Opinion: A nuclear disaster – How well are we protected?

Publish date: August 20, 2004

MOSCOW—Eighteen years have passed since the day of the Chernobyl catastrophe. As we well know, that tragedy was aggravated by the secrecy imposed by the state to keep information about it from reaching the people—who were denied any chance to take urgent self-protection measures to reduce the ruinous effect of radiation.


Here is what USSR Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Andreyev wrote about the catastrophe in his 1990 letter to the Commission on Liquidating the Effects of the Chernobyl Acident held at the Supreme Council of the USSR:

“From the first days of the accident, as well as in the following months, the population of the regions affected by the radiation contamination was not receiving reliable information about the radiation situation. Decision No. 423 of September 24, 1987, made by the governmental commission on classifying information pertaining to the issues of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and of the elimination of its consequences, did not facilitate the organisation of all necessary measures needed to ensure the radiation safety of the population, and denied the people the opportunity to take, in time and with their own efforts, measures to protect themselves from ionising radiation. The circumstances mentioned above led in the years of 1986 through 1989 to the significant radiation over-exposure of the population on the territory of the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Russian Soviet Federative Social Republic.”

Since then have we become more protected against the impact of such catastrophes? Are there any guarantees that the potential damage inflicted on our health by the operation of radioactively hazardous sites can be compensated for in any way? Or are we still—just as we used to be—held hostage by the irresponsibility of powers that be?

Today, ensuring our own safety depends in many ways on the efficiency of the legislation and the active stance of the citizens—in other words, on our own actions.


What to do in case of an accident?
The key point in the issues of what to do in case of a radiation accident is the plans of measures of protection of personnel and the population from a radiation accident and its consequences. So what are these plans and who is responsible for developing them?

The development of plans of measures for the protection of the population, as follows from the laws mentioned above, falls under the jurisdiction of the bodies of executive power, while the scope and nature of these plans depend on the specific conditions and parameters of an accident. As a rule, the evacuation and protection of the population is specified in these plans as the responsibility of the bodies of local authority on territories subject to their jurisdiction. There is no exhaustive law or federal normative act that would set clear and detailed requirements for the order of development and content of such plans. There is only a mention of this notion in the law “On Radiation Safety of the Population.”

As a result, many important parameters of these plans are decided by numerous internal instructions and regulations that inevitably lead to misunderstandings and lack of coordination between various bodies that share responsibilities protecting of the population.

For instance, some deputies of the Balakovo Municipality believe that the evacuation of the population residing in Balakovo—a town on the Western bank of the Saratov Reservoir on the Volga River in Central Russia, which is home to Russia’s youngest nuclear power plant that operates four VVER-1000 reactors with a combined 4000-megawatt capacity—is the duty of the management of the Balakovo plant itself as Balakovo is included into the so-called “monitoring zone.”

The management of the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant, however, insists that the plant—or the operator organisation—only have the obligation to maintain the safe operation of the plant and protect its employees in case an accident occurs. Anything else that has to do with the population of Balakovo and the surrounding areas, they say, should be the responsibility of the local authorities. In a situation like this, one has the clear impression that no unified plan at all has been devised and accepted in Balakovo to protect the population, and that local residents are simply defenceless against a radiation accident.

Worse problems, however, have been known to arise. It is not uncommon that nuclear industry insiders simply ignore the probability of beyond-design-basis accidents and the necessity to develop measures to protect the population, including evacuation—which, needless to say, affects the very protection measures that would be needed for the population should an accident occur.

For example, during public debate over the issue of constructing a plutonium fuel manufacturer, representatives of the Siberian Chemical Combine, one of Russia’s five gaseous diffusion plants used in uranium enrichment, were constantly making references to the minimal chance of a beyond-design-basis accident at the plant. This means that, from the point of view of the plant’s management, there is apparently no need to develop any plans or measures to protect the population from beyond-design-basis accidents originating at the plant.

The director of the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant seems to favour the same policy through the statements he has repeatedly made at his press conferences: No evacuation scenarios have been developed in any plans because even beyond-design-basis accidents would not lead to such levels of contamination in the area where evacuation would be necessary.

Where will the money come from?
Russian nuclear legislation makes virtually no mention of how local authorities are supposed to procure the money needed to implement their plans to protect the population in case a radiation accident takes place. The single source of funding mentioned—and which only indirectly relates to the issue at hand—is determined by Article 11 of FL-68. In accordance with this clause, local authorities must with their own efforts create their own reserves of financial and material for dealing with emergencies.

From what these such reserves should be accumulated or even how the frequently penniless executive bodies in small local communities are supposed to obtain such funds at all is not specified. Legislation is equally vague on the issue of who is responsible for funding the creation of the necessary infrastructure or for paying for measures to realise the plans of population protection. In the former case, the creation of an evacuation system is meant. For instance, Balakovo has long been divided by a bitter dispute about who is supposed to build a second bridge connecting the island part of the city with the shore-land for cases should an evacuation of the island’s population of 70,000 ever be required. The only two-lane bridge that exists in the city is too old and unusable for evacuation operations in the conditions of a radiation accident.

In the latter case, issues remain equally hazy as to who provides funding to, for instance, public training and education for cases of radiation accidents. This endless story of fruitless debate and authorities passing the buck to each other overshadows the troubling truth: No such system for training the population to deal with a radiation catastrophe is in place.

“Hit the deck!”
Article 20 of FL-68 provides for the preparation of the population for emergency situations, including broad distribution of information regarding protection of the population and territories from emergency situations. Here is one example of what this article says: “The preparation of the population for acting in emergency situations is carried out in organisations, including educational institutions, as well as in places of residence. Local bodies of authority participate (along with other bodies of authority and organisations) in dissemination of information pertaining to the protection of the population and territories from emergency situations, for which they can employ the media.”

Additionally, in accordance with Article 11 of the same law, bodies of local authority use their own efforts to educate the population about the means of protection and proper actions to take in situations of emergency.

It is worth noting that FL-68 does not specify in any way the obligatory nature of the preparation of the population and dissemination of information in the sphere of protection from emergency situations by executive bodies. At the same time, Article 19 of FL-68 does obligate the citizens of the Russian Federation “to learn the main means of protection of the population and territories from emergency situations, techniques of applying first medical aid, and rules of using collective and individual means of protection, and to constantly improve one’s knowledge and practical skills in the mentioned sphere.”

To gain a fair idea of where exactly matters stand with the preparation of the population for proper response to a radiation accident on territories located immediately inside the zone of potential impact of a nuclear hazardous site, or how exactly Article 11 of FL-68 is implemented locally, one need only have a look at the closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk, operating one of Russia’s remaining three plutonium production reactors, and located in the Krasnoyarsk region in Russia’s Central Siberia. Zheleznogorsk’s is one of the 10 closed territorial administrative formations, or ZATOs, in its Russian abbreviation. These closed cities, once the pride of the Soviet scientific community with a combined population of about 2 million, have hit hard times since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Krasnoyarsk regional branches of the Ministry of Emergency Situations carry out nuclear accident simulations only on the territory of Zhelesnogorsk. Supplements containing potassium iodide necessary as a prophylactic means against radiation impact used to be distributed through the management of local enterprises and organisations operating inside the closed city. The last time such supplements were made available, however, was 10 years ago.

Even as the country was struggling through the transition period in the early 1990s, the Zheleznogorsk ZATO had a working system of civil defence. Each city block had its own bomb shelter with readily available means of protection. Today, this system is derelict. The bomb shelters were sold off to newly formed businesses. The stocks of gas masks and other protection means still exist, but where exactly they could be found in an emergency is a mystery for Zheleznogorsk’s residents. In earlier times, the population’s training for nuclear-related emergencies was carried out at the work places. Such simulations and instructions were scheduled beforehand.

Today, simulations only take place at the Zheleznogorsk nuclear enterprise—which operated the plutoniu reactor and also stores spent nuclear fuel at the RT-2 facility—and only for its employees. Training alarms do take place as well, but mostly they concern management level employees.

Each of the main enterprises of the closed city has a so-called “propaganda corner”—visual agitation aids that demonstrate means of nuclear safety—as well as alarm and evacuation systems. All of these, however, were produced and arranged a long time ago, and new enterprises that have appeared in Zheleznogorsk can boast of no such level of preparation. Similarly, memos and leaflets used to be distributed among the city’s population describing rules and regulations to follow in case of a nuclear accident. But as with other examples, none of this is done in these days, and younger generations know little about what to do should an accident occur.

In the case of Balakovo, the 30-kilometre “sanitary zone” around the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant is home to around 250,000 people. Of these, 206,000 live in the city of Balakovo. The city itself does sometimes conduct small-scale simulations wit representatives of the Emergency Situations Ministry that include drills based on a radiation-accident scenario. These drills, however, are carried out with almost no participation of the population as they only involve those who work in the fire-fighting, medical emergency and other similar services.

The residents of the city are not familiar with any means of individual protection, and it is unknown if the city has any at all at its disposal. No one makes any information available about what to do and what means of protection to use in a nuclear emergency through lectures, instructions or other educational aids. No memos or leaflets were ever published for mass distribution in the city. In fact, the issue of possible evacuation scenario in case of a nuclear accident has never even been taken into consideration because, again, in the words of the nuclear plant’s director, even beyond-design-basis accidents will not lead to a contamination of the region on a level that could be deemed dangerous.

The situation described applies to practically the whole Russian population, including the country’s major cities. Hardly can a citizen be found in Russia who can readily and clearly describe how to get to the nearest bomb shelter or explain how to take potassium iodide in case a cloud carrying radioactive fallout from the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant, North of Moscow, for instance, or from the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, west of St. Petersburg, should cover the skies over either city.

Such a careless approach to the probability of a catastrophic accident has its predictable impact on the measures taken to prepare the citizens to respond properly, train them to use ways of protection, and follow necessary steps in the conditions of a radiation accident, as well as on the maintenance necessary to keep available the necessary means of protection of the population and the territories.

Who will pay for damages?
Even more problematic is Russian legislation’s codes on liability issues on paying for nuclear-related damages inflicted on the environment and issues on the health and property of citizens, as well as of responsibility to compensate families for deaths caused by a radiation accident. On the one hand, all responsibility for the compensation of nuclear-related damages lies only with the operator organisation (Article 53 of FL-170). In accordance with this clause, the operator of a nuclear installation is prohibited from obtaining an operating license if the operator organisation does not provide financial guarantees of being capable to pay damages inflicted on third persons.

On the other hand, such guarantees may both follow from the operator organisation itself—which proves the capability of the enterprise to pay for all possible consequences out of its own financial reserves—and be vouched for by the state or by other organisations that have taken on the payment obligations, for instance, by a bank or by an insurance company.

The operator organisation, in particular, must have the financial provisions for the minimum payout. Accordingly, compensation for damages inflicted by radiation impact where such damages exceed the limit set for the operator organisation is provided for by the Government of the Russian Federation.

Because no lower limits are established by the legislation for the operator organisations as a ceiling of payments for damages and harm incurred by radiation impact, the result is significant leeway that can be used by the operator organisation to manoeuvre and avoid liability—obviously, to the detriment of the public interest. Due to the specifics of nuclear accidents, damages resulting from such accidents may only reveal themselves after a long period of time, thus estimations of the payment ceilings are of a quite approximate nature as they are based only on the experience gained from similar catastrophes in the past. At the moment, such issues are, again, only regulated by departmental rules applicable within particular ministries or governmental bodies that estimate and calculate possible damages and lower limits at their own discretion.

The weak normative base in this sphere renders purely nominal quite a number of provisions regarding the civil and legal nuclear-related liability. The mechanism of realizing one’s rights in this field is unclear. All known cases of lawsuits filed by third persons demanding compensation for damages inflicted on them as a result of the activities of nuclear sites are only precedential, and the amounts ruled in favour of the plaintiffs are clearly depreciated. An example of such disparagement is the case decided for the plaintiffs regarding compensation of damages suffered as a result of a 1993 explosion at the Siberian Chemical Combine near Tomsk.

Experts have noted that preventing arbitrary treatment of legislation and norms in the sphere of nuclear-related liability requires a separate law—a law that would be comparable with the international provisions like the 1957 Paris Convention and the 1963 Vienna Convention. First of all, such legislation would significantly increase the amounts of compensatory payments to victims of nuclear and radiation accidents. Secondly—and most importantly—this would give one to hope that the state has finally decided to put some serious thought into such liability issues. As it now stands, Russian citizens cannot count on real compensations in case of a radiation accident.

1. All provisions regarding the preparation of the population for actions in case of a nuclear accident and issues of civil and legal responsibility for compensation of nuclear-related damages and its financial security are not sufficiently clear or detailed, their language is frequently chaotic or moot, thus they are mainly of a nominal nature.
2. There exists no mechanism for the realization of the norms of protection of the population in case of a nuclear accident.
3. Many articles in existing laws are merely references to other laws, creating confusing legislative redundancies and giving the nuclear industry loopholes to avoid responsibility as in the above mentioned 1993 explosion at the Siberian Chemical Combine.
4. The financial security backing adopted liability laws is insufficient or simply non-existent, as is clearly demonstrated, in particular, by the unsolved issues of funding needed for the programmes and measures aimed at the protection of the population from nuclear accidents and for the insurance of both civil and legal responsibility of operator organisations and obligatory gratis insurance of a person from the risks of radiation impact.

Practice shows that while the citizens remain inactive and offer no real impact on the situation at hand it is hard to expect the powers that be to show any awareness regarding the issues of providing safety to the population and protection from potential radiation-related harm.
The only way to reach any breakthrough in the existing quandary is by consistently prompting to the relevant structures to remember their responsibilities to the population—who they supposedly serve—and to public organisations. This could be done on the basis of the existing legislation and without waiting for new laws to be adopted. According to Article 18 of FL-68, citizens of the Russian Federation have the right to “appeal in person, as well as extend to state bodies and bodies of local authority individual and collective statements pertinent to the issues of protection of the population and territories from emergency situations.”

Furthermore, according to Article 61 of FL-170, “a refusal to provide information, intentional distortion or concealment of information pertinent to the issues of safety in the application of atomic energy” classifies as a violation of the given law and incurs “disciplinary, administrative or criminal punitive measures.”

Based on the mentioned laws, it would be advisable for organisations and citizens—particularly the population residing near radioactively hazardous sites—to request information on the following issues:

1. From the management of the nearby nuclear power plant or other radioactively hazardous site:

*—What is the worst-case scenario of a nuclear accident with a release of radiation and a radioactive fallout in the area of your place of residence?
*—Does the enterprise have a plan of measures for protection of the population for a worst-case-scenario radioactive accident that includes a radioactive fallout, a plan of evacuation of the population?
*—Has this plan been agreed upon and approved by the bodies of local authority?
*—What are the financial guarantees of compensation of potential damages and harm inflicted by radiation impact?
*—From what sources will the nuclear-related damages be compensated?
*—What are the estimated amounts of damage compensations—depending on the scope of damage?

2. From the bodies of local authority:

*—What plan of measures do you have to protect the population from a nuclear accident and its consequences?
*—Has this plan been agreed upon and approved by the management of the nuclear site in question?
*—What actions do I personally take in case of a nuclear accident, including where and how do I obtain means of individual protection?
*—Do the local authorities have financial and material reserves to protect the population from a nuclear accident, including what is the current situation with these reserves?
*—What are the sources of accumulating the reserves needed to finance the plan of protection of the population from nuclear accidents?
*—Is the existing infrastructure of the area where I live ready to provide the protection and/or evacuation of the population in case of a nuclear accident?
*—What measures do the local authorities undertake to improve this infrastructure?
*—How often, where and using what methods are the educational measures carried out to train the population in ways of protection and proper response in case of an accident at a radioactively hazardous site?
*—Where and how can I obtain special literature or various instructions aimed to help me find out about: actions to take in an emergency situation; main ways of protection during a nuclear accident; performing first aid on those who suffered in an emergency situation or a nuclear accident; rules of using collective and individual means of protection.

Finally, the Government of the Russian Federation and the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation have to be prompted to action by appeals and proposals to improve and systemise the nuclear-related legislation in the interests of safety of the population, as well as by public demands to bring such legislation as close as possible to international standards.

Vera Pisareva and Vladimir Chuprov work in the Moscow branch of Greenpeace-Russia. The authors would like to express their appreciation to Anna Vinogradova and Anatoly Mamayev for their help in the preparation of this article.

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