Russian governor warns of radioactive contamination of rivers

The governor of a Siberian city has warned the prime minister that liquid radioactive waste from some 40 years of the nation’s nuclear weapons programme may drain into the Ural Mountains’ rivers, devastating the environment.

Governor Pytr Sumin of Chelyabinsk warned Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in a letter dated May, but which has only now been divulged by the Russian NGO Ecodefense!, that artificial lakes, containing vast amounts of waste from the Mayak nuclear processing plant, the only one in the nation, were filled to capacity and within a few years may leak into nearby rivers. “It becomes more and more dangerous to use the Techa River cascade, serving the Mayak facility of Minatom [Ministry of Atomic Energy] – open water reservoirs contain about 400 million cubic meter of radioactively contaminated water,” Sumin said in the letter. The level of these waters is about to become dangerous, with a possibility that the dam will burst, causing catastrophic consequences for the rivers Iset, Tobol and Ob” – one of Russia’s major rivers. The Chelyabinsk governor then demanded immediate action to solve the problem of radioactive pollution in the water.

Chelyabinsk’s vice governor, Gennady Podtyosov, reportedly said that the water level in the lakes was only 12 inches below its maximum capacity, and that if no action were taken, contaminated water could burst the dam in three to four years, causing “a major catastrophe” and flow as far as the Arctic Ocean.

Mayak, which was a major nuclear weapons plant during Soviet times, has already witnessed several accidents, including an explosion in 1957, which contaminated 9,200 square miles, the effects of which are still felt today. The Chelyabinsk region, set in the foothills of the Ural Mountains in southwestern Siberia, along with the Kola Peninsula (see related story), has been referred to as the world’s most radioactive place because of accidents and the dumping of nuclear waste into lakes and rivers.

Besides waste from its own nuclear weapons manufacture, Mayak could also store and process foreign nuclear waste under a law recently signed by President Vladimir Putin, despite protests by liberals and environmentalists (see related story).

“Mayak must be shut down as soon as possible,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of EcoDefense!. “The more it operates, the more plutonium will be generated out of spent fuel reprocessing. Russia doesn’t need this plutonium, it already has more than enough, so it’s unlikely that this material will ever be properly watched and protected,”. Slivyak also called the city governor’s suggestion to construct a new nuclear plant as a solution to the Mayak problem “disastrous” and said that, according to a source at the plant, Mayak needs modernisation that would cost about US$600 million.

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