical care had been delayed for so long.

“Radiation exposure has to be dealt with swiftly,” said the doctor. “It would be criminal to keep these men from seeking treatment for more than a month, especially when it was known they had been exposed to radiation.”

Some delay in care could be explained by the summer schedule of ferries to Murmansk from Gremikha, which is accessible only by sea or air. During the summer, the ferries run six times a month, and eight times a month during the rest of the year. But a delay of over a month cannot be accounted for by any transportation hurdles, and not having taken the workers to Murmansk immediately after the accident seems to indicate that Minatom was trying to cover it up.

Misleading Information From Minatom and the Biophysics Institute
Indeed, it appears as if Minatom had hoped to release no information about the incident at all—the reason the accident finally made news in Russia at all was because officials at Gremikha contacted Bellona Web and informed it about what happened earlier this week. Bellona Web, in turn, confirmed the irradiation mishap with Alexander Agapov, chief of Minatom’s safety, ecology and emergency situations department on Wednesday. Agapov originally said that 10 SevRAO workers had been irradiated. But he said the incident occurred in late August. Agapov added at the time, however, that the health status of the workers remained unknown.

On Wednesday, Nikolai Shingaryov, Minatom’s official spokesman, told Bellona Web and several Russian newswires that 15 men had been irradiated on August 20th, that they had received treatment in a Murmansk hospital and that, “all of them are feeling fine, and medical checks have revealed no damage to their health.”

Later that same day, Minatom issued a formal press statement confirming that 15 SevRAO workers had been irradiated, but fixed the day of their irradiation as July 11th. In an interview on Friday, Shingaryov said that, in his Wednesday interview, he had “used unchecked information.”

“As it became apparent what was what, Minatom then reissued the statement with the correct information,” said Shingaryov, referring to the July 11th date.

He said nothing of the July 14th workday for the SevRAO workers. In fact, according to the Wednesday Minatom press release, “all works were immediately ceased” on the site.

But whatever the confusion of numbers and dates issued by Minatom, the truly cynical fact is that the ministry had apparently been concealing the incident for a month and a half—and presumably would have continued to keep it under wraps.

Murmansk Administration Caught with its Pants Down
In August of 2001, Murmansk Regional Governor Yury Yevdokimov created an inter-agency commission to investigate radioactive incidents and appointed as head of this commission Valery Lishek, the chief of the Murmansk branch of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Despite the existence of this commission, it was only through the media that Yevdokimov and Lishek learned of the contamination of the SevRAO workers at Gremikha.

Lishek on Friday was in hospital and was unavailable for comment, his deputy Vladimir Grachyov told Bellona Web in a telephone interview. Grachyov said he could not comment on the rather embarrassing fact that the commission had learned about the Gremikha radiation incident just reading the morning papers. He said, however, that publicising the event was the responsibility of SevRAO head Valery Panteleyev. Panteleyev likewise could not be reached for comment.

Grachyov added that the inter-agency commission would be preparing a full report on the incident for Yevdokimov by next week.

Yevdokimov’s spokesman also could not answer the uncomfortable question as to why the inter-agency commission had to hear about the incident from the media instead of his own commission.

Igor Kudrik and Charles Digges reported from Oslo, and Rashid Alimov reported from St. Petersburg.