Russia’s infamous reprocessing plant Mayak never stopped illegal dumping of radioactive waste into nearby river, poisoning residents, newly disclosed court finding says

An aged radiation sign on the banks of the Techa River. (Photo: Bellona)

Publish date: December 24, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - The ecological group Ecodefense! has obtained and distributed in the media an official court ruling that confirms what the top Russian nuclear authority Rosatom has vigorously denied for years: The notorious Ural-based nuclear waste reprocessing facility Mayak never ceased to dump radioactive reprocessing byproducts into the nearby river Techa, a source of household water supply for thousands of area homes.

Facts disclosed in the document that Ecodefense has in its disposal and has made available for the press stand to refute the official story the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom keeps insisting on – that it has been decades since Mayak stopped the illegal dumping and killing of the environment with radioactive waste.

Mayak, located in the closed nuclear town of Ozersk, is Russia’s only operational facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from VVER-440 type reactors and spent fuel from nuclear submarines, as well as fuel imported from other countries. Decades of spilling radioactive poison into the nearby Techa River Cascade and Lake Karachai have earned the site the moniker of being the most radioactively contaminated place on earth. 

Rosatom asserts Mayak’s activities in the many years since the start of its operation, in the middle of last century, have complied with all modern standards and regulations – and any public concerns are the product of either environmentalists’ propaganda or the unfortunate, but now dealt away with, information vacuum that authorities in the former USSR established following one of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophes that happened at Mayak – the 1957 Kyshtym disaster.

But the court ruling Ecodefense has obtained, dated five years ago, spells out facts of very recent and hardly accidental radioactive contamination of nearby populated areas – figures that do not lend to misinterpretation.

The finding in question is part of a criminal case against Mayak’s former director Vitaly Sadovnikov, who in March 2006 was relieved of his duties by a Rosatom order, prompted by criminal proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor General’s office.  

This is a first time that environmentalists have gained possession of a document of such authority proving radioactive contamination around Mayak has occurred as a result of recent dumping activities – not discharges that happened dozens of years ago.

It took five years for ecologists to acquire access to this information: Clearance attached to documents of this kind only covers the principal participants of the 2006 criminal proceedings, save witnesses. The trial itself took place behind closed doors. It was only via proceedings connected to a different case that environmentalists finally were able to see the scandalous finding.

These are some of the facts stated in the document:

Between 2001 and 2004, around 30 million to 40 million cubic meters of radioactive waste ended in the river Techa, near the reprocessing facility, which “caused radioactive contamination of the environment with the isotope strontium-90.” The area is home to between 4,000 and 5,000 residents. Measurements taken near the village Muslyumovo, which suffered the brunt of both the 1957 accident and the radioactive discharges in the 1950s, showed that the river water – as per guidelines in the Sanitary Rules of Management of Radioactive Waste, of 2002 – “qualified as liquid radioactive waste.”

The ruling also says that “the increases in background radiation to stated levels caused danger to the residents’ health and lives […] as consequences [… that developed] over two years in the form of acute myeloid leukemia and over five years in the form of other types of cancer.”

The document also states that between 2001 and 2004, the management of Mayak had at its disposal funds in the amount of RUR 5.5 billion ($174.2 million). The bulk of this funding had been received as payment for accepting for reprocessing nuclear waste shipments from abroad. However, the money was not used to enhance the safety of radioactive waste storage and management, but rather on a range of unrelated purposes – such as loans and bonuses, as well as upkeep expenses for a representative office in Moscow. At the same time, Mayak’s management were well aware of the ecological risks and environmental impacts that the threat of radioactive waste released into the nearby river system would entail.

Those radioactive substances have not gone anywhere and are still in the river. Newly dumped waste is apparently added into the already highly contaminated river water on a regular basis – a practice that has likely continued up to as recently as a month ago.

Radiation measurements that activists with the local environmental organization Planet of Hopes took on the Techa near Muslyumovo in November 2011 revealed background radiation levels to be 79 times in excess of the norm. The population meanwhile continues to use the river’s water for household and agricultural needs. In other words, part of the radionuclides have already traveled from the river Techa, via meat and milk products, into the human population residing along the Techa’s banks.

This criminal disregard for safety is something that Rosatom, however, persists has not for decades been Mayak’s practice – in statements as recent as one given in a February 2011 story (in Russian) in the popular newspaper MK, Chelyabinsk edition.

The story was a report on a meeting in Chelyabinsk – one of the major cities in the region where Mayak operates – between Swiss businessmen, Rosatom representatives, Mayak current management, and various agencies and organizations working in the field of radiation safety, and said the Swiss delegation was offered many years’ experience gained in environmental monitoring and improving the ecological situation in the region, as well as rendering services to the population who suffered from radiation exposure in the first years of Mayak’s operation.

In 1957, in what is considered one of precursors to Chernobyl, a waste storage tank exploded, spreading radioactivity throughout the region and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands. It was dubbed the Kyshtym disaster by Soviet nuclear authorities to divert attention to a neighboring town where they said a conventional power plant had exploded. Thousands were press-ganged – included children and pregnant women – into cleaning up the nuclear fallout with little more than rags. The legacy remain today in highly irradiated land, elevated cancer rates and birth deformities.

Igor Konyshev, who heads Rosatom’s Regional Liaison Office, spoke of Mayak’s image as one unjustly marred by mishaps of a distant past.

The roots of apprehension toward the nuclear industry, Konyshev said, are in that information lopsidedness that existed in the previous decades – first, the total secrecy, when the accident of 1957 only became widely known in 1989; then, the information attacks from the greens, among whom “some can be credited with portraying Mayak in mass consciousness as a source of evil and many woes of the region’s population.”

“In truth,” MK Chelyabinsk quotes Konyshev as saying, “where the level of discharges that are harmful for human health and the rigorousness of ecological and industrial safety are concerned, Mayak today is dozens of times safer than any other large industrial enterprise.”

Konyshev also said that “since the mid-1950s, Mayak has not carried out discharges of liquid radioactive waste into the open fresh water system.”

The judge in the 2006 case begged to differ.

The court named altogether five populated localities in the area surrounding Mayak – Muslyumovo, Brodokalmak, Russkaya Techa, Nizhnepetropavlovskoye, and Zatechenskoye – where readings had shown radioactive contamination caused by recent dumping of radioactive waste. This runs completely contrary to the official position of Rosatom, which insists the villages are safe to live in. Earlier, the corporation refused to consider ecologists’ demands to resettle these villages due to life-threatening contamination levels in the area. The only, and partial, exception was made for Muslyumovo, some of whose residents were given the opportunity to relocate, but that program was accompanied with a host of violations and financial abuses.

In April 2010, Ecodefense! and 23 residents of Muslyumovo filed a class action suit – this case is currently under examination in one of Moscow courts – against the Russian Federation government, Rosatom, the Ministry of Civil Defense, Emergencies and Disaster Relief, and Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development. The plaintiffs demand that the river Techa be recognized as a “site of storage of radioactive waste” and that a 240-kilometer sarcophagus be built over the radioactive river to close access to it.

Before the 2006 document put the situation with radioactive contamination of the Techa in such dreadful and sobering prospective, the only publicly available information was that around 76 million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste was spilled in the Techa in the period between 1949 and 1956. It is now officially confirmed that another 30 million to 40 million cubic meters was dumped into the river between 2001 and 2004. Estimates available to Ecodefense! say the total amount of radioactive waste that has ended up in the Techa over the years since Mayak began its operations may reach a staggering 500 million cubic meters.

Rosatom has repeatedly attempted to convince the population that today Mayak is a model industrial enterprise that does no damage to the environment. These statements are now proven to be all smoke and mirrors, irresponsible sugarcoating seeking to quash well-founded criticism and undermine efforts to solve problems the nuclear corporation is trying to sweep under the rug. In order to divert the public’s attention from the horrifying truth, the nuclear industry has also regularly initiated targeted smear campaigns in the media, stirring up fake controversies to discredit environmentalists’ claims. Rosatom is furthermore well aided in this assault on any unwanted scrutiny by such unabashed attempts at whitewash as the local administration’s recent drive to have the popular Internet search engines, Google and Russia’s Yandex, purged of any unfavorable mentions of Chelyabinsk Region’s ecological plight – at taxpayers’ expense, no less. Local residents are paying for these PR tricks with their health and their lives – all the while Mayak keeps making billions on reprocessing imported nuclear waste. This is how the Russian nuclear industry does its business.

And it does so in defiance of the law. Disposing of radioactive waste in the open environment is prohibited in Russia – by laws such as the recently adopted “Law on the Management of Radioactive Waste.” This will serve as basis for a new civil lawsuit Ecodefense! is planning to file. But while the courts, the press, and the public at large ponder the dry statistics and intricacies of civil litigation, let these not obscure the real and palpable tragedy – the excruciating illnesses and deaths suffered by residents living near Mayak. This tragedy calls for urgent action – isolating the river Techa under a solid concrete shelter to protect the people who live on its banks and stopping all discharges of radioactive waste immediately. And if Mayak cannot operate without poisoning the environment – then it should not operate at all and must be shut down.

Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the group Ecodefence, is a frequent contributor to Bellona.