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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When a Half-Life Is Too Much

Decades of secrecy and thousands of tons of radioactive waste from nuclear bomb production make the Ozyorsk area the most contaminated on earth.

On a hot summer afternoon, the view from the hill where the village of Metlino once stood is of inviting dark-blue lakes. Sea gulls drop to the water and rise again with their catch.

But the lakes are radioactive; the sea gulls rise with poisonous isotopes on their wings.

Not far away is another lake, Lake Karachay. Karachay, it must be said, is filled with far too many concrete boxes to look as inviting a place to swim as some of its neighbors. But to call it unappealing would be a tragic understatement: An adult who stands for less than an hour on the shores of Karachay could get a lethal dose. So many isotopes are swirling together under Karachay's surface that self-sustained nuclear reactions keep the lake's waters in winter unnaturally warm.

In past, when drought conditions have lowered the water level of Karachay, winds have swept up the residue and spread it for hundreds of kilometers, irradiating tens of thousands of people.

The lakes are next door to the Mayak nuclear complex where the Soviet Union developed its first atomic weapons. Mayak was created in 1946 to make plutonium for nuclear bombs and deal with the resulting products. The complex is a collection of reactors that in the past generated plutonium, chemical plants that separated radioactive materials and auxiliary facilities for waste storage and research.

Accidents and abuses have been horrific at the complex, which is located in the city of Ozyorsk, formerly Chelyabinsk-65. In 1957, a tank containing nuclear waste exploded, sending up a mushroom cloud that turned the sky red. Ten years later, winds picked up and spread radioactive dust from a drought-stricken Lake Karachay. These two incidents together irradiated more than 500,000 people, and forced the state to relocate 18,000 of them.

The 1957 and 1967 incidents are legendary in the world's history of nuclear disasters, and were not surpassed until the 1986 Chernobyl explosion -- which released nearly 2 1/2 times as much radiation as the 1957 blast, and sent a cloud across Europe that affected millions of people. But the quieter abuses at Mayak may be even more sobering. The plant first dumped much of its nuclear waste directly into the Techa River, which runs through dozens of villages. It then began dumping waste in lakes like Karachay.

Mayak has experienced at least two reactor meltdowns, and it has generated enormous amounts of nuclear waste stored on site: 500,000 tons of solid nuclear waste and 400 million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste. The lands surrounding Mayak, located 1,400 kilometers from Moscow, are poisoned to a degree found nowhere else on earth. Specialists at Mayak are still searching for unmarked burial sites where solid radioactive waste and equipment was dumped. "We have found about 200 of them so far," said Yevgeny Ryzhkov, a plant spokesman. "No one knows how many there should be," he said. "No one knows where they are."

And always there is the very real threat that the contamination will spread or explode or worsen. The man-made radioactive lakes, for example, are held back by aging dams that threaten to crumble during rainy periods, flooding fields and pastures. Already environmental authorities say their deadly brew is leaking into the groundwater, moving with a speed of 70 to 80 meters a year south toward the Mishelyak River, a so-far uncontaminated source of drinking water for several villages.

"Karachay is no Chernobyl -- it is much worse," said Ivan Ivanov, head of the hydrogeological service at Mayak. "There is no stable situation here. And there never will be."

Muslyumovo, a village of 3,200 located on the banks of the Techa River, has had to surrender its dead to the coroner's office for as long as some residents can remember.

Seventy-eight kilometers upstream from the village, Mayak had dumped radioactive waste water directly into the river for eight straight years, starting in 1948. An engineer formerly employed by Mayak said that even plutonium was dumped directly into the river. Researchers have found that the sludge on the bottom of the Techa has accumulated strontium and plutonium, among other isotopes. Traces of Mayak's radioactive waste have been detected as far away as the Arctic Ocean.

In Muslyumovo, villagers died without ever knowing what Mayak was producing. They perished slowly, as their bodies succumbed to the accumulating radiation. They suffered from pain in their joints, dizziness and leukemia.

Police would come to take away the dead. Afterward, the bodies would be brought back crudely stitched together after an autopsy. "Sometimes, the tops of their skulls had been sawed off," said Gosman Kabirov, 41, who remembers how he had to hold together the skulls of some corpses as they were lowered into graves. "I never knew why."

If villagers were kept in the dark, so was the rest of the nation -- even most of those involved in building Mayak.

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joseph Stalin ordered a committee formed and gave it unlimited powers. Its task was to make sure the U.S. monopoly on the bomb did not last. Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's ruthless right-hand man, was put in charge.

Thousands were drafted into building Mayak -- construction workers, scientists, prisoners and soldiers. Together with a handful of scientists who had earlier worked for Nazi Germany, all labored day and night to build the bomb for Stalin. These were the pioneers who founded Ozyorsk, where Mayak is based.

Nearly all of the 86,000 residents of Ozyorsk remember the different ways their parents ended up here. Some were given a choice: accept a one-way ticket to the secret city, or lose their Communist Party membership. Others were simply loaded into cattle cars and taken there.

"We didn't know what we were building. For the longest time, we could not write our relatives where we were, or even mention the material the buildings were made of," said Otto Gorst, a tired-looking 83-year-old, who came to Mayak in 1946 as a conscript in the German Labor Army -- forced work battalions made up of Soviet citizens distrusted because of their German ancestry.

Today Gorst lives in a clean and cozy Ozyorsk apartment with his wife Lidia, and feels comfortable sharing his story with journalists. But he still remembers when he was a conscript and loose talk was harshly punished.

"One young engineer jokingly wrote to his mother that he was building a smokestack so high he could see his mother's house from it. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for divulging state secrets," he said.

But talking about the Mayak complex and Ozyorsk as grim places would be an oversimplification. Gorst worked for 40 years in Ozyorsk, and rose to become a deputy director of the South Ural Building Co., Mayak's construction arm. Speaking fondly about his arduous life, he said, "It would be a sin to complain."

Even in the toughest of times, Ozyorsk workers lived an elite life usually reserved only for the cream of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Privileged nuclear complex workers had "a reinforced food supply plan," and even today receive a daily 12-ruble coupon for a free cafeteria lunch.

"We were called the shokoladniki [chocolate people]," said Irina, 35, a captain in the Mayak fire department. She remembers returning to her university dormitory room in Yekaterinburg carrying bags full of delicacies from Ozyorsk.

Ozyorsk is one of 42 cities in Russia that is still "closed," meaning that visitors must receive special permission. The Moscow Times had to wait two months before finally winning a security clearance from the Nuclear Power Ministry and permission to enter.

The streets of Ozyorsk appear to justify Gorst's fond memories. It seems little has changed. Two-meter-high white letters proclaiming "Glory to Labor" adorn the main street near Mayak's headquarters -- and they are freshly painted. Red banners, awarded for meeting production targets, flutter above the slogan.

Ulitsa Karla Marksa is the town's most lively strip, boasting about 40 kiosks. A casino is nearby. At night, a shashlyk stand fires up a small, smoky grill. Teenage girls in fluorescent-colored short skirts drop by a late-night booze and fruit store, giggling and smoking. Packs of youths with shaved heads drink beer and brag about doing drugs.

Work on Mayak was so frenzied that the state gave cash bonuses to those who did not take vacations. (Gorst did not take one for eight years, until 1953.) Within two years, in June 1948, the first reactor at Mayak was completed. Engineers turned it on, and that same day the hastily built reactor suffered a meltdown. For months, the engineers struggled to control it, while the reactor sent high doses of radiation directly into the control room. At the time, however, such failures were kept secret.

But the doctors knew the secrets.

They compiled an extraordinary amount of data over the years at Mayak. Ever since plutonium production began in 1948, medical researchers have tracked the effects of its proximity to the human body. Workers at the most dangerous areas of Mayak, the reactor and radiochemistry plants, were checked every three months; samples were taken of their blood, urine and even semen. Poisoned corpses were fodder for hundreds of dissertations written and defended in Ozyorsk.

Only since 1990 has the existence of these massive archives, containing meticulous health records drawn from tens of thousands of subjects, been made public. As articles based on these archives have appeared in medical journals, Western grants have started flowing to Ozyorsk researchers. In a dark and narrow room filled with shelves holding tight stacks of medical dossiers at FIB-1, a branch of the Health Ministry's Biophysics Institute, women in white robes use computer scanners donated from the United States to archive the paper records. Names, dates of birth, mortality and health information have been meticulously logged and analyzed for each person.

"There are barrels full of tissue samples," said Nina Koshurnikova, and energetic 72-year-old, as she sat behind a desk piled with yellowing medical records. "They are unique. Such high concentrations [of radiation], such doses will never happen again."

Koshurnikova is a leading researcher with FIB-1. She has compiled registries with information on tens of thousands of locals, including Mayak workers, children born in Ozyorsk, and prisoners and soldiers tasked with cleaning up after the 1957 nuclear explosion.

Her records show that seven Mayak workers died from radiation, while more than 1,500 others suffered from chronic radiation sickness, a condition marked by headaches, memory loss and joint pain that afflicts those who have been subjected to high radiation levels for extended periods.

Outside of the plant, other researchers concentrated on the nearby towns and villages. In the 1950s, the Urals Research Center for Radiation Medicine, or FIB-4, was ordered by the Soviet government to start looking into an accumulation of strontium in the bones of cadavers from Muslyumovo.

FIB-4 researchers tracked about 28,000 people in 38 villages along the river. At first, they collected urine and feces from the villagers to test for radionuclides in their bodies. Later, they relied on autopsies, and used devices measuring the radiation emitted by the human body. Often they analyzed teeth, a particularly reliable indicator of exposure.

Along the Techa River, researchers found a total of 14,362 residents who seemed to have been exposed to unusually high levels of radiation. Of these, 940 patients were diagnosed with chronic radiation sickness.

In the early 1950s, as the extent of the river's contamination became clear to authorities, they evacuated 7,500 people from 20 villages and leveled their homes. No explanation was offered until 1990. Some villages were evacuated later. Metlino, the village closest to Mayak, was not emptied until 1956. Muslyumovo has never been evacuated.

Mira Kossenko, a scientist with FIB-4, says her research indicates there will be no adverse consequences for the health of the children and grandchildren of those exposed to radiation.

"There are some cases of leukemia, but it is not higher than for the population in general," said Kossenko,who keeps handy a copy of a governmental order declassifying the medical information with which she is working. "We cannot prove any genetic consequences. There is a somewhat high level of early childhood deaths from congenital deformities, but it still needs additional analysis."

Some scientists and administrators are even more categorical in debunking radiation as a health danger.

"In Muslyumovo, they live in primitive homes, basically dugouts, but they are blaming all of their health troubles on radiation," said Sergei Romanov, director of FIB-1. "Most of them are alcoholics, but they are still complaining, and the courts are listening to them."

A brick barracks on the gray and gloomy outskirts of Ozyorsk is home to Denislam Nazhmutdinov, 6, who was born with half a leg and bright pink, severely underdeveloped fingers on his left hand.

Denislam's parents, Eldar and Zemfira, are the only citizens ever to win a legal battle against Mayak -- proving in 1997 to a court's satisfaction that radioactive waste dumped in the Techa River led to their son's birth defects. They were awarded the ruble equivalent of $8,600 in compensation. The victory brought little happiness.

"I feel exploited," said Eldar Nazhmutdinov, an army officer. "And what sort of money is this?!"

Much the same rallying cry is heard in Muslyumovo, where the toxic grass is greener on a hill's banks that gently slope into the contaminated Techa. A ragged barbed wire fence does little to keep out grazing cattle and geese, who devour the preternaturally green grass and then leave their contaminated excrement as fertilizer for villagers' gardens and backyards just 10 meters away from the radioactive riverbanks.

Muslyumovo's residents have elected an environmental activist and local doctor as their mayor, and their lobbying has won them government compensation -- a monthly payment to each resident of from 30 rubles to 250 rubles ($4.25 to $35).

After Chernobyl, the Soviet government set up two special committees to establish causality of sicknesses among people who had been exposed to radiation. One of the committees worked on the Chernobyl area, the other the area around Ozyorsk. But Mayak victims found the process to be painfully slow and humiliating, and money promised to help the region under grand-sounding government programs has arrived in a trickle, or not at all. Ozyorsk for a few years doled out grants for medical research in genetics, but by 1995 that money had dried up. In 1997, FIB-1 dismantled some of its laboratories, and thousands of rats and dogs used for research were killed. Today, the average monthly salary at the institute is about $200. It survives on grants from U.S., Japanese, German and French research organizations.

By 1992, local activists had taken matters in their own hands. In Muslyumovo, they registered organizations with names like Guinea Pigs, and We Don't Want to Give Birth to Mutants. With the help of foreign grants, former Muslyumovo residents Gosman and Milya Kabirov started collecting blood samples from neighbors and sending them for independent testing -- either abroad or at the Moscow-based Institute of Genetics.

On one such trip several years ago, a law enforcement official stopped a courier carrying several blood samples through the Chelyabinsk airport. "It was a huge scandal," said Kabirov, adding that a colonel said at the time "that one drop of blood from Muslyumovo could reveal the secrets of the Soviet strategic defense system to the enemy, so no test tube should leave the country."

The Kabirovs continue the fight. It was Milya, 39, who organized the women's group We Don't Want to Give Birth to Mutants. She is now trying to collect enough blood samples from the villagers to trace changes in genetic material in three or four generations.

Such efforts get little official encouragement, either from Moscow or Mayak. For example, the Urals Research Center for Radiation Medicine often does not give people access to their own medical histories, said Anna Ilina, a lawyer who consults many victims of Mayak's radiation pollution.

"They say, 'We don't owe you anything, we don't have to make copies for you.' But FIB-4 is the only organization that has compiled medical records of all the sick from these villages, and they are hiding the information," Ilina complained. "They feel like Muslyumovo belongs to them."

Real change, activists say, will only come with the end of a continued climate of secrecy maintained by Mayak officials.

"They are still very sensitive to outside control," said Vladimir Usachyov, chairman of the Ozyorsk branch of the Russian State Committee on the Environment, which is charged with monitoring and enforcement.

Usachyov said his committee had recently requested direct access to Mayak's network of sensors collecting emissions data from reactor exhaust stacks. He said Mayak refused, offering instead sifted-though and polished information.

"These [exhaust stacks] are places where you could monitor for an accidental dumping, but they say that emissions data are a state secret. They are constantly trying to hide behind the laws on state secrecy," Usachyov said. "Until you catch them in the act, they don't say anything."

In 1997, a truck carrying containers full of highly radioactive isotopes got in an accident on its way from neighboring Yekaterinburg to Mayak. The containers were scattered across the highway, but environmental officials learned of the accident from other sources, not Mayak officials.

"They still consider themselves a state within a state. They think they can do whatever they want to," Usachyov said.

But in what is surely a chilling commentary on Russia's entire nuclear program, Usachyov is quick to add that Mayak is by far the most "cooperative" of Russian nuclear producers. "We have the best working relationships in the industry," he said.