Investigation of Mayak goes oN

Publish date: October 27, 2005

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Inspections of the Mayak plant continue, but nuclear authorities claim there have been no dumps above set limits during the past several years. Ecologists are concerned because they have not seen progress in the investigation. They hope though that Russian law will prevail and Mayak―for the first time in its history―will be punished and urged to observe ecological standards.

The inquiry into Mayak’s waste dumping practices is still underway and is now in the hands of the Urals Federal District Prosecutors’ Office, a representative of the Chelyabinsk prosecutors’ office told to "Bellona Web".

"It is hardly possible to tell when the investigation will end because the case is complicated, in many aspects even unprecedented, a spokesman for the Urals Federal District Prosecutors’ office told Bellona Web.

“It cannot be investigated over an abbreviated period of time."

Meanwhile, Emergency Services Minister Sergei Shoigu urged the creation of a government committee to investigate the scale of waste dumped into and leaked from the plant into the Techa river from Mayak’s Techa reservoir cascade―one of the plant’s primary dumping points for radioactive waste.

Constructed on the Techa River, the cascade is a complex structure for absorbing Mayak’s radioactive waste and is subject to nearly annual overflows which follow the Techa River and its tributaries all the way to the Arctic.

“We have had a brewing and over-boiling problem for a long time,” said Shoigu during a meeting of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament last week, according to RIAN Novosti Russian newswire.

Shoigu stated that some 200,000 curie (Ci) are concentrated in the 9th Techa reservoir alone and that “all of this continues to be stored in the open air. I am not talking about evaporation all these sludge liquors. I am talking about the possibility of a break in the dam and the further contamination of the tributaries to the Ob river and the ocean.”

The Urals prosecutors’ office refused any further comments on the case, citing investigative secrecy.

Rosatom vs. the prosecutors―who is right?
During a recent press-conference, Rosatom head Alexander Rumyantsev said the Urals prosecutor’s office has finished the inspection of Mayak concerning "non dumping" of radioactive waste into the Techa reservoir system―but has not accused Mayak of anything yet.

According to Rumyantsev, "Mayak was really inspected in the framework of this criminal case for waste dumping from the Techa reservoirs into the Techa river. It showed there was no dumping.” He continued that this absence of contamination had been registered by Rosgidromet, Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, as well as by other oversight agencies.

“We always said that we have been acting in compliance with all regulations which do not allow waste dumping onto the hydrographic network and into the environment,” said Rumyantsev.

Rosgidromet could not be reached for comment on the veracity of Rumyantsev’s assertions.

But Rumyantsev’s statements are in direct contradiction to what the deputy prosecutor general in the Urals district, Yury Zolotov, claimed in April. According to Zolotov, the investigation showed that the radiation level in the Techa river has been constantly increasing over the last four years, exceeding accepted safety norms by several times. Zolotov also said that in 2004, Mayak illegally dumped more than 60 million cubic meters of industrial waste into the Techa. According to the prosecutors’ office, the total environmental damage constitutes 30 million roubles ($1m).

Head of Mayak press service Yevgeny Ryzhkov refused to comment directly on the inspection. He said only that Mayak continues to operate in compliance with all federal standards.

History of the investigation
Inspections of the nuclear installations in the Chelyabinsk and Murmansk Regions started after the speech by Russia’s Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov delivered in the end of January 2005.

"It is especially worrying that there is no order in nuclear management,” Ustinov said then.

“The spent nuclear fuel storage complexes in the Murmansk Region were built in the 1960s. They are not holding up well and are completely out of date. But they store about 17,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste."

In spring 2005 the Murmansk Regional Prosecutors’ Office held inspections at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant (Kola NPP), the Nerpa shipyard, the SevRAO Federal State Unitary Enterprise that manages radioactive waste in the Northwest of Russia, and the Radon combine. The inspections were completed by the end of April, and revealed a number of violations. The prosecutors’ office reported that the engineering life span of the 1st and 2nd reactor units of Kola NPP had been prolonged illegally, without the required state environmental assessment. According to the prosecutors’ office, the licenses that were issued by the Federal Service for Atomic Oversight were invalid.

The Prosecutor General’s office―which had been battered by the domestic and international press and environmentalists for concealing information about the 2000 Kursk disaster―then went on in its January 2005 statment to say, surprisingly, that it was initiating a wide scale inspection of the Mayak facility. This represented the first inspection of its kind for the Prosecutor General.

“Mayak is a Damocles’ sword hanging over the people of the Chelyabinsk Region. For 40 years, the Techa river has been spreading death among living people and future generations,” Ustinov said.

“I have asked Yury Zolotov, my deputy in the Urals district, to return to Mayak the situation and initiate proceedings if it is necessary, to find those who aren’t taking any measures to prevent the threat of catastrophe.”

The President of the Russian Environmental Policy Centre, and former environmental adviser of Boris Yeltsin, Alexei Yablokov, agreed, calling Mayak Russia’s “ecologial problem number one,” and said that installations in the Murmansk Region were not much better off.

And though he was suspicious of the government’s new zeal to deal with Mayak, he told Bellona Web that: “Whatever the reason behind these inspections, it is good that the attention of the society is again drawn to these problems.”

Waiting for reconstruction
Alexander Agapov, Rosatom’s head of nuclear and radiation safety, told Bellona Web that Ustinov’s claims against Mayak are unfounded and without legal basis.

According to Agapov, the main problem is that Russian nuclear legislation is out of date―but that changing it would require an entire reconstruction of Mayak, a project costing some 8 billion roubles ($267m) at a rate of 1 billion roubles a year.

"We need to achieve an understanding of the problem with the body liable for this financing―that is the Ministry of Finance," said Agapov.

The waste accumulated at Mayak as a result of foreign spent nuclear fuel (SNF) reprocessing totals approximately 1 billion Ci. If plans to import some 60 tonnes of SNF are approved by the relevant federal departments, the amount of radioactive waste at Mayak will reach 6000 tonnes. But Mayak’s reprocessing facility, RT-1 has no realistic plan to, or ability to, deal with so much radioactive waste.

“The fundamental problem for Mayak isn’t even the discharges, but rather the lack of any clear plan to rehabilitate the Techa reservoirs and the territory in general,” said Bellona researcher Igor Kudrik.

“And this inaction is the fault not only of Mayak but the management of Rosatom.”

According to Agapov, Rosatom allocates to Mayak 70 million rubbles a year for nuclear clean up. This sum is enough to cover sanitation and reinforcement of the Techa dam.


Rosatom’s Agapov though, told Bellona Web that "now the situation at the Mayak plant is safe, it is not getting worse, to the contrary―it is getting better." Agapov said that the total radioactivity in the Techa reservoirs is constantly decreasing due to the fission of the short-lived elements.

But Greenpeace Russia said that the main elements being dumped into the Techa cascade are strontium-90 and caesium-137, which have half lives of some 30 years, and the natural fission of the radionuclides will not lead to a rapid decline in the radioactivity level in the cascade.

Ecologists participating in investigation
Each year during flood season, the warm water from the cascade streams over the ice of the bypass channels directly into the Techa river. The prosecutors’ office decided to call ecologists as witnesses to the illegal dumping of some 60 cubic meters of radioactive waste.

Among them were Kutepova, whose organisation is in the town of Ozersk where Mayak is situated; Vladimir Slivyak of the Ecodefence! group, and Greenpeace’s Russia’s energy coordinator, Vladimir Chuprov. All said they were satisfied with the progress of the prosecutor and said they would cooperate with prosecutors in any manner they can.

A step toward openness ?
The unexpected interest of the Prosecutor General in Mayak and the initiation of proceedings against it came as a surprise for the environmentalists.

"The ecologists have been protesting against this nuclear waste dumping for more than 15 years, but the authorities paid no attention to this outrageous violation of law," said Slivyak.

On the recent Rosatom conference in September, Mayak representative, Alexander Kononov, delivered an impassioned speech against ecologists.

"Listen, we are living in wartime,” he said unexpectedly. “I have been working in the Chelyabinsk region for years and I have dealt with the greens. They have no working rules. They only have Minatom currenlty Rosatom as an enemy that must be destroyed."

Kononov ended his speech with the appeal to "start a war against ecologists according to all rules of warfare."

Security at Mayak rules out NGOs―employees live in fear
Mayak’s system of control and security prevents NGOs from taking part in inspections. Thus, there is no independent control of the plant, said Nadezhda Kutepova in an interview with Gazeta.Ru. "All key positions are occupied by the ‘appropriate’ people and the plant actually controls itself. "

"It also concerns the local prosecutors’ office,” Kutepova said. “The only organization that could interfere with environmental contamination is the Chelyabinsk Regional Environmental Protection Committee. But Mayak is a hefty taxpayer, and authorities shut their eyes to it’s activities in exchange for the budgetary influx."

But Mayak employees feel the most fear and helplessness, especially those who service the cascade.

"The people from the administration of this enterprise the cascade, who had contacted us earlier on another problem, called our organization and said that the administration of the plant forbade them from communicating with us under threat of losing their jobs," Kutepova said.

Soon after Kutepova’s public statements, Mayak’s Director General, Valery Sadovnikov began making pubic statements of his own. He claimed that the prosecutors’ office was making Mayak employees nervous, which was threatening the safety of the whole region. He also appealed to the media to stop writing about the plant.

A closed city
Mayak is situated in the so-called closed city (ZATO in its Russian abbreviation) of Ozersk, meaning one must have a special residence or employment pass to get beyond the city gates. According to Kutepova, every closed city in Russia―of which there are 10―is a small-scale Soviet Union unto itself.

"Up to now, life for all people in Ozersk―even those who are very far from the nuclear plant―is regimented not by Russian law but the rules of the plant’s security administration,” said Kutepova. These administrations are arbitrary in their application of regulations and are far from professional law enforcement.

“The norms of civil society do not operate on the territory of Ozersk―decisions are taken out of a legal framework, and there is no access for mass media and NGOs."

Last year, a group of sociologists from St.Petersburg invited by the "Planet of Hopes" to study community life within Ozersk was not admitted to the city, and the prospective researchers were questioned by the FSB, the successor organisatiion to the KGB. The sociologists, representing the Russian Academy of Sciences, wanted to evaluate public opinion in Ozersk on ecological and social problems, as well as human rights violations.

"Now perhaps it will be possible to go there," says Olga Tsepilova, the senior research fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences who spearheaded the original research project that was dashed last spring by FSB harassment.

This new project will be made possible by a new make-up of the Ozersk city legislature, whose current trajectory has changed because nuclear authorities failed to lobby their interests.

Tsepilova suggested that the proceedings against Mayak are connected with the forthcoming privatization of the plant.

"It seems to be a way of showing who is boss", she said. Tsepilova also hopes the prosecution will result in opening of the closed city.

"The city will not be opened so soon,” said Kutepova “And that is not the point. Nobody is against observing the security rules, as there is another installation located in the city―the Fissile Materials Storage Facility FMSF,” built by the US Cooperative Threat Reduction act to house surplus weapons grade plutonium and uranium.

Kutepova added that FMSF security is maintained by different services who know their mandate. She acknowledged that by the opening, or sonewhat opening, of the FMSM, the city must be well supplied from a security angle. Plus, the notion of an open city makes residents and plant workers jittery.

"Some days ago, though, the head of the Mayak’s public relations service Ryzhkov hinted that this eventual openng is evident for everyone."

"I understand that ZATO must be opened,” Ryzhkov said in a recent statement. “And it is absolutely clear that it will happen sooner or later. But we are used to such a closed life and indeed we want the opening of the city to happen as late as possible. And don’t forget that the contaminated area near the industrial complex in Ozersk needs to be guarded around the clock because staying there is dangerous for people. And it is unclear as yet how we could open the city while leaving those territories out of reach."