As Russia heads to Rio+20, Bellona to spotlight Mayak as it did at the original Earth Summit in Brazil

ingressimage_ingressimage_P1020951-2..jpg Photo: A. Nikulina

Bellona had in 1992 been allowed in by the Russian government to visit the closed city of Ozersk in the southern Urals that Mayak calls home and the report’s conclusions were damning: Mayak was the most radioactively contaminated place on earth – earning Mayak a place in the Guinness Book of World Records despite complaints by plant management.

Since that initial summit in Rio, also known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nothing in Mayak’s profile has changed, including the disinformation campaign about what is going on behind its gates, said Nadezhda Kutepova of Planet of Hopes, an environmental NGO that operates in Ozersk.

Last year, the Chelyabinsk Region, where Mayak is located, announced a $13,000 tender for internet companies that could scrub major internet search engines like Google and its Russian counterpart Yandex of negative information about the plant when users entered certain search words or terms.

But how much information does the Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom think it can keep from the pubic? Certainly, it would seem, not enough to confirm that Russia is not on a path to sustainable development.

Mayak still belching radioactivity into the environment

In December 2011, it was disclosed by court documents obtained by Planet of Hopes that Mayak had never stopped dumping liquid radioactive waste into the nearby river Techa cascade as Rosatom claimed it had decades ago.

Mayak is Russia’s only operational spent nuclear fuel processing plant, taking spent fuel from Russian VVER-440 reactors, nuclear submarines as well as fuel imported from Soviet built reactors abroad.

Rosatom asserts Mayak’s activities in the years it began operations in the middle of last century have complied with modern standards and regulations – and that any public concerns are the product of either environmentalist propaganda or the USSR’s information blackout surrounding the 1957 Kyshtym disaster that was not lifted until 1989.

But court documents obtained by Planet of Hopes and released to Bellona that pertain to a suit against Mayak’s former director Vitaly Sadovnikov, who in March 2006 was relieved of his duties on Rosatom’s order, prompted criminal proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor General’s office for dumping radioactive waste in the Techa in 2004.

In fact, according to Sergei Baranov, the current director of Mayak, dumping will continue until at least 2018, according to a 2011 interview he gave Russia’s Vesti state television network.  He said that by 2018, Mayak will work to develop technologies to decontaminate the dumps before they take place.

Indeed, the documents of the closed-door court proceedings against Sadovnikov, which Planet of Hopes and other environmental groups fought five years to obtain, spell out facts of very recent and hardly accidental radioactive contamination of nearby populated areas.

The documents state that Between 2001 and 2004, around 30 million to 40 million cubic meters of radioactive waste wound up in the river Techa, near the reprocessing facility, which “caused radioactive contamination of the environment with the isotope strontium-90.”

The Techa 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 Mayak’s radioactive discharges in the 1950s, showed that the river water – as per guidelines in Russia’s Sanitary Rules of Management of Radioactive Waste, of 2002 – “qualified as liquid radioactive waste.”

The ruling also revealed 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 further asserts 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 nuclear waste shipments from Eastern Europe for reprocessing.

The money, however, 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 what 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.

Radiation measurements taken by Planet of Hopes along the Techa near Muslyumovo in November 2011 revealed background radiation levels to be 79 times in excess of the norm. An article on atomicenery.ru (in Russian) that addressed various ways of rehabilitating the river stated plainly that whatever efforts may be undertake, the waterway will remain contaminated for at least 175 years.

The locals meanwhile continue 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.

Legacy of secrecy and lies

The cult of secrecy and suspicion surrounding Mayak is not without precedent, and the Kyshtym disaster itself, as Chernobyl’s lesser-known older brother, is ongoing.

In 1957 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 remains today in highly irradiated land, elevated cancer rates and birth deformities.

Though tens of thousands of people were evacuated in the wake of the disaster, Muslyumovo – which is primarily Tartar Muslim – was mostly overlooked by authorities in Moscow.

Another three villages stand on the river are Tatarskaya Karabolka, Musakaeva, and Ust-Bagryak with similar Muslim populations.

Fotogallery: Bellona visited Mayak plant in the beginning of 1990s and shocked the world with its findings at the RIO conference in 1992.

Muslymovo resettlement

In 2005 the federal government finally set in motion a plan to resettle Muslyumovo’s remaining residents, and the Chelyabinsk Administration in 2006 picked a spot – three kilometers away and on the opposite bank of the river Techa. The other option was to take 1 million roubles (about $37,000) on offer from the federal government to buy new homes.

The move of the village was not a success. Payments for individuals wishing to leave were often not forthcoming, and the relocation plan did little – in the words of Nadezhda Kutepova’s, Planet of Hopes head – but “postpone the problem for another 10 years.”

First, the regional administration had trouble adding to its share of housing funding – both for purchasing new homes and in building new dwellings in the new Muslyumovo.

In 2006, many residents protested they wanted to move to a clean suburban area outside of Chelaybinsk, the regions capital. The presidential administration endorsed the idea, but it was shot down by Rosatom and the Chelyabinsk administration, who envisioned a nightmare of spiraling construction costs.

Rosatom, through spokesman Sergi Konyshev, was clearly shilling for the new Muslyumovo.

“It makes absolutely no difference to us how many people move to New Muslyumovo – but on the [site of the new village] we can guarantee costs, quality, deadlines,” Konyshev said at the time. “But when you start dealing with private land, a whole new mechanism starts churning.”

Eventually the whole move plan lost steam, and in 2007, Planet of Hopes filed suit with the European Court demanding suitable resettlement of Muslyumovo with the Europen Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has yet to be settled.

Rumours began to swell that the government had no real plans for moving the population to begin with and that they were being kept in place as guinea pigs to test ongoing human exposure to radiation, as several residents asserted because of annual visits from doctors in Chelyabinsk.

The practice would not be inconsistent with the development of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, when the military moved families in and out of the Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk atomic bomb testing range to study the radiological effects on their physiology.

Covering the Techa with cement

The Techa is so obviously an ongoing radiological hazard despite Rosatom’s vociferous protest to the contrary that in 2010 environmentalists and scientists began to devise plans to simply cover the river with a cement sarcophagus – a plan first implemented to contain the ongoing radioactive releases from Chernobyl’s exploded reactor No 3.

The idea has gained traction and a lobby, but has been met with predictable government resistance. Again, Kutepova and Planet of Hopes filed a 2010 suit in the European Court of Human Rights against the government, but it is still pending, like so many other political and environmental cases from Russia that pack the court’s docket.

What of Mayak in Rio 20 years on?

Bellona’s president Frederic Hauge will be in attendance at Rio+20 as it begins on Wednesday, and he will not be addressing Russia’s wan pronouncements about energy efficiency that have been all Russian press outlets have released about Prime Minister Medvedev’s negotiating points.

Instead he will bore into the half-century old problems that Mayak has presented Russia, from its inception as a military nuclear complex and later as a contaminating, ill –governed source radioactive poison for generations to come.

Video from radioactive river Techa filmed by Bellona in 1992.

Charles Digges