Rosatom head meets environmentalists

Publish date: December 14, 2005

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

New Rosatom head Sergei Kirienko's meeting with the public in Ozersk on the evening of December 12th saw him rubbing elbows with members of independent environmental organizations for the first time. Kirienko supported a proposal by environmentalists to announce an open tender to solve technical problems related to radioactive pollution of the River Techa, as well as issues regarding limits public access to the radioactive river.

The meeting was attended by the head of Ozersk, Sergei Chernyshev, the director of the Urals Centre for Radiation Medicine, Alexander Akleyev, the head of the Southern Urals Biophysics Institute, Sergei Romanov, city lawmakers, and representatives of environmental organization Planet of Hopes and the local branch of the Chernobyl Union.

The UN says that the Chelyabinsk Region, and Ozersk in particular, which is home to the Mayak nuclear facility, is one of the most radioactive places on the planet as a result of a half-century of the facility’s dumping of radioactive substances into the environment – something that is still going on.

“In my opinion, the Rosatom head’s attitude towards organization of meetings is very different from previous practices,” Nadezhda Kutepova of Planet of Hopes told Bellona Web. Kutepova was also representing the environmental group Ecodefense!

According to Kutepova, Kirienko displayed great interest in the steps proposed to solve Mayak’s problems. The Rosatom boss asked detailed questions about each problem.

Kirienko agreed that the front-line measures taken to deal with radioactive pollution of the Techa River should include immediate cessation of dumping of radioactive materials into the river by Mayak, irrespective of the nature of the material dumped and its level of radioactivity. Other measures included an open tender to clean up the Techa reservoir system, a complete ban on public access to the river, provisions of clean water for local inhabitants, and installation of radioactivity warning signs along the length of the river.

“We would like to hope that the new Rosatom head’s energy will be enough to change the situation,” said Kutepova and Vladimir Slivyak, co-chariman of Moscow’s Ecodefense! Group.

At the beginning of 2005, the Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case on dumping of radioactive waste into the Techa River from the Mayak facility. Recently, a court deprived facility director and regional Duma deputy Vitaly Sadovnikov of immunity from prosecution in the case. According to Urals Federal District prosecutors’ office, Mayak pumps roughly 10 million cu. m. of radioactive material into the Techa River every year, although Ecodefense! puts the figure as high as 15 million cu. m.

Issues discussed at the meeting with Kirienko also included resettlement of inhabitants of the village of Muslyumovo, which was hard hit by a 1957 disaster involving the explosion of a Mayk storage tank, a preview of Chernobyl. Currently some 4,000 people live in the village, most of whom do not want to leave.

“We cannot decide for these people,” Kutepova said. “But experience shows that inhabitants keep their old homes when resettled and return during the summer. There is also no legal basis for moving them out.”

Therefore, the environmentalists say, for a start, access to the river must be completely banned, and capacity developed to guarantee supplies of drinking and non-drinking water. Kirienko noted that such measures were much cheaper and easier to implement than resettling the community.

At present, the riverbanks are fenced off with barbed wire, which presents little obstacle to, for example, livestock seeking water. Radiation warning signs are mainly placed far apart, and are not sturdy enough, meaning they often have to be repaired.

Environmentalists have been talking about this problem for years, but the Mayak side responds that the local population already knows that the river is polluted.

“The river was taken out of use for agricultural purposes a long ago,” Mayak General Director Vitaly Sadovnikov said at the meeting. According to Kutepova, this phrase caused a minor misunderstanding among other Mayak representatives, who were hearing for the first time about the Council of Ministers resolution taken at the end of the 1950s.

At the same time as the suggested front-line measures, environmentalists say, it is essential to start full-scale sociological research in the polluted areas.

Open tender
Kirienko agreed with the proposal for an open tender to clean up the Techa reservoirs, saying that the suggestion was very timely. The tender is likely to be divided up into several stages, including clogging leaks, dam strengthening, and cleansing of the reservoirs.

“The absence of definitive measures to clean up the reservoirs and the area as a whole is Mayak’s biggest problem,” Bellona researcher Igor Kudrik said. “But not only Mayak of guilty of inaction, but also the Rosatom leadership.”

Applicants for the tender are as yet unknown.

“It would be good if foreign companies were allowed to take part,” Kutepova said. “However, this could lead to breaches of secrecy,” as Ozersk is still officially one of Russia’s 10 closed cities to foreigners.

During the meeting Kirienko underlined that construction of the Southern Urals Nuclear power pant (NPP), which his prior Rosatom head, Alexander Rumyantsev, had insisted on, would not help solve the problem of overspills in the Techa system. The constructors of the NPP say that bringing the station online would help lower the water levels by using the proposed Soutnern Urals NPP as steam in the reactor blocks. No other alternatives for cleaning the polluted water of the Techa system have yet been considered.

The visit continued
Kirienko continued his visit with a tour of the Mayak plant, the facility’s press service said.

“We think it is very important that Kirenko began work in his new post by familiarizing himself with our plant, which is one of the largest and most significant facilities of the Russian nuclear industry, and, of course, burdened with certain problems,” press service head Yevgeny Ryzhkov told Bellona Web.

A press conference was slated for the evening, when the Rosatom head and representatives of the local administration and Mayak were expected to talk about the results of the visit.