Environmentalists skeptical about Russian plans to seal off radioactive lake

mayak_reflecton-320x213 A reflection of Mayak's abandoned caisson plant on the river Techa. (Courtesy of Denis Sinyakov/ echo.msk.ru)

The complete remediation of a radioactive lake near Russia’s notorious Mayak Chemical Combine is said to be nearing completion by Nuclear Engineering International, but environmentalists say it is too early to trumpet the success.

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist estimated that current plans to seal off the lake and prevent further radioactive emissions would last about two to three decades before they started to show signs of failure and have to be revisited.

Meanwhile, the further crackdown on Russian NGO’s dealing with ecological issues casts doubt on securing independent information on the state of the remediation efforts and the toll on regional health that decades of radioactive contamination have wrought.

Mayak, which is located in the closed nuclear city of Ozersk, was set up in the 1940s for plutonium production in Soviet nuclear weapons. It still manufactures nuclear weapons components, and stores and reprocesses of tons of spent nuclear fuel from submarine and early VVER rector types in Russia.

Mayak header A fence surrounding the closed Mayak Chemical Combine. (Courtesy of Alisa Nikulina/Ecodefense) Credit: Courtesty of Alisa Nikulina/Ecodefense

During its years of operation, it has dumped high level radioactive waste into surrounding water bodies, including the Techa River Cascade and Lake Karachai.

‘Most contaminated place on earth’

The Lake began to dry out in the early 1960s, and by 1968 exposed portions of its bed became a major source of ongoing radioactive contamination in the region as winds carried its irradiated sediments into the environment.

According to a 1991 report from the US-based Worldwatch Institute cited by Nuclear Engineering International, Lake Karachai is the most contaminated place on earth, and its sediment contains high level radioactive deposits running as deep as 3.5 meters. According to a report by the the Washington DC-based Natural Resources Defense Council in 1990, the radiation near where radioactive waste is discharged into Lake Karachai reaches 600 roentgens per hour, sufficient to provide a lethal radiation dose to humans within an hour.

Things hardy improved over the next 22 years, when a joint report written by Bellona in 2013 relayed much of the same data.

Nuclear Engineering International’s article suggested the remediation of the persistent headaches posed by Lake Karachai would be complete by the end of this year.

mayak.jpeg A radiation warning sign near Mayak. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: Bellona Archive

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) who is privy to the Russian nuclear industry’s federal target program for bringing Mayak’s contaminated water bodies into a safe state by year’s end, confirmed that the work should finish by November.

“This is no small task,” wrote Nikitin in an email interview. “The Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, or IBRAE, [has written] a few dozen tomes” on dealing with the problem.

Sealing off the lake

The plan for sealing off the lake, as envisioned in the federal program for “Nuclear and Radiation Safety for 2008-2015” includes entirely covering Lake Karachai’s bed with rock and concrete by year’s end, said Nikitin.

Prior to that, some 650 cubic meters of a specialized concrete developed at Mayak was injected into the base of the lake through 38 wells, Nuclear Engineering International reported, adding that this created a reinforced underwater barrier against the radioactive sediment.

Bellona’s Bøhmer remained unconvinced that the Russian federal target program would entirely eliminate radiation dangers from the long-contaminated lake.

“It is an open question if the remediation that’s been undertaken at Lake Karachi is sufficient to stop any future releases from this extremely radioactive lake,” he said.

“My fear is that Mayak has chosen the least expensive solution, but not necessarily the best final solution,” he said, adding that, “It’s very likely that in 20 to 30 year, new measures have to be taken in order to stop yet new leaks.”

Decades long history of accidents and contamination

The Mayak site has been notorious since the so-called Kyshtym disaster of 1957 – regarded as Chenobyl’s older brother – in which a storage tank holding radioactive waste exploded and sent radioactive fallout throughout the Southern Urals’ Chelyabinsk Region.

Civilians, including children and pregnant women, were press-ganged into cleaning up the highly radioactive mess with rags and mops.

That contamination is still present in the Techa River cascade, along which sit many agricultural villages where some 70,000 combined rural residents continue to use the radioactive river as a water source.

ingressimage_techa20000-1..jpg The radioactive Techa River. (Photo: Bellona) Photo: Source: ekimoff.ru

Nadezdha Kutepova, a 45-year-old activist, and until recently a resident of Ozersk, has spent her entire professional career lobbying the Russian government to compensate victiims of this disaster and ongoing radioactive contamination from Mayak.

Shutting up civil society about Mayak’s problems

In April, her NGO, called Planet of Hopes, was branded a “foreign agent” under Russia’s 2012 law on NGOs. She was later hounded by official Russian media, which called her a spy and demanded she be tried for treason.

Her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, who is renowned for his work in espionage and classified government information cases, has said in interviews that such trials by media usually proceed the filing of actual charges.

ERC Bellona’s Nikitin said that levying treason charges has been made all the easier in recent years by changes in Russian security laws, turning them into banana peels any journalist or environmentalist could slip on.

On Pavlov’s advice, Kutepova and her three children fled Russia for political asylum in France in July, something she kept under wraps until a September interview with Bellona.

Her NGO was subsequently dissolved, cutting off one of the major sources of independent information on remediation projects and the depth of the health crisis surrounding Mayak

ERC Bellona’s Nikitin said that aside from Russian governmental aggression toward environmental organizations, Kutepova was in special danger by virtue of airing a closed nuclear city’s dirty laundry.

“People living in these cities are  walking a razor’s edge and risking a charges of espionage – and that was especially so for Kutepova,” he said. “There are too many reasons [provided by the new security laws] to charge her with treason.”