COMMENT: Radioactive dump in Moscow: A ten-year history of reckless procrastination

Радиометр близ свалки показывает мощность дозы 598 мкР/ч
Игорь Подгорный/Гринпис

Publish date: June 9, 2011

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – As Moscow media report radiation levels around a newly re-discovered radioactive dump near the natural reserve museum of Kolomenskoye, on the Moskva River in the Russian capital, to reach between 600 and 800 microroentgen per hour – an almost 100-fold increase over normal background values – difficult questions arise, among other issues, over the efficiency of the state-owned radioactive waste management enterprise Radon: Shouldn’t ten years of ongoing decontamination efforts and more than generous state funding be enough to take care of this public hazard?

Meanwhile, environmentalists are extremely concerned about the risks to public health that seem to remain unaddressed, while the reputation of Kolomenskoye, a popular recreation spot, is under threat as well.

Last Monday, May 23, the following report was aired by the state Channel Russia in its news programme Vesti’s local segment for Moscow:

“Ecologists find radioactive dump in Moscow’s Kolomenskoye:

A radioactive waste dump has been discovered by environmentalists in the area of Kolomenskoye. The spot is situated literally just 100 metres away from the Moskva river. Radiation levels in some places reach 600 or even 800 microroentgen per hour, thus exceeding the norm by more than 50 times. No warning signs can be found in the vicinity, and the dangerous location is open for accidental access by practically anyone. A part of the dump is located on the territory of the Natural Reserve Museum Kolomenskoye, the remaining part abuts the territory of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and the Polymetals Plant. Radioactive waste may have been disposed of here in the mid-20th century. Cleanup works are to continue at this time in the contaminated area.”

Greenpeace’s sinister find

It was environmentalists from Greenpeace Russia who brought attention to the dangerous location after taking measurements of gamma radiation in Kolomenskoye on May 20.

“Experts from Greenpeace Russia have confirmed the existence of several radioactively contaminated locations in Moscow only some 100 metres from the Moskva river and a few hundred metres away from the Kolomenskoye Natural Reserve Museum,” Greenpeace’s report said of the discovery. 

bodytextimage_lenta.jpg Photo: Игорь Подгорный/Гринпис

A survey of the locations showed levels of background radiation reaching between 600 and 800 microroentgen per hour, while for Moscow, a level of 12 to 20 microroentgen per hour is considered the norm. Access to the contaminated areas is unrestricted save for a few torn pieces of tape bearing the words “danger zone” hanging from the nearby bushes and trees. There are no warning signs in the vicinity to inform passers-by of radioactive hazard. Meanwhile, a new bridge is being built on the Moskva river a couple of hundred metres downstream.”

Greenpeace has sent letters to the Government of Moscow, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and the state radioactive waste management enterprise Radon, complete with coordinates specifying the exact locations of radioactive contamination discovered by the experts and a demand to take immediate measures to restrict public access to the dangerous area and start decontamination works, the report said.

Whose dump is it?

What exactly is going on in the contaminated area and which of the many enterprises and organisations operating under the corporate umbrella of the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom are responsible for this radioactive mess?

Bellona Web has requested comments from representatives of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MIFI) and the Polymetals Plant, both being organisations mentioned in Vesti’s report as enterprises located near the Kolomenskoye waste dump.

The Joint Stock Enterprise Moscow Polymetals Plant’s official website lists a contact number, but repeated phone calls attempted by Bellona Web went unanswered. The website, however, informs visitors that part of the enterprise’s activities between 1934 and 1972 was the production of thorium and uranium. Although no confirmation could be obtained that the radioactive waste found in Kolomenskoye had its origin at the plant – the website says that “for reasons of ecological considerations, production of said materials has been discontinued at the enterprise” – no proof that no radioactive by-products of the Polymetals Plant’s industrial activities were ever disposed of in a temporary storage facility or similar on the banks of the Moskva river in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s, has so far been made available either.

A tour of the area where the plant borders the Moskva river, as well as visual observations undertaken by Bellona Web, give basis for some suspicion: Traces of small brooks flowing from the plant’s territory toward the river bank look as if some kind of waste, chemical if not radioactive, may still be discharged by the enterprise into the river. Bellona intends to follow up on this matter via official channels.

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A representative of the press service of the National Nuclear Research University “Moscow Engineering Physics Institute” indicated the institute may have previously received more than one inquiry with regard to the radioactive dump nearby: “Again? We already answered all these questions several years ago…” MIFI is yet to answer any questions forwarded by Bellona by email as to whether a possible connection can be traced to the dump from the institute’s research nuclear reactor or any other radioactively hazardous sites on its territory.

Twenty years of decontamination efforts?

An employee of the Moscow office of the State Unitary Enterprise “Scientific Production Company Radon” – the organisation also operates local branches that are engaged in management of radioactive waste in Russia’s regions – said the enterprise did not provide any information over the telephone. The employee, Nadezhda Chekmazova, recommended that Bellona forward an official request for information in writing.

But according to Greenpeace Russia’s May 20 report, Vladimir Safronov, who heads the centre for radioactive waste intake and transportation and radiation emergency management technologies at Radon’s Moscow branch, had contacted Greenpeace to offer assurances that “decontamination works are in progress in the discovered contaminated areas and will be continued” on May 23.

“We have been working for some ten years there, and will be working just as long yet,” Safronov told Greenpeace Russia.

According to Greenpeace, when asked why access to the dangerous territory was not properly restricted for the general public, Safronov said that “the place was cordoned off by tape and suggested that the radiation danger signs [earlier installed by Radon employees] had been filched by curious Muscovites.”

It remains unclear what sort of works exactly are involved in Radon’s ten-year efforts on the contaminated territory. Surely, a professional radiometric survey of the location and removal of several dozens or even hundreds of tonnes of contaminated soil should take less time, and the radioactive waste management enterprise Radon does not seem to be lacking in funds. 

In 2010 alone, the Moscow government allocated RUR 1 billion ($36 million) for various radiation safety measures in the Russian capital. Could Radon be finding it too comfortable a situation where funding is provided year in, year out for its decontamination works in the affected area? If this is the case, shouldn’t Moscow’s authorities have this mess sorted out?

“This ‘whatever’ attitude on the part of the authorities and Radon, it’s just uncanny and totally outrageous,” said one visitor’s comment on Greenpeace Russia’s blog site.   

Kolomenskoye Nature Reserve: How close is the source of hazard?

This story cannot but harm the reputation of the Kolomenskoye Nature Reserve Museum: The radioactive dump was found in a very close vicinity of its territory.

But Marina Tsaturova, Kolomenskoye’s deputy director, assured Bellona Web in a telephone conversation that the hazard was well beyond the reserve’s premises:

“Radiation measurements were taken on the museum’s territory yesterday and the day before yesterday. Nowhere, not even in the area where we come close to this fence there, is there a spike in radiation levels. There is no threat on our territory to our employees or visitors. Not to the monuments, to people, or to the river, there is no increase in background radiation levels. But Greenpeace reported this information saying ‘near Kolomenskoye Park,’ so the press all put ‘Kolomenskoye’ in their headlines…”

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Tsaturova told Bellona Web that the museum’s 256-hectare territory spreads along the Moskva river, with one of its ends bordering on a so-called Maryino Park – “just a few trees along a footpath” – and the polymetals plant beyond it.

“There is a spot with an increased level of radiation near that plant,” Tsaturova said. “This has been known for ten years. Radon conducts decontamination works there regularly, but they just can’t find that particle, where this radiation is coming from. Maybe it’s no bigger than a match head. We even took exact measurements there. It’s 167 metres from that possible source to our fence. There is no radiation increase either at the fence or on our territory. It’s all localised in that one little spot. Radon has been working there for ten years now, keeps decontaminating the territory.”

The threat is real

Putting aside the attempts to find out who should take the responsibility for the radioactive hazard and why the ten years of decontamination efforts have not brought any tangible results, the very valid concern remains as to whether the situation – be it a whole dumping ground with radioactive waste or even one abandoned source of ionising radiation – poses danger to human health. The answer, alas, is yes, it does.

Gamma radiation levels around the source may not be fatal, though they are certainly very high. But what presents a real danger is that the radioactive substances lost somewhere on this territory are dispersed in the natural environment, coming into contact with water, air, and soil. In conditions such as these, and over dozens of years, radionuclides become volatile and dissipate easily, finding their way eventually into living organisms – birds, animals, and humans.

“Radiation sickness it will not be, but getting exposed, contaminated, getting such a dangerous radionuclide as radium-226 inside, that I don’t wish on anyone. Take polonium, that same stuff that Litvinenko was poisoned with, that didn’t set any gamma counters off, either, and the result? The result’s written on the grave stone,” another visitor to Greenpeace Russia’s blog wrote, referring to the sensational case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy living in self-imposed exile in London, who died following intentional exposure to polonium widely presumed to have been orchestrated by Russian secret service operatives. “One tiny particle from Kolomenskoye in one’s lungs is enough to get one cancer – and yeah, forgot to mention, true background levels there get as high as 20-25 [microroentgen per hour]. In the evac zone around Fukushima, it’s less than 1 [microroentgen per hour]. Radiation exposure is not the reason for evacuation, it’s the contamination and what follows, the accumulation of radionuclides in the body.”       

The contaminated area, though not used for any purposes, is quite accessible, and has had more than a fair share of visitors over the years. Just a few years ago it was where MIFI students had their phys-ed classes, and, in the 1980s, military training, too. Now that the Moskva river embankment has been developed and beautified, the location attracts more casual visitors at risk of getting exposed through either a lack of forewarning or a lapse of caution.

“In certain places, the counter shows 500, 600 or 900 [microroentgen per hour],” Greenpeace Russia’s Igor Podgorny, who inspected the location, wrote in his blog. “Guys who work in the garages literally some 200 metres from the discovered contamination spots say these levels aren’t the worst it can get. They say it gets to 2,000 [microroentgen per hour] in some places. Everyone knows that for some fifty years now, if not longer, the bank of the Moskva river has been one big radioactive dump.”

Abandoned hazard sources reach into thousands …

The radioactive dump near Kolomenskoye is far from being the only such dangerous site in the Russian capital. So-called “orphan” sources of ionising radiation, derelict and forgotten dumping grounds, may still present a serious threat both to the city environment and the health of its inhabitants. Some of the more recent examples include the discovery, in September 2008, of a dump site at the corner of Ulitsa Krupskoi and Leninsky Prospect in Southwest Moscow. In another case in 2009, a concrete-paved burial site with radioactive waste was found by builders as they were about to start on a construction project on Ulitsa Marshala Rokossovskogo in the city’s north.

bodytextimage_radioactivity.jpg Photo: Игорь Подгорный/Гринпис

It is no secret that in the 1950s, little regard existed for the danger posed by radioactive substances. At the same time, it is a self-evident fact that the abandoned radiation sources and dump sites did not spring up across Moscow all on their own, and responsibility for them should be placed squarely on the industry that these substances originated from: The Soviet nuclear science and production complex and its rightful heir and owner, the State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom, which assumed the duties of the atomic ministries and federal agencies that came and went before it when the sector was re-incorporated into one vast state-owned commercial entity.

If, say, the Moscow Polymetals Plant became part of the corporation after the industry’s reorganisation and that same plant was originally responsible for the radioactive dump discovered near Kolomenskoye, shouldn’t Rosatom now take upon itself the burden of removing the hazard and rendering the area safe – just as it would have to be held liable for the enterprise’s financial commitments, if the plant had any? An obligation to nature, to society – how is that less valid than a debt owed to a bank or the state budget? But that’s all good in theory.

“All around Moscow and the region, there are scores of dump sites with buried waste (read: the by-products of the life and work and the flight of scientific thought) of the [Soviet atomic ministry] and all those numerous research institutes and engineering centres, sites dating back to the end 1940s to early 1960s,” another comment on the Greenpeace blog site reads. “They had then, at best, a hazy idea, if at all, of [radiation safety] as it is understood today, and the ‘hot’ garbage wasn’t taken too far, though farther away from the city limits where they were at the time – where, now, new houses and factories are built, highways and recreation areas.”

As Moscow Radon’s general director Sergei Dmitriyev told the publication Svobodnaya Pressa, “unattended” radioactive waste is a significant problem for the Russian capital’s population:

bodytextimage_radon1.jpg Photo: Вести-Москва

“[…The] sources are locations where industrial waste was previously accumulated that contains radioactive materials, dump sites with industrial waste that have ended up within city limits, former temporary [radioactive waste] storage facilities that emerged as a result of cleaning up radiation accidents, etc. There might be several hundreds of such ‘historical’ dumps.”

Furthermore, according to Dmitriyev, information about the precise locations of abandoned radioactive waste appears, in most cases, to be lost. When economic, construction or other activities are initiated in these areas, Dmitriyev said, “secondary radioactive contamination” results.

“In Moscow, for instance, over 2,000 such spots have been removed in the past 20 years. Over the 47 years of [Moscow Radon’s] operations, over 130,000 cubic metres of [radioactive waste] have been brought from the capital, mostly, into [the enterprise’s] storage facilities, to a total activity value of around 15 million curies,” Dmitriyev said. “To put this in perspective: This is more than all the radioactive waste accumulated by all Russian [nuclear power plants] in the course of their operation combined…”