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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Workers Hospitalized After Radiation Leak

Two nuclear plant workers received high doses of radiation earlier this month in an accident at the Siberia Chemical Plant in Tomsk-7 f a Western Siberian town that has witnessed two dozen nuclear accidents since the nuclear facility was created forty years ago.

According to Igor Forofontov of environmental group Greenpeace's Moscow office, the incident occurred June 14. Plant employees opened the cover of stored nuclear reactor fuel by mistake, allowing a few uranium-rich blocks to fall out.

On the international zero to seven scale of severity regarding nuclear accidents, the Tomsk incident registered only a two. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a seven.

The plant, located 10 to 15 kilometers from the larger city of Tomsk, was established in the 1950s. Until recently, it produced weapons-grade plutonium. Now part of the plant provides electricity for the civilian population.

The results of the accident were relatively harmless. The radiation leak was contained within a small area of the plant, and the exposed workers were not seriously injured. But the fact that the plant neglected to alert the local administration suggests a dangerous trend within nuclear safety management. The Tomsk administration only learned of the event hours after the fact from sources in Moscow, Forofontov said.

Reluctance to inform the public about nuclear accidents is longstanding.

In 1993, a serious accident occurred at another nuclear-chemical plant in Tomsk, when employees neglected proper maintenance rules. At one of the stages of nuclear fuel recycling, a container with radioactive chemicals exploded, causing radiation to be released on the territory around the plant.

"It was classified as Grade 3, but had the wind changed its direction that day and moved all the contaminated air to the city of Tomsk, the grade would have easily jumped to five," said a Tomsk-7 official. Instead, the wind carried radioactive debris to unpopulated areas.

At that time, despite the severity of the accident and the necessity for prompt action, the plant management waited even longer to notify local civilian authorities. As a result, stretches of roads with high radiation levels were kept open for hours, the source said.

"Radioactive particles got spread around by cars, and for some time afterward, we kept finding highly radioactive spots in areas relatively remote from the plant," he said, adding that since the 1950s there have been as many as 24 nuclear accidents.

Currently, state ecological control organizations monitor the activities of Russia's nuclear facilities, but the ministry has been lobbying for self-regulation.

"If they succeed, they will be controlling themselves, and other organizations or civilian authorities will be left powerless," the source said.

Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov visited the site of the latest accident in Tomsk last week.

Speaking at the 45th anniversary of the nuclear plant at Obninsk outside Moscow, Adamov promoted Russia's potential capability to recycle used nuclear fuel from other countries, Itar-Tass reported.

Adamov said such a program could provide a huge income f by some estimates billions of dollars f which would support not only the needs of the industry, but provide financing for other cash-strapped areas of the Russian economy, particularly the social sphere.

The standard technology for such a project would require 40 to 50 years to store the used fuel.

Russian law currently prohibits the storage of spent nuclear fuel imported for reprocessing. However, Adamov on Monday repeated his call for lawmakers to amend legislation to enable Russia to store used nuclear fuel from other countries.

Such a proposition has been strongly criticized by ecologists, who say that it could lead to disaster.

"If they are to approve the change, then they would also have to think of resettling certain parts of the population," said Natalya Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk.