ERC Bellona, experts, environmentalists survey Russia’s dirtiest radioactive ‘hot spot’

The radioactive Techa River. (Photo: Bellona)

Publish date: May 27, 2013

Written by: Alexei Shchukin

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – St. Petersburg-based Bellona has taken part in a radiation and environmental survey of what has been dubbed the most contaminated place on earth: the site of the 1957 disaster at the nuclear reprocessing plant Mayak, one of the world’s greatest – and least recognized – radiation catastrophes

An eleven-strong expedition that pooled together environmental activism and expertise in natural science and technology history, nuclear industry, and radiation control travelled to the area surrounding Production Association Mayak in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Region – a territory where generations have been struggling to survive, battling the effects of decades of radioactive contamination that has been accumulating as a result of the so-called Kyshtym disaster of 1957 and continuous dumping of radioactive waste by Mayak into the local rivers and lakes.

Named so for Kyshtym, a town near the nuclear complex of Mayak, the 1957 Kyshtym disaster – a radioactive waste explosion accident that threw some 20 million curies of radiation into the atmosphere and left some 23,000 square kilometers of area contaminated – is considered one of the worst radiation catastrophes on the former Soviet Union territory, on a scale only surpassed by the explosion of the fourth reactor at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986.

During the expedition, the experts surveyed the floodplains of the Techa-Iset and Sinara-Karabolka-Iset river systems and the territories of the villages of Muslyumovo, Novomuslyumovo, Russkaya Techa, and other settlements that Mayak’s operations have exposed to radioactive contamination.

Mayak: A six-decade-long contamination record

Since the start of Mayak’s activities in 1948, the enterprise’s operations have resulted in contamination of 25,000 square kilometers, and 500,000 people have been exposed to increased radiation levels. Altogether, some 1.8*1017 becquerels’ worth of radionuclides has been released into the surrounding atmosphere.

The expedition’s measurements showed that the external gamma radiation exposure dose at ground surface within 10 to 20 meters of the river Techa exceeds today the allowable standard – set in regulations at 0.3 microsieverts per hour – along the entire stretch of the river, though the dose decreases rapidly with increasing distance from the bank: At a distance of over 10 meters from the river bed, radiation levels fall nearly to natural background radiation levels, registering at between 01. and 0.2 microsieverts per hour. Increased gamma radiation levels are found as well in areas that get flooded during high water season.

Formally, the Techa and its floodplains are excluded from water resources available for household, agricultural, or commercial use: As surveys conducted during previous expeditions have shown, the content of the isotope strontium-90 in all water samples exceeds the allowable level of interference established in the Norms of Radiation Safety-99/2009 – Russia’s radiation safety regulations, updated in 2009, that codify permissible levels of exposure and requirements for protection from ionizing radiation. These findings effectively prohibit using the Techa’s water for practical purposes.

Living on the banks of a radioactive river

The danger notwithstanding, people are forced to continue to live on the Techa’s banks. The state’s resettlement program, launched several years ago, has done little to alleviate their plight. The options made available to the local population through the resettlement program – apply for a payout to purchase new housing of one’s choosing or move to new homes provided by the state – have put the residents between a rock and a hard place. The new housing offered through the program has been built just a few kilometers from the river – in the vicinity of the railway station of Muslyumovo, a district that locals unofficially call Novomuslyumovo (New Muslyumovo). And those who have opted for the payout to buy their own housing run against a red tape that proves nearly impossible to break through.

A recent rural meeting that brought together some 120 residents of Muslyumovo and the nearby settlements of Brodokalmak, Russkaya Techa, and Nizhnepetropavlovskoye highlighted the many problems locals are grappling with: poor or lacking healthcare services, absence of basic medications, bureaucratic hurdles that preclude proper compensation for residents whose papers are a comma shy of being in order, or missing insulation in the Novomuslyumovo houses, too cold for the relocatees to live in. The main grievances were with the resettlement program, which, the locals said, did not provide adequate compensation for the houses they were leaving behind. The meeting ended with the villagers putting together a resolution with a list of demands they addressed to local and federal officials, holding out a hope for changes that should have come long ago.

Locals – the older villagers, mostly – continue to use the river and the lands around it, especially in the Techa’s middle course and downstream, and still take their cows and horses to graze in the old pastures, and still fish in the river. A few years ago, the Techa’s banks were covered with a layer of coarse gravel to serve as some sort of a shield, deflecting the radiation coming from the river at least to some extent – as well as a barrier hindering the people and cattle’s approach to the water – but the gravel has been trodden down over time, and cows and horses have almost no difficulty reaching the river edge to water.

The Asanovo bogs: Radiation readings show values 100 times in excess of natural levels

Besides the Techa itself, expedition members inspected a significant part of the river basin. Just like in the previous years, the highest radiation readings were taken in the area of the Asanovo bogs, a swampland near the village of Asanovo at the Techa’s upper reach. These marshes act as natural accumulators of radioactive contamination , with radiation levels here climbing to 20 microsieverts per hour – or some 100 times higher than what is considered normal background radiation levels for Chelyabinsk Region – and beta contamination reaching up to 100 beta particles per minute per square centimeter.

Altogether during the expedition, 400 measurements were made of gamma radiation levels and of the beta particle emission rate. Experts took 50 water, soil, and silt samples. The same benchmark sites were used during this expedition as during the previous ones to allow for comparison with previous years’ findings.

The eleven members that the group comprised were two experts from the S.I. Vavilov Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences; six experts with the radiation control laboratory of the state enterprise Center for Industrial Safety of the Fuel and Energy Complex; a representative of Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch; a representative of Greenpeace Russia; and an expert with an independent radiation control laboratory.

ERC Bellona’s representative in the expedition was nuclear projects expert Alexei Shchukin.

Mayak’s activities and radioactive contamination in Chelyabinsk Region: Background

The Production Association Mayak developed from the so-called Combine No. 817, a cryptic moniker for the USSR’s first ever enterprise charged with industrial production of uranium-235 and plutonium-239, the fissile isotopes necessary to produce the atomic bomb.  

Apart from plutonium production, which has subsequently ceased, Mayak has also been responsible, among its other activities, for reprocessing certain types of spent nuclear fuel – material that is generated in nuclear reactors as nuclear fuel is burnt to produce energy. This process is accompanied by generation of vast amounts of liquid and solid radioactive waste.

The contamination history on the territory of the site of Mayak and in surrounding areas has shaped as a result of:

  • -discharges of wastewater of the site’s radiochemical operations into the area’s rivers, lakes, and ponds in 1949 to 1951, a practice that led to radioactive contamination of the Techa river and its floodplains;
  • -discharges, since 1951, of medium-level radioactive waste from the radiochemical plant into Lake Karachai;
  • -the 1957 Kyshtym accident, involving a chemical explosion of a tank containing radioactive waste that had been generated during spent nuclear fuel reprocessing;
  • -wind resuspension of radioactive aerosols from the exposed, drought-afflicted banks of Lake Karachai during an arid season in 1967;
  • -Mayak’s everyday activities.

A significant radioactive contamination of the Techa river basin occurred as a result of releases of medium-level and low-level radioactive waste into Lakes Kyzyltash, Tatysh, and Karachai, located near Mayak in the vicinity of the Techa’s upper course.