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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radiation anxiety

In a quiet corner of northwestern Moscow, a new bread factory stands on a site where radioactive waste was once buried. Across town, a man's science project flooded his entire neighborhood three years ago with radiation. and just last month, the entire city panicked amid rumors of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant only 90 kilometers away.

: Moscow may not be Chernobyl or Chelyabinsk, but alarming reports like these have raised questions about whether the capital is a safe place to live. As the haunting spectre of past nuclear disasters forces gross truths about the industry out into the open, Muscovites are starting to fear they may be living in a radioactive zone without the means to protect themselves.

"As much as we would like, we can't really evaluate the city's radiation situation", confessed Sergei Okhrimenko, chief radiologist of Moscow's sanitary-epidemiological station (SES), the city's central radiology tracking service. Moscow is surrounded by three nuclear power plants (including Obninsk, where rumors of a meltdown spread), nine research reactors inside the city and approximately 3, 000 enterprises which work with radioactive elements. Since 1986, when information on radiation was first released, geologists have uncovered more than 600 traces of radiation exceeding established norms and recorded hundreds of radiation leaks.

Scrapped for funding, SES has only 12 radiologists using radiometers from 1954. As he talked with a reporter, Okhrimenko turned his office upside down searching for a radiation map of the city. Unable to keep tabs on their own, employees spend hours dialing enterprises with their own radiological services to beg data off them. Last month, when the accident at Obninsk was rumored, they had to resort to calling civil defense headquarters for information.

Determined to keep up, SES has asked the local government for money to hire more staff and purchase modem equipment. But the city, citing its own financial quagmire, has turned them down.

SES is not Moscow's only organization tracking radiation levels:

Goskomhydromet, the state committee for hydrometeorology, the Ministry of Geology and various branches of the military are also involved, but tend to

keep their findings locked away. According to the Ministry of Defense's radiological monitoring service, Colonel Anatoly Matuschenko, Moscow presents no radiation hazards.

But contaminated areas are discovered all the time. The Geology Ministry has reported dozens of cases in which parts or equipment are taken from workplaces where there is radiation and thrown away in the street. The "science project" is one such example: a man brought an ampule with radioactive cesium-134 home from work to do some experiments.

When he heard radiation monitoring helicopters in the area, be got scared and threw bis evidence into Mytishchi pond in northern Moscow. By the time he was caught, he had poisoned bis building and the pond.

Examples like this one - or metal tube ends registering 80, 000 micro-roentgen (a radiation level measure;

see box) found under the asphalt at Gorky Park - demonstrate not only the lack of control over use of equipment but a certain ignorance as well, says Leonid Pets, a nuclear physicist and member of Moscow's Socio-Ecological Union. "People don't know what they are dealing with", he said.

Public education has never been a concern for an industry whose main interest was to keep itself shrouded in secrecy, both ecologists and nuclear experts agree.

Precisely because people were not supposed to know anything about the nuclear industry, they have not grasped its dangers, according to Svyatoslav Zabelin, an aide to Alexei Yablokov, a leader of the country's ecology movement and now special advisor to the Russian government on ecology and public health. "This is one of the consequences of secrecy", he said. "People have never been informed".

Figures on radiation levels in Moscow were made available to the public in 1986. But documentation is scattered, especially for the 1950s and 60s, the early years of the industry when experts agree much of the contamination in the city occurred.

The Geology Ministry estimates that there are no less than 300 spots where radioactive waste has been dumped by enterprises working with radioactive substances.

Until the 1960s, waste was poured out through sewage systems or buried in the yards of some plants and institutes, many of which later moved to new sites. Although fences were erected around some of these sites, the ministry says, not all have been kept. To

date, only 20 of the estimated 300 sites have been found.

Controversy centers also on the Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute, the nation's leading atomic energy research center, and the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, both of which have research reactors on their campuses in central Moscow.

The Kurchatov Institute's seven research reactors produce nuclear waste, most of which is shipped to dumping grounds either near Zagorsk or Chelyabinsk. Some low level radioactive waste, measuring up to 800 micro-roentgen per hour, is stored on the grounds of the institute, according to Alexei Borokhovich, deputy head engineer for nuclear safety, but it presents no danger to the surrounding environment, he said.

Local residents are not convinced. Pets, who lives in the area and worked at the Kurchatov Institute in the 1960s, says he remembers residents in the surrounding region being told at times to keep windows closed and children inside.

"They say everything is okay, but there are lots of violations", be insists.

Although Kurchatov officials deny that radioactive waste has been dumped in the city. Pets says there are traces in the region -such as the site where Bread Factory #17 is being built. and while the Kurchatov today has a strict eighttiered control system checking workers for radiation poisoning, it wasn't always this way: Pets says back in the early days city bus #100 was soaked with radiation by workers who purposely exposed themselves to radiation to get extra work benefits and longer vacations.

The people living closest to the reactors are Kurchatov employees themselves, who were given apartments next to the institute in the 1940s by order of Stalinist secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, an underhanded way of seeing to it that safety regulations were followed.

"We are simply taking care of our own children's health", said physicist Sergei Levichev, setting a radiometer on his balcony. Almost every apartment has a radiometer, a rare item on the Russian market as mass production began only two years ago.

The Kurchatov Institute is often called in to advise on local cleanups involving radioactive waste, according to Borokhovich. "People blame us for problems with radioactivity", he said, "but then they also turn to us to clear up the situation".

Although highly radioactive waste is shipped out of the city by Radon, an organization handling such waste, problems remain. Radon ships out material exceeding 300 micro-roentgen (70, 000 cubic meters have been trans

ported to a depository near Zagorsk since the 1960s). The rest is deposited in regular city dumps, according to regulations approved by the Ministry of Public Health.

But low-level waste dumped together with non-active waste increases the dosage of radiation, SES's Okhrimenko says. "It creates an artificial source of danger", he said.

There are other dangers. Independent construction companies in Moscow, now able to produce their own concrete blocks for building houses, are taking ashes and other components for making concrete from the city's dumps, Okhrimenko says. With no control over their work, he says, "It is quite possible that some radioactive waste will move from dumps into people's houses".

With a changing economy, the lack of control may worsen. The Kurchatov Institute is faced with a higher bill for removal of its 20 tons of waste - two billion rubles this year, approximately four times what it paid in 1991. Although Borokhovieh assures that "money is always found for projects like this", he admits the Institute is suffering the same financial setbacks all organizations are.

Moscow's sole specialized laundry for cleaning clothing used in working with radioactive materials is all but bankrupt. If it closes, clinics and institutes will not be able to properly clean their protective outer garments. SES says it will close enterprises that don't conform with safety standards such as clean clothing.

But despite an increasingly aware and sceptical public, construction at Bread Factory #17 continues. A special ecology commission recommended in July 1990 that the project be halted because, among other problems, radioactive waste had turned up on the site.

Radon removed 500 kilograms of waste registering as high as 3, 500 micro-roentgen per hour as well as 9, 000 kilograms of radioactive soil. Construction resumed, and although the factory is nearly finished, local residents are still vehemently opposed to the idea. Wary of city authorities, they argue the area is still radioactive.

"You can't make bread there", said resident and local activist Tamara Dmitrievna, who asked that her last name not be used. "Why did they have to build that factory on that site? They're going to make radioactive bread".

But after four years, she is tired of fighting. "It doesn't matter", she said. "Whatever I do, they're going to build it anyway".