Albion Monitor /News

Moscow's Secret Nuclear Waste Nightmare

by Andrei Ivanov

Hundreds of sites around Moscow

(IPS) MOSCOW -- There are literally hundreds of illegal nuclear waste dumps in and around the Russian capital, the result of years of careless shipping, corruption and often inexplicable thieving within the country's atomic industry.

Civil defense staff are turning up around 70 dumps a year; most are only found by accident. In late April, a resident of Galygino, in the city's western Odintsovskiy district, was using a radiation monitor in an area where he planned to build a cottage.

He turned up several ten centimeter metal rods filled with a thorium compound. Some were damaged, emitting 1,600 microroentgens an hour -- over 100 times normal background levels. The boxes in which they had been containing, also irradiated, had unknowingly been picked up by local people and their contents scattered.

Federal Security Service investigators said the rods had been taken from the Odintsovo military recruitment office by a former employee who has since disappeared. It is not known why the employee took them in the first place.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Defense, Emergencies and Natural Disasters said 150 kilograms of radioactive material had so far been recovered from the dump, and an area of contaminated ground had been sealed off.

Officials agree that Russia has the world's worst nuclear waste problem but clean-up is a very low priority

Alexei Yablokov, chairman of the Russian Center for Environmental Policy and a former adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the environment, says up to 70 sites with dangerous levels of radioactivity have been identified in the Moscow region each year over the past decade.

So far there are over 200 unregistered waste dumps in the city. These are now being cleaned up by a new operation created for the purpose, the Radon enterprise.

"In the 1950s and 1960s waste was taken from research institutes -- before Radon was set up -- and simply abandoned," he says. And Moscow is not alone. More dumps are found each year in around 50 towns.

"NPO Radon cleans up these places, but then we find another hot spots somewhere else," complains Yablokov. He says the greatest danger to people as far as radiation is concerned is "on the streets of Moscow -- and not only Moscow." he notes.

"Every year we find places, even in the smallest and most remote outposts, sometimes with terrible radioactivity levels of up to 100 roentgens per hour."

"We know it's a serious problem," says a nuclear industry official. "But we can to little more than scratch the surface at present. We will simply have to live with it for a few more years until we can afford a proper clean up operation."

Russian officials agree that Russia has the world's worst nuclear waste problem but admit that safe clean-ups it is a very low priority in face of the economic problems currently facing the country.

Like other sectors of the Russian economy the nuclear industry is strapped for cash. There is no money to pay workers or to buy basic necessities like spare parts and fresh fuel. Many nuclear operators have not been paid for several months because power plant customers are unable to pay for the electricity they use. At best mutual debts are written off or clients pay in kind.

"Our plants accept anything from furniture to underwear in payment," the high-ranking official said. "Then they have the problem of trying to sell on the goods to get the money they need for basic essentials."

International help needed

In many ways, the nuclear industry is better off than many other sectors. Russian nuclear ministry (MinAtom) head Viktor Mikhailov has managed to keep at least some funds flowing in from the budget and from the sale of technology and services.

Some nuclear plants such as Smolensk have managed to use some of this to build new waste storage facilities. But major investment for waste management is out of the question. "Frankly this is just not a priority at present," the official noted.

Last month the administration of Murmansk Region in north-west Russia called for the Kola peninsula, where spent nuclear fuel from Northern Fleet submarines is stored, to be declared an ecological disaster area.

Temporary storage facilities are now full but there is not enough containers to transport the fuel to the Mayak plant in the Urals.

Pavel Sazhinov, chairman of the Murmansk Region legislative council and a member of the federal parliamentary committee on defence and security, warns that the situation will be worse when Russia ratifies the START-2 treaty.

The Andreyeva Guba site, one of three full dumps in the region, has been in use for 30 years, and holds about 4,000 cubic meters of spent fuel. It has background radiation level 25 times higher than normal.

"No progress will be made with this unless we get international help," explained the industry official. At the recent Nuclear Safety Summit in Moscow Russia proposed regional radioactive waste storage facilities with the scientific and financial participation of all the countries concerned, in particular North European countries, as well as the U.S. and Japan.

Moscow has hinted that this would make it easier for Moscow to accede to the 1993 amendment to the London Convention, which bans the dumping of radioactive waste into the seas.

Russia stopped this practice in 1993 but may have to resume if no new facilities are made available. Japan is already helping to build a liquid waste processing plant in the Far East and Norway has promised support for works in the Russian Arctic lands.

Specialists from Norway, Russia and the U.S. have also developed a joint scheme to set up in Murmansk a network of commercial units to process liquid radioactive waste and may later look at solid wastes.

Yeltsin recently told a meeting of his National Security Council that these issues cannot be successfully resolved within the framework of national programs alone.

Referring to the program for handling liquid and solid radioactive waste in the Arctic and Far East, he noted: "The participation of Northern European countries, the United States and Japan in that program will seriously expedite its fulfillment."

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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