Report from recent expedition to radioactive ‘hot spot’ shows data still scant on area’s contamination

Publish date: August 9, 2013

Written by: Alexei Shchukin

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – A comprehensive report summing up the results of a recent radiation and environmental survey in the territory surrounding Russia’s infamous nuclear reprocessing plant Mayak in Chelyabinsk Region reveals serious gaps in the area’s radiation monitoring of past years – blank spots that must be filled for a full picture of radioactive contamination in an area that has been dubbed the world’s dirtiest radioactive “hot spot.”

Last spring, an eleven-strong environmental survey expedition traveled to the area around Mayak, the USSR’s first enterprise for industrial production of weapons-grade fissile materials, uranium-235 and plutonium-239, and the birthplace of the Soviet atomic bomb. The group, comprising environmental activists and experts in natural science and technology history, nuclear industry, and radiation control, 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 have been exposed to radioactive contamination as a result of Mayak’s operations and following the so-called Kyshtym disaster of 1957. 

[picture1 {The Mayak Chemical Combine as photographed by the expedition from a distance.}]

A report (in English, downloadable at right) has now been published, detailing the results of the expedition and concluding with a set of recommendations on ways to mitigate the harmful effects of the consequences of Mayak’s activities on public health and the area’s environment.

The document – entitled “Report on the results of radiation monitoring of rivers and lakes in the area of impact of Production Association Mayak” – compares the latest data with that obtained in previous years, showing a picture of how levels of radioactive contamination have been changing over the years in the areas surrounding Mayak.

The eleven members of the expedition included experts from the S.I. Vavilov Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the radiation control laboratory of the state enterprise Center for Industrial Safety of the Fuel and Energy Complex, and a St. Petersburg-based testing laboratory. These were responsible for measuring and analyzing the levels of radioactive contamination of some of the Techa floodplains.

[picture2 {The contaminated River Techa.} right]

An expert with Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, and a representative of Greenpeace Russia took part in the expedition as independent observers. ERC Bellona was represented by the nuclear projects expert Alexei Shchukin. 

[picture3 {Bellona’s Alexei Shchukin taking radiation measurements along the Techa.} ]

Altogether during the expedition, 1089 measurements were made of the dose equivalent of external gamma radiation, and 815 measurements of the beta particle emission rate. Experts also took 122 river and lake silt, water, and soil samples.

[picture4 {Expedition members taking radiaton measurements on the River Ob.} right]

The radioecological survey covered the riverside lands of the villages of Novogorny, Muslyumovo and Novomuslyumovo, Krasnoisetskoye, Tatar Karabolka, Ust-Karabolka, and Argayash; lands belonging to the state forest fund; condemned lands; rivers (Techa, Zyuzelka, Sinara, Karabolka, Iset, Tobol, Irtysh, and Ob) and their floodplains; and lakes Ulagach and Argayash, and a number of lakes located in the impact zone of Mayak.

Even though extensive studies have been done to date to record the effects of Mayak’s radioactive wastes on the levels of contamination of the area’s river and lake systems, the bulk of these studies, as the expedition members noted, were performed in relative proximity to the contamination source – on the rivers Techa and Karabolka. But the plant’s radioactive discharges travel a much longer way, passing through the river system Techa-Iset-Tobol-Irtysh-Ob and ending up, eventually, in the Arctic Ocean. At the same time, there is hardly any monitoring data on the Iset-Tobol-Irtysh-Ob part of that route.

[picture5 {Collection of samples on the farther-flung River Irtysh}] 

An analysis of data available from monitoring radioactive contamination in the Techa and Iset – information gathered during two previous expeditions in 2012 – point at strontium-90 as the main tracer showing the spread of contamination by Mayak’s radioactive waste in the waters of the Tobol and Irtysh. Yet data on the concentrations of specific technogenic radionuclides in the Techa’s floodplains and riverbed silt, as well as information on the scope of their spread in the soil of the river’s floodplains, are needed in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of radioactive contamination of the Techa. 

Other work that needs to be done is detailed quantitative and qualitative inventorying of the radionuclide composition of the liquid radioactive waste accumulated in the Techa Reservoir Cascade – a series of artificial ponds and other structures built in the upper reaches of the Techa to hold Mayak’s low-level liquid radioactive discharges and to serve as a process water source for the plant’s facilities – and an examination of the morphological, hydrological, and biological characteristics of these reservoirs. Document archives show that Mayak does not have such information fully at its disposal.    

[picture6 {A weathered sign in the Mayak area warning people of the radioactive dangers that lie beyond it.} right]

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. In 1957, an explosion involving a tank with radioactive waste threw some 20 million curies of radiation into the atmosphere, making the accident one of the worst radiation catastrophes on the former USSR territory. Additional contamination of the Techa occurred as a result of discharges of radioactive waste into the area’s Lakes Karachai, Kyzyltash, and Tatysh.

[picture7 {Expedition leaders Vladimir Kuznetsov, Marina Khvostova, and Sergei Kolotukhin.}]

A relocation program has been started for the populations residing in nearby areas; however, the meager options offered by the program mean that many are still forced to continue to live on the Techa’s banks and to use its water, and the state provides less than adequate compensations for the residents’ continued exposure to radioactive contamination.

A recent rural meeting that brought together some 120 residents of Muslyumovo and the nearby settlements of Brodokalmak, Russkaya Techa, and Nizhnepetropavlovskoye highlighted this and many other problems locals are grappling with: poor or lacking healthcare services, absence of basic medications, and bureaucratic hurdles that preclude proper compensations, among other grievances.