Photo: Denis Kopeikin
September 2007 marks the anniversary of that accident – one of humankind’s largest nuclear catastrophes. Fifty years ago, a tank with radioactive waste blew up at Mayak, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region, sending deadly radioactive clouds across vast territories of the Ural Mountains.
Today, Mayak’s daily operations continue to exacerbate that contamination, reaping slow death among the 4,000 residents of Muslyumovo who still live near the river Techa, which teams with radioactive waste, and who are forced to drink water filled with radionuclides. At a press conference held in Moscow in late July, environmentalists demanded that Rosatom “stop experimenting on humans.”
Muslyumovo and Mayak
Mayak has been in operation since 1947. The plant reprocesses spent nuclear fuel generated in reactors of Russian nuclear-powered submarines in order to extract plutonium, It is also designed to reprocess spent fuel from Russia’s VVER-440 civilian power reactors. Waste produced during reprocessing has for decades been dumped into water reservoirs near the plant, from where it spreads to the river Techa.
Because of a lack of reliable radioactive waste storage or reprocessing technologies in Russia, some of the sewage waters containing radioactive substances have since 1949 been disposed of directly into the river. Until 1951, the wastes were flushed into the Techa with practically no oversight and in unlimited quantities. As a result, radioactive contamination spread across the whole river system of the region and residents of the villages along the Techa’s banks were subjected to severe chronic irradiation.
According to the Russian Ministry of Health, “to prevent excessive radiation exposure,” some 8,000 people were relocated from the most contaminated territories along the Techa basin. For reasons that no one today can account for, Muslyumovo residents were not included with those who lived further up or down the river who were given the relocation option. One theory explaining why Muslyumovo residents were left out of the migration is that the majority of its residents are Muslim Tartars, and were thus the victim of state prejudice. Today, Muslyumovo is the nearest inhabited area to the spot where Mayak has been discarding the radioactive by-products of its operations.
In 2005, court rulings stated Mayak was a threat to human health and a hazard for the environment. That same year, prosecutors moved to charge Mayak’s head executive, Vitaly Sadovnikov, with committing a criminal offence by flushing several dozen million cubic metres of liquid radioactive waste into the Techa. He was convicted, but pardoned in 2006 in a general amnesty announced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian parliament, the State Duma.
The Chelyabinsk ecological and educational public organisation TECHA has at its disposal a letter of order issued on May 25th 2007 by the local branch of the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Spheres of Consumer Rights and Human Well-Being, or Rospotrebnadzor. The letter is addressed to the Muslyumovo administration’s head, Farit Kurmashev, and to Tanir Yanbayev, head of the administration of the Kunashak region, to which the territory of Muslyumovo belongs.
The letter prescribes that local residents within three days of the date of the letter “cease to use drinking water from underground sources within the centralised drinking water supply systems of the village of Muslyumovo and the (area near the train) station of Muslyumovo,” as sample analyses have revealed levels of alpha-radiation in the water that exceed the norm by two and sometimes three times. Until new wells are drilled, Rospotrebnadzor instructed local authorities to deliver clean water to Muslyumovo from elsewhere.
But even as the document states that unacceptable counts of alpha particles were found in the water as far back as 2005, village residents still continue to drink the same radioactive water.
At the July press conference in Moscow, environmentalists didn’t mince words commenting on the water hazard: “This isn’t a lapse in oversight, this is a system at work in the Chelyabinsk region, with Mayak as the centre of it. Everything is organised in such a way that people who live in this area receive radiation in their bodies so that whatever is happening to them can be observed.”
“The document refers back to a study of 2005, but we don’t know, maybe authorities have known about this for 20 years and are simply ignoring all the instructions,” said TECHA’s leader Ramilya Kabirova.
Photo: Denis Kopeikin
That alpha-particles were found in Muslyumovo water worries environmentalists.
“Alpha-radiation is not something that could be a natural occurrence. (Its presence) means that the water contains plutonium, the stuff weapons are made of. The most poisonous artificially produced material has ended up in the water table. Can you imagine how much of it must have leaked from Mayak? This means that the underground ‘radioactive lens’ will not disappear, but will instead migrate in this or that direction,” said the director of the public foundation Citizen, Maksim Shingarkin – himself a former member of the 12th Directorate, which is responsible for guarding Russia’s nuclear facilities – referring to a lens-shaped formation of concentrated highly radioactive waste found at the bottom of Karachai, a lake near Mayak.
Lake Karachai was for years the chemical combine’s dumping spot. Various reports at different times have indicated that the radioactive “lens” has been progressing across the region and may ultimately reach the rivers of Western Siberia.
As the participants of the press conference said, local budgets are so small as to prevent village and regional authorities alike from being able to providing alternative water supply methods to the settlement.
Muslyumovo residents correctly presume that the Chelyabinsk regional administration is aware of this, but refuses to take any action.
Official ineptitude coupled with chronic health hazards would indeed seem to be forming a pattern: Flushing of radioactive waste into the Techa has also yet to be stopped, even though the dangers of inundating the river with radioactive waste are obvious and acknowledged universally.
Even Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko owned up to the proportions of the problem in a visit to Muslyumovo in November 2006.
“Muslyumovo is the only locality in Russia where ecological conditions continue to remain a threat to the population’s health. There is still a probability that a critical level of waste concentration would be exceeded in the village,” he said at the time.
Environmentalists are forced to ask whether Kiriyenko can walk the walk as well as he talks the talk, so that radioactive water finally stops leaking from Mayak and ceases to “remain a threat to the population’s health.”
Their answer is that, apparently, he cannot. Water containing various diluted radioactive elements from Mayak’s production cycles is flushed into an open water reservoir, the upper pool of the Techa cascade, from where it then streams further to other pools and accumulates in so-called Pool 11 – a pond surrounded by an earth-fill dam fortified by old logs near a swamp that gives rise to the Techa.
“The (Geiger) counter reads off the scale close to the dam. It shows 12,000 microroentgen per hour’s worth of gamma radiation – and the norm is 20 to 50 microroentgen per hour. In Muslyumovo, one can have readings of around 4,000 (microroentgen per hour) on the (Techa’s) banks,” Shingarkin said at the press conference.
To prove how deadly the contaminated water in the river and the village’s water supply system can be, Shingarkin gave the example of a seven-year-old girl, a resident of Muslyumovo, who was recently diagnosed with severe radiation sickness. It is unlikely, say press conference participants, that the child came in contact with the water by bathing in the Techa, which is surrounded by barbed wire to prevent access. But microparticles of plutonium could have penetrated into her system via different avenues, such as through contact with domestic animals or poultry – or with drinking water.
As cynical as it may sound, officials are discussing construction of new nuclear sites on the river – such as resuming construction on the South-Ural Nuclear Power Plant, which was started in 1984, but halted three years later. The project was put back on the agenda during Kiriyenko’s recent visit to the region, when a principal decision by Rosatom was announced that indicated the South-Ural plant was now included in the state-wide energy sites construction master plan.
In his own way, however, the Russian nuclear czar has shown he is not alien to the concerns about the contaminated water. According to the Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Kiriyenko said a new site needed to be found for the South-Ural plant’s construction. Kiriyenko was not satisfied with the nearness of the “radioactively contaminated water reservoirs that cannot be used for energy production.”
“Building a $6 billion boiler that would steam out contaminated water – that is too much,” he said.
Evidence of non-consensual medical experimentation?
Environmentalists are confident that nothing short of a large-scale medical experiment on humans is taking place at Muslyumovo. Village residents are examined by doctors every year, but they are hardly ever told what disease they have and are never referred for further treatment. The most frequent diagnosis that doctors come up with at Muslyumovo is “general disease at various stages of development.” There is no medical condition under such a name in the roster of illnesses certified by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
“Muslyumovo residents get to keep no medical documents after their exams, they do not know their diagnoses, (and) there is no telling where this information goes afterwards,” said TECHA’s Kabirova.
There are not too many logical assumptions that could account for these facts, however.
As medical officials themselves intimate, Muslyumovo residents have become unique observation subjects and these observations can well become the foundation of a future nuclear programme.
“Nowadays, the residents of the village of Muslyumovo are members of a unique cohort that unites all residents of the villages located on the river Techa’s banks who have been subject to chronic radiation exposure (…). This cohort has, at this time, global significance for the assessment of the levels of risk of tumorigenic (cancer and leucosis) and genetic consequences of the impact of chronic irradiation on human beings. Results of observations of this cohort’s members can become the basis of a new understanding of the critical levels of chronic radiation exposure of the population and personnel,” write the authors of a 2001 study entitled “Muslyumovo: Results of 50 Years of Observations” which was prepared by the Federal Directorate of Medical Biology and Extreme Problems of the Russian Ministry of Health and the Ural Medical Research and Practice Centre for Medical Radiology.
In their study, the authors compare the development of Muslyumovo residents with that of several so-called control groups. In particular, the study states that “the mortality rate from various cancers among Muslyumovo residents in the period of 1950 to 1982 was 129.0 per 100,000 people, and the same value in control groups amounted to 114.9 per 100,000 people.
On average, then, 15 more Muslyumovo residents per 100,000 over a 32 year period died of cancer than the general population represented by the control group, the study suggests. This would not be considered catastrophically high by comparison to US cancer deaths, which average between 390 to 516 per 100,000 each year, according to the US-based Kaiser Family Foundation State Heath Statistics record.
Nevertheless, the Techa basin is the only region in the world with registered cases of so-called “chronic radiation sickness.” And no one is making any promises to Muslyumovo residents for treatment. Anyone wishing to receive qualified medical help would have to travel 50-kilometres to the regional urban centre of Chelyabinsk.
A billion-rouble village sign
As far back as in 1994, the Russian government decreed to include Muslyumovo in a roster of localities considered “areas of residence with a right to relocation.” In late 2006, after a special directive issued by the government, Rosatom finally earmarked the funds necessary for the relocation. But, says Citizen’s Shingarkin, even today, when the relocation programme has been made public, the rights of Muslyumovo residents are grossly violated by officials.
According to relocation criteria drawn up by Rosatom plans, only half the village’s residents have the legal grounds for moving out. The other half, the settlement surrounding the train station of Muslyumovo, which belongs to the same municipal entity, will remain where it stands even though it was also specified for relocation in the 1994 decree. That part of the village will simply change its name to Novomuslyumovo, a Russian equivalent of New Muslyumovo
“We were certain that we would be relocated to a clean land, we were fighting for it for so long,” says Techa’s leader Kabirova. Kabirova was born in Muslyumovo in 1959 and has lived there all her life. According to the environmentalist, officials simply divided the village into two territories with a comment that only one of the two needed to be relocated.
Even for those who are allowed to move, the relocation option amounts to shifting their homes two kilometres into the neighbouring territory of the station of Muslyumovo, despite at least one registered case of radiation sickness in that settlement where drinking water filled with alpha-particles continues to be fed.
Rosatom reacted to the residents’ plight by saying they would supply clean drinking water to the “New Muslyumovo.” According to the Russian news agency Regnum, “the new settlement near the station of Muslyumovo will have a new water supply intake built at a significant distance from the Techa.”
Another argument put forward by Rosatom to convince Muslyumovo inhabitants to move to the promised land two kilometres from their homes is that they will retain all their health benefits. It is that dangling carrot that officials show to those chosen for the exodus and that only proves that they will continue to live in the same contaminated area. Leaflets are distributed among Muslyumovo residents saying: “Don’t miss out on your new home. Money has a way of getting cheap.” The inflation hint is meant to impel the villagers to make their decision quickly and move to Novomuslyumovo.
“Something of a paradox is taking place there: A billion roubles is being spent on relocating people from one end of the village to the other,” says Svyatoslav Zabelin, a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and the Promotion of Civil Society Institutions, referring to the roughly $38.9m that Rosatom has put aside for the relocation effort.
Kabirova says the point of the mini-migration is certainly not to improve anyone’s safety.
“What is the point of investing so much money and then leaving us where we were, the (Chelyabinsk) region being so big? We were nothing but research material for them, and now they don’t want their guinea pigs to flee from this territory. They want to continue to observe how minor radiation doses impact human health,” Kabirova says.
The relocation procedure itself is dubious. An obscure non-commercial organisation called The Foundation for the Facilitation of the Muslyumovo Village Relocation, whose Moscow telephone numbers turn out to be part of the telephone network of the building where Rosatom offices are housed, offers Muslyumovo inhabitants to sell their houses for RUR 1m ($38,900) each.
In order that the contract of sale be signed, all family members but the house owner must waive their registration in the house they occupy – in the hopes that a new apartment or house will return that obligatory if semi-legal status which allows Russian citizens to file for state health insurance, enrol their children in school or apply for jobs, and is in many other cases impossible to do without. In violation of the law, under-age children – if there are any living in the house to be sold by contract with that organisation – will remain without registration and without the social benefits otherwise afforded.
Muslyumovo residents are told that six zeroes in a check for their houses is a figure at least three times as high as it should have been. This is true: The houses are part of an area contaminated by the state’s noble atomic drive. It is also true, however, that this money would only just cover a dilapidated one-room apartment in an industrial city district should a former Muslyumovo inhabitant choose to move to Chelyabinsk, where a stay in the hospital or a visit to the doctor would at least not involve a 50-kilometre trip.
Officials responsible for reporting on the situation to President Vladimir Putin claim that the problem is solved. But, as the participants of the Moscow press conference pointed out, in reality, only those who agree to “move” to Novomuslyumovo are spared the difficulties involved in applying for the relocation money and exercising their right to move. All the others were until very recently forced to go through the ringer: finding a house or an apartment to buy; agreeing on the purchase terms; and informing the Facilitation Foundation, which in turn would enter the sale contract with the owner through an intermediary, a private real estate firm.
The “buyer” would never see the money, but simply move into a one-room apartment in Chelyabinsk’s outskirts – but not before taking care of all the paperwork, privatising the old house and the radioactive soil on which it stands, having all relatives give up – temporarily, hopefully – their registration in the old house, and then forfeiting it for the new residence with a bill to foot for the real estate agency’s efforts.
Environmentalists came to Muslyumovo residents’ rescue and the “procedure” was somewhat improved.
“They started at least paying that million roubles personally to (those who were selling). For now, only 300 people have received the money, though even by Rosatom estimations, some 3,000 have to be moved. To be sure, 6,000 people altogether need a new place of residence,” Kabirova says.
What the state seems to be doing is first acknowledging the problem and then turning its obvious solution into a farce. All the while, Muslyumovo residents continue to drink poison and live on irradiated lands. Is it irresponsibility on the part of isolated regional or governmental officials or, indeed, a whole bureaucratic system that allows its members to bask in impunity, confident that ordinary villagers cannot be expected to start to defend their rights? If so, should they really be so confident?