Gremikha division of SevRAO sacks irradiated workers to stay in shadow of radiation scandal

Publish date: October 23, 2003

Written by: Rashid Alimov

In a legally questionable move, the Gremikha Naval Base branch of the SevRAO nuclear waste management facility is firing irradiated employees who suffered various radiation doses in July while cleaning up an undocumented storage site littered with solid radioactive waste left by the Russian Northern Fleet. Meanwhile, two of these workers have not yet even been examined for the exact radiation doses they had received.

SevRAO is a nuclear cleanup division on the Kola Peninsula run by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom.

The management of Gremikha’s branch was responsible for firing SevRAO three workers, who received radiation doses ranging from 50 to 200 millisieverts during a radioactive incident in July. According to a source at Gremikha, who spoke with Bellona Web on the condition of anonymity, Gremikha management proposed to other workers involved in the incident that they resign.

The workers were cleaning up an unauthorized dumpsite of radioactive waste that was left in Gremikha by the Northern Fleet. As Bellona Web has already reported, the irradiated workers were sent to a medical examination only a month after the incident.

The firing of the three workers was confirmed in a telephone interview by Anatoly Grigoriev, SevRAO’s chief engineer. Incensed by the firings, he promised that all three would be restored to duty—wherein they will not have to handle radioactive waste—in the near future

“I consider these firings an egregious violation of the law,” Grigoriev told Bellona Web. “Personally, I would not like to be in these workers’ shoes. The decision to fire them was made by the director of our Gremikha branch without consulting us.”

Bellona has learned from sources in Gremikha that the Murmansk Prosecutors’ Office has expressed an interest in investigating whether or not the firings were legal.

Pavel Regunov, the director of SevRAO’s Gremikha branch told Bellona Web that he “did not want to comment” on the firings. Minatom’s acting press secretary, Vitaly Nasonov, said he did not have “any information” about the firings.

The excuse for the firings
The three workers were fired after the radiation accident after undergoing an exam by SevRAO’s medical commission during which it was found that they were unfit for working with radioactive materials—for reasons having nothing to do with July’s radiation incident, according to the commission’s dermatologist.

Meanwhile, SevRAO’s Grigoriev said that, by law, irradiated workers must be transferred to work unconnected to handling radioactive waste, where they would spend their recovery time—earning their current salaries. Only after these procedural obligations have been met—with the drawing up of new contracts for the workers and a new medical exam—could any decision on firing the workers be made, said Grigoriev.

Environmentalists not surprised
“This is the usual practice,” said Sergei Zhavoronkin, a radiation expert and head of Bellona’s Murmansk office, said of the firings. “I think that the administration of the Gremika SevRAO branch, with the firings, tried to dump the guilt for the accident on the workers, all the more so that the management could direct its rage against them for meeting, although under anonymous circumstances, with journalists.”

Grigoriev said that “an unusual occurrence has taken place and the management at Gremikha was unable to evaluate it in corresponding manner.”

Grigoriev added that “the management of the facility will face disciplinary action. Addionally, a criminal case for neglect of duty will be filed.”


SevRAO’s problems
The former naval base of Gremikha lies on the eastern shore of the Kola Penisula and is used as a storage site for radiactive waste and spent nuclear fuel produced by Russia’s Northern Fleet. It is also boasts the largest collection of the dregs of Russia’s retired submarines. The base made international headlines on August 30th when one of its rust-bucket subs, the K-159, sank in the Barents Sea while being towed to the Polyarny shipyard near Murmansk, killing nine of the 10 crew members on board. The sub, which was still loaded with spent nuclear fuel, sank in 240 metres of water. Environmentalists say that, with so much water pressure bearing down on the reactor compartment, eventual radioactive contamination is just a matter of time.

Located 350 kilometres from the Kola Inlet near Murmansk, Gremikha is not connected to the rest of the peninsula by roads, leaving boats and air travel as the only means to reach it. Gremikha houses some 800 spent fuel assemblies containing some 1.4 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel rods, as well as six reactor cores with liquid metal coolant taken out of Alpha class nuclear submarines. In addition to this, there were still 16 nuclear submarines containing their spent nuclear fuel moored at Gremikha’s piers at the beginning of 2003.

In 2001, the base was handed over from the jurisdiction of the Russian Navy to SevRAO, which was founded in 1998 to guarantee a waste management infrastructure for the destruction of the Northern Fleet’s retired submarines. SevRAO’s mandate also includes dealing with radioactive waste, spent fuel, and the cleanup of radioactively dangerous areas in the northern reaches of Russia.

“For three years we have been dealing with cleanup of places where radioactive waste has been piling up from the 60s to the 90s, and this is even more complicated and crucial than decommissioning,” said Grigoriev.

Grigoriev said that SevRAO cannot allow such radiation incidents as occurred with the 12 workers in the future, and said that there is still an absence of information about many spots on the ground in Gremikha base that contain radioactive materials.

“To work at such spot, so that we can work from a distance, we need robot technology,” Grigoriev said. “And the cheapest robots available are 20 million roubles—and Western analogues cost from $1m to $5m.”

SevRAO receives international funding from Norway and Sweden for its radiation safety work. The United States, Great Britain, Germany and France have also pledged funding toward this work.

Gozatomnadzor, or GAN, Russia’s nuclear regulatory body—which was stripped of overseeing submarine decommissioning work in 1999 by the Russian government as a result of Minatom pressure—has no access to SevRAO facilities.

On Wednesday, a group of specialists from Moscow’s nuclear research Kurchatov Institute arrived by ferry in Gremikha. The specialists intend to determine the strength of the radiation source that irradiated the SevRAO workers. Earlier a group from Obninsk nuclear research facility near Moscow was investigating the same thing.

No radiation protection for SevRAO workers
Bellona’s sources in Gremikha, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that cleanup works at SevRAO had been conducted practically with no radiation safety control. The woman who was responsible for monitoring the site’s radioactivity levels—which were so high they pinned the needles of the radiation measurement instruments she was using—spoke out against the dangerous conditions, but her protest hit a wall of neglect and inaction.

According to information obtained by Bellona from Gremikha sources SevRAO’s management violated the law when it gave its employees their work assignments without necessary instructions—which should have included that they must not work without protection and radiation controls—or the required documentation. Likewise, SevRAO did not inform them of potential consequences of taking the risky assignment or of compensation from the State provided in case they suffered radiation doses that were higher than acceptable levels.

“Such documentation was not in place,” said one of Bellona’s sources, who added that during the cleanup job, Yury Plishkin, a welder, had only a respirator for protection. Plishkin received the highest dose of radiation because, compared to other employees, he was working in the closest proximity to the radioactive waste. While dismantling a reactor control rod, which was emitting radioactivity, the heat of the blowtorch generated radioactive gases that caused Plishkin even further irradiation.

The other workers—who included the dismantlement project’s chief engineer, the head of the radiation safety unit, the mechanics for the pumping station, the mechanical riggers, and the radiation monitor—were outfitted with no better protection than Plishkin, said the source.

Who will treat the ‘unfit’ workers?

Plishkin, who underwent a medical examination at the Moscow-based Institute of Biophysics, is currently in Gremikha, according to Bellona’s Gremikha source. According to the examination’s findings, he had received a radiation dose of around 200 millisieverts. Doses of 1000 millisieverts and above cause severe radiation sickness.

The first medical examination of the workers’ condition—which didn’t take place until more than a month after the accident—found that several of them had heavy metals in their bodies as well as swollen thyroid glands. Plishkin’s thyroid gland was swollen to two or three times normal size. Bellona’s source in Gremikha, however, noted that it was too early as yet to see the whole irradiation picture for the workers, because two of the ailing employees have not been examined even once to determine the exact doses they had received.

“At SevRAO, doses received during radioactive accidents were calculated in a very strange way: The dose was divided by the number of years that the employee has worked at the facility. This is just absurd,” the Gremikha source said.

The local medical difficulties at the base, the source said, stem from the fact that after the Gremikha Base was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence’s Northern Fleet to Minatom’s SevRAO, which runs radioactively dangerous sites, “there are no competent doctors with radiation expertise” left at the base.

Compensation for the irradiated workers?
Speaking at a press conference on September 30th, Alexander Ruzankin, a member of the Murmansk region’s administration in charge of economic issues, said that the investigation of the accident revealed that one of the circumstances leading to the irradiation was an oversight on the part of the specialists from Gremikha’s radiation monitoring service.

At that press conference, Ruzankin said that “the 12 SevRAO technicians who received radiation doses that were equal to a year’s worth of exposure during the accident in July have returned to their work,” which is in direct contradiction to information Bellona learned from its source in Gremikha.

As Ruzankin said at the time, “until the end of the period required for the rehabilitation of their health they will only be involved in operations that are not related to sites presenting radioactive danger. All of them will still, in accordance with the law, be paid extra payments for work at a radioactively dangerous site, which will be added to their salaries.”

However, according to information obtained by Bellona Web from the Gremikha source, on September 29th, two of the accident victims were sent to undergo a second medical exam at a medical facility in Snezhnogorsk near the Gremikha base, which is in direct contradiction to Ruzankin’s statement about all of the workers’ resuming their work.

Furthermore, according to Bellona’s lawyers, the Russian Civil Code stipulates that employees who suffer radiation exposure as a result of an accident must be paid not only extra payments for the conditions of risk they worked in, but also compensation for the very radiation doses that exceeded acceptable levels.

However, Minatom—which tried to keep information about the accident under wraps until Bellona revealed it in September—seems to be avoiding the whole compensations issue by refusing to discuss the accident at all.

Prosecutor General, FSB offer no comment
According to the Murmansk-based Kuriyer Nord-Vest newspaper, in early October the irradiated SevRAO workers approached a member of the regional parliament, Vasily Kalaida, with a complaint that “during the accident, the needles on their own Geiger counters went beyond the highest mark, thus they don’t know the true radiation doses they received.”

They also said, according to Kuriyer Nord-Vest, that violations of safety standards during jobs with radioactive materials are routine at the Gremikha base. Nonetheless, they said, workers put up with these violations out of fear of losing thier jobs.

After the meeting with the SevRAO workers, Kalaida sent official inquiries to Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov and Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, requesting that they investigate the allegations, and whether the operation of those facilities in the Murmansk region that deal with radioactive materials is in tune with Russian law.

No answer has yet come from the Prosecutor General’s office or the security services, Kalaida said on Tuesday in a telephone interview with Bellona Web from Murmansk. The Prosecutor General’s office, when contacted by Bellona Web, would comment.

When asked by Bellona Web to comment on the firings of the irradiated technicians, Kalaida said that “such questions should be clarified in the framework of the investigation which is being carried out” by a specially summoned commission, which is still investigating the case.

“If someone has become sick through SevRAO’s fault, then the state has to provide them with full care, treatment and financial support,” Kalaida said.

The accident’s background
According to the Gremikha source, the 12 SevRAO workers were irradiated beyond allowable norms on July 11th while dismantling a control rod from a spent nuclear submarine fuel assembly. Despite the July 11th accident, the work was continued on July 14th, when the SevRAO workers loaded the cut pieces of the control rod into a container that was then filled with cement.

A Minatom statement, which was released after Bellona first published information on the accident, contradicts this version of events. According to Minatom, work was stopped immediately after the discovery of the highly radioactive control rod among the materials the workers were dismantling.

The irradiated SevRAO workers were not sent for their first medical examination until mid-August, more that a month after the accident, Valery Lobanov, the chief physician at the Murmansk region’s Medical-Sanitary Unit No. 120, where the workers were first treated, said in September.

Soon after their arrival in Murmansk, said Lobanov, many of the workers went to Moscow on their own initiative for further medical observation at the Institute of Biophysics.

“That these people were sent for medical care after an entire month is a clear breach of duty,” said the Gremikha source at the time.