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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Blackest Spot on Earth




One fall afternoon in 1957, 7-year-old Alexander Dunayev was splashing barefoot in rain puddles with 10 other boys in the Ural Mountains town of Kasli. The puddles were unusually warm, Dunayev recalls, and the air was thick with an eerie, dark-orange fog.


That fog, Dunayev later learned, was a toxic nuclidic cloud carrying roughly 2 million curies of radioactive fallout from an explosion earlier that day at a nuclear weapons plant just 18 kilometers to the south.


The temperature control system for one of the plant's storage facilities, which contained 80 tons of highly active liquid nuclear waste, malfunctioned. Uncontrolled, the waste self-heated until all the liquid evaporated, leaving dry sodium compounds that burned until the temperature inside the container reached nearly 350 degrees Celsius.


At 4:20 p.m. Sept. 29, 1957, the overheated container exploded, releasing 20 million curies of deadly strontium and cerium - about 40 percent of that released by the Chernobyl disaster - into the air. A toxic cloud measuring 2 million curies crept across hundreds of kilometers of farmland.


Before dissipating, the cloud would engulf over 200 towns and villages, exposing over a quarter million people to lethal doses of radiation.


With half-lives of roughly 30 years each, the strontium-90 and cerium-144 that was released in the blast will continue to pollute the area for generations to come.


While Kasli, where Dunayev was playing at the time of the explosion, was one of the first communities to be enveloped the resulting 300-by-50-kilometer cloud of radiation, areas in the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions were also contaminated. These areas are now called the Eastern Ural Radioactive Trace.


"Of the boys who were there with me running around barefoot after the rain, of these 10 boys, only four are still alive," says 44-year-old Dunayev, who is now the deputy governor of Kasli. "But the explosion and its consequences were classified, and nobody knew exactly why people were suddenly dying."


Within a year and a half after the explosion, about 10,700 residents of the 23 most polluted collective farms were forced to move and their farms were liquidated. State officials gave little explanation as to why people were being relocated: The reprocessing plant, then called simply Plutonium Plant and known today as Mayak, helped produce nuclear weapons, and everything related to its activities was top secret.


Only during a rare public session of the Supreme Council in 1989 did Soviet authorities finally admit that the accident happened. Until then, none of the thousands of people living in the contaminated area knew what to call the deadly neighbor that had settled on their land.


"The state government hid behind the fact that the information was 'top secret' and shifted its problems onto the shoulders of the local population, depriving the people of [clean] water reserves, fields and pastures," Dunayev said. "Some of the documents [regarding the accident] will be classified for many years to come. We might not live to learn the whole truth."


The Liquidators


Vladimir Luginin was an 18-year-old tractor driver at the Stalin collective farm in Kasli at the time of the accident. Luginin and his fellow drivers were told by local authorities to plow over farmland in the Bagaryaksky district, the area most contaminated by the radioactive trace.


"They picked us up at work, during working hours, with our tractors and told us to plow the land," Luginin recalls. "They paid us a little extra money for doing the job."


But neither Luginin, nor Alexander Mukhin, whose job it was to inventory the collective farms being liquidated, were told why all the buildings and crops had to be leveled to the ground.


"We were told nothing about the explosion," Mukhin, now 70, recalls. "We were told that 'something had happened,' that's all."


"We were told that [the land] was 'dirty,' but nobody explained to us what kind of dirt it was," he said. "This is what the entire tragedy of the accident is about: Radiation doesn't look like anything; it doesn't smell."


Mukhin, for example, ate wild berries that grew in the contaminated fields and dined on freshly picked vegetables at the villages he helped liquidate. "I inspected the food for [visible] dirt, and it certainly didn't look dirty to me," he said.


Only months later, when scientists from Moscow and Leningrad arrived carrying their own canned food and bottled water, did Mukhin and the other liquidators realize that "the dirt [the authorities] were talking about was not regular dirt." Of the people who were sent into the contaminated areas, none was equipped to deal with radioactive fallout, said Mukhin, who is the only one still alive from his team of 13 liquidators. In fact, he said, he never even saw a Geiger counter until 1963 - six years after the explosion.


"Originally, we thought the [contamination] would quickly go away," he said. "But later, we were told that it will be here for millennia."


Staring out at the hilly landscape of Kasli, he added: "This is a zone of environmental catastrophe."


Luginin, who is now dying of stomach cancer, said he accidentally found out in 1976 that he had been exposed. "I was in Crimea and suddenly I couldn't feel my legs. The doctors asked me whether I had ever been irradiated, and I said no," says Luginin, a fragile 60-year-old man who looks 80. "How was I supposed to know that I had been exposed to radiation?"


It wasn't until 1996 - 39 years after the accident - that Luginin received an official document proving he was a liquidator. Shortly after receiving his "liquidator" status, Luginin found out that he was fatally ill. "I felt like I was hit on the head with an ax," he says, crying.


The 1957 blast dealt another blow to Luginin and his wife, Valentina. Five years ago, their only son, Sergei, now 19, was diagnosed with leukemia - a disease common in people and in the children of people exposed to high doses of radiation.


Sergei, classified as an invalid by the state, says his disease has destroyed his immune system to the point that he is afraid to leave his parents' house in Kasli.


"If I get sneezed on, I will stay in bed for months afterward," Sergei says. "I can't go to school, and I can't go to work. I am very weak."


While being treated for leukemia in 1995, Sergei suffered a stroke, which paralyzed the left side of his body. He has recovered somewhat since but says his memory isn't what it used to be.


"I forget the simplest things: I go to the bakery, take the change but forget the bread," he said. "When I was 16 and went to get my passport, I forgot what a passport was called. It's pathetic."


Sergei wants to be a carpenter but is afraid that hard work will exacerbate his health problems.


"He really wants to work," Valentina says. "He cries often because he can't work."


Poisoned Waters Run Deep


A light-blue wooden mosque overlooks Muslyumovo, a picturesque, mostly Bashkir-populated village of 3,200. Horses slowly pull carts loaded with barefoot children along the bridge across the Techa River; tall marijuana plants grow wild and neglected in the fields; a herd of cows feeds on the grass on the bank of the river.


The marijuana plants, the grass the cows feed on, and everything grown here emits up to 250 microrems per hour, or four times the radiation scientists consider "acceptable." Each villager receives a monthly pension from the state of 200 rubles (slightly less than $8) for "living on contaminated territory."


After the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Soviet Union's defense strategy became making sure that the American monopoly on nuclear weapons did not last. In December 1945, the state gave the order to build a plutonium factory 70 kilometers north of the city of Chelyabinsk. The plant was completed in 2 1/2 years and became the country's largest nuclear factory. In Soviet times, 40 percent of all nuclear weapons were built there.


Today the factory still produces plutonium for nuclear weapons, although 70 percent of its activities are now dedicated to reprocessing and reactivating fuel for nuclear power plants, nuclear submarines and nuclear icebreakers. But regardless of its purpose, Mayak has been a source of constant contamination in the region since the day it was built. It is what environmentalists and scientists have called the most contaminated area on earth. This is what locals call "the black spot of the planet."


According to a recent report compiled by Russian and Norwegian scientists researching the consequences of contamination from the Mayak plant, the quantity of radioactive materials released by the plant since it first opened in 1948 is five times greater than the radiation released by the Chernobyl catastrophe, the leak at the British Sellafield nuclear plant that emitted a large radioactive cloud into the environment after its notorious 1957 accident, and all 500 nuclear tests that have been exploded on earth puttogether.


From 1949 to 1951, the Plutonium Plant dumped 76 million cubic meters of highly toxic nuclear waste into the Techa River. The total radioactivity of the waste thus ejected into the river came to 2.75 million curies.


"In the 1940s, the consequences of nuclear pollution were under-researched," explains Vladimir Melnikov, a nuclear physicist who heads the Radiation and Environmental Safety Department of the Chelyabinsk regional administration. "Officials thought that if they dumped radioactive waste into the Techa, the poisonous elements would dissolve in the water." Instead, the radioactive waste settled in the river as sludge. Over 8,000 people were evacuated from the area within a couple of years after the government learned about the scale of irradiation.


Today, 50 years after the Plutonium Plant first dumped its waste into the river, the radiation activity of the water in Techa near Muslyumovo is about 400 curies, and the current dose of radiation absorbed by Muslyumovo residents, as reported by the Radiation and Environmental Safety Department, is 10 times higher than internationally acceptable levels. A department study issued last year found that only 18 percent of the village children aged 6 to 14 can be called healthy. The rest of the village children suffer from acute memory loss, attention deficit disorders and exhaustion.


Waste Rerouted to Lake


In 1951, when the damage caused by dumping nuclear waste into Techa became apparent, Plutonium Plant officials changed their tactics. From then on, they decided to dump all medium-active waste into the marshy lake of Karachai, located on the territory of the plant.


In 1967 - 10 years after the now infamous explosion sent 20 million curies of deadly waste into the air - an almost snowless winter and a dry spring caused the waters of Lake Karachai to evaporate. The radioactive sludge turned into dust containing roughly 600 curies of radio nuclides, mostly cesium-137 and strontium-90, and was carried by the wind about 15 kilometers north. Nothing was done to inform residents or to remove them from the polluted territories.


Today, Mayak continues to pour liquid waste into Karachai. According to Yevgeny Ryzhkov, head of Mayak press service, the lake contains about 120 million curies of radio nuclides.


Ryzhkov calls Lake Karachai a "major problem" for Mayak. "Lake Karachai continues to pose a threat to the region and if a hurricane occurs, [Karachai's] contents could pollute a large area of land," Ryzhkov says. That is why, he says, Mayak intends to destroy the lake by covering it with clay and sand and to solidify the liquid waste by turning it into glass. Since 1986, Ryzhkov says, almost half of the original 26.5-hectare lake has been covered and 300 million curies of liquid waste have been solidified so far - about half of all the liquid waste contained at Mayak.


Meanwhile, the deadly waste from Lake Karachai seeps through the bottom of the lake and into the so-called underground lens - a 10-square-kilometer groundwater lake which, according to Mayak officials, contains about 5 million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste. Ecodefense, a Moscow-based environmental group monitoring all civilian nuclear sites in Russia, says the lens moves constantly at a speed of about 80 meters per year toward the Mishelyak River, which empties into the Ob River and, eventually, the Arctic Ocean.


Fishing in Dangerous Places


After the 1957 Mayak explosion, about 10,800 people were relocated from the contaminated territories, and 23 villages were liquidated. Farming and fishing on the contaminated area was forbidden.


But last year, officials in the Kasli region allowed commercial fishing in Lake Alabuga, located only 30 kilometers north of Mayak. The administration then bought the fish and distributed it to local kindergartens, orphanages and hospitals. All in all, at least 300 tons of contaminated fish - carp, beam, perch and pike - were given out to such institutions.


Concerns were raised first by local environmental groups, and then by Greenpeace. In June, the veterinary inspectorate of the Chelyabinsk region issued an order to the district administration, stipulating that the fish could only be fed to pigs and chickens.


However, regional officials say activists are exaggerating the issue. "The nuclides are concentrated only in fish bones, and we don't eat bones, do we?" says Melnikov of the region's Radiation and Environmental Safety Department.


The effects of consuming the radioactive fish are not apparent yet. But the deadly radio nuclides carried by the fish may show generations later, in the form of leukemia or birth defects.


The region already has more than its share of illness. In 1998, of every 1,000 children in Kasli and Kyshtym regions, which were most affected by the Mayak activities, 12 had birth defects, 109 had psychological abnormalities, 178 had nervous system diseases, 12 had blood diseases and 24 had endocrine system diseases. In comparison, data collected in regions unaffected by the Mayak disaster showed that children living there were two to three times healthier.


"I am sure it is all related to the state of environment," says Rita Galipova, who heads a Chelyabinsk-based nongovernmental organization in Chelyabinsk assisting children with cancer. "They call the region 'the black spot of the planet.' Unfortunately, I have to agree."


A Perilous Solution


Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry claims that it has found the money and the cure for the consequences of these and other Soviet-era nuclear disasters: Russia would receive billions of dollars for accepting spent nuclear fuel from abroad for long-term storage.


In June 1999, the Nuclear Power Ministry and a U.S.-based company, Non-Proliferation Trust (NPT), signed a letter of intent. According to the letter, Russia would accept at least 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from Switzerland, South Korea, and Taiwan for storage for at least 40 years. For its services, Russia would charge $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram of spent fuel - undercutting other countries that store and reprocess foreign fuel. Britain, for example, charges $5,000 to $7,000 per kilogram of radioactive material.


All in all, this business could bring Russia from $10 billion to $20 billion. Of this money, the ministry says it plans to spend $200 million on various environmental programs.


This plan has met with controversy from environmentalists who doubt the ministry is serious about the environmental side of the project. Indeed, the ministry has never specified what kind of environmental activities it is planning to finance with the money it would receive from the long-term storage. Opponents also worry that the nuclear fuel business will turn the country into a nuclear waste dump.


According to Thomas Nilsen of the Norwegian-based environmental group Bellona, which has conducted extensive research into Russia's handling of nuclear materials, $200 million is an insignificant amount of money when compared to the scale of environmental clean-up Russia requires. This money, Nilsen says, is "absolutely not enough" even to rehabilitate the Chelyabinsk region territories contaminated by Mayak's activities.


Moreover, Nilsen says, the ministry might spend the money on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in order to use it in its own nuclear reactors.


"We are afraid that [the ministry] may call reprocessing an 'environmental activity,'" Nilsen says.


Nilsen may be right. Earlier this year, Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov said he views the agreement with the NPT as a way of financing Russia's nuclear military development and that some of the money from the storage business will be spent on the creation of sophisticated nuclear warheads.


In May, Adamov said the Russian Security Council instructed him to "speed up the development of military nuclear programs, but advised that [the ministry] use its own money" for these programs.


Environmentalists are alarmed by the possibility of Russia using the money to improve its nuclear military potential.


Russia has a significant nuclear waste problem of its own. The Nuclear Power Ministry says about 15,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are awaiting a permanent solution in Russia, where Mayak is the only plant that reprocesses spent fuel.


"To start producing more nuclear warheads for a society which can't take care of its own nuclear materials is absurd," Nilsen says.


And Alexei Yablokov, Russia's most prominent and outspoken environmentalist and a former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin on nuclear issues, said recently that "if we take the money for storing foreign spent nuclear fuel, Russia will look like a drunk who sells his suit or table silver for nothing, in order to buy a bottle of vodka."


The treaty between the NPT and the Nuclear Power Ministry can only become valid if the State Duma passes an amendment to Article 50 of the law on the protection of the environment, which stipulates that Russia cannot store foreign nuclear fuel for more than 20 years.


Adamov has been lobbying for this amendment since last year and has apparently made progress in persuading the Russian government - with the exception of Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko - that Russia should change its policy.


Meanwhile, Nilsen and other activists doubt that Russia would be able to guarantee adequate safety measures for storing the spent fuel.


"Countries that offer the cheapest storage of spent nuclear fuel are not the countries that put the most effort into safety," Nilsen says.


It is technically possible that nearly safe storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel could be built, Nilsen says. However, maintaining these facilities would be "very costly ... and even if it looks great and safe on the blueprints today, it will not look like that in 20 years."


In any case, Nilsen adds, "There are no storage facilities anywhere in the world that are safe for 40 years."


At the moment, Russia has no facilities designed to store fuel from sophisticated Western VVER-1,000 reactors. Mayak can only store and reprocess fuel from Soviet-built VVER-440 nuclear reactors, and reactors from certain kinds of nuclear submarines and icebreakers.


There were plans to construct RT-2 - a facility designed to store and reprocess fuel from Western reactors - near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, but this project has been put on hold since 1992 due to a lack of funding.


It is unclear whether the foreign nuclear fuel, if imported, would be taken to RT-2 in Siberia or to Mayak. Natalya Mironova, who heads the Chelyabinsk-based Movement for Nuclear Safety, says the waste will most likely end up in her backyard, which is already plagued by nuclear-industry related accidents.


"The Chelyabinsk administration is much easier to negotiate with than the unpredictable Krasnoyarsk region governor [Alexander Lebed], and they will agree to build a more modern reprocessing facility [at Mayak] in no time," Mironova says. She adds that in January 1998, Chelyabinsk passed a law that allows the import of spent nuclear fuel into the region.


Mironova's assumption was supported by Mayak spokesman Ryzhkov, who said his plant "will build a new facility if we are paid to do it."


And that, Mironova says, would not do the region any good.


"Mayak's storage technologies are not safe. Had there been safe technologies, the Nuclear Power Ministry would be selling them instead of selling our land [for storage space]," Mironova said. "But Adamov doesn't care. He is too far from Chelyabinsk, and it's not his children and grandchildren who will die of radiation sickness."