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Russian Fallout Legacy
New Scientist 6 Dec 97

Radiation victim in Mayak, Village on the contaminate Techa river, children in a Mayak cancer ward.

STORIES of nuclear contamination have emerged with alarming regularity from the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War, and they are always shocking. But now comes the biggest shocker of them all. Last week, Norwegian and Russian scientists revealed that the Mayak reprocessing plant in the southern Urals has leaked five times more radiation than the Chernobyl accident, Britain's Sellafield nuclear plant and all the world's atmospheric bomb tests put together. Mayak was always known to be polluted. But the scale of the contamination is staggering. Its source, as the scientific report makes plain, is the reactors and reprocessing plants that provided the plutonium for the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. In many ways the mistakes made at Mayak are the same as those made in the 1940s and 1950s by the US at Hanford and Britain at Windscale (now Sellafield) in their race to develop nuclear weapons. The difference is the frightening scale of the Russian problem. Indefinitely containing Lake Karachay, for example, where most of the deadly strontium-90 and caesium-137 from Mayak is lurking, is a daunting challenge for engineers. It will also be very expensive. And the key question is: who should pay?

At the moment it seems as if a small country without any nuclear pretensions is shouldering most of the burden. The Mayak report was funded by the Norwegian government as part of its E10 million-a-year programme to investigate Russia's nuclear hazards. The Norwegians are worried that some of the pollution could find its way to their northern shores. And yet, as Norway has been pointing out for years, it is not just Russia's neighbours who sh . ever the rest of Western Europe needed an example of how Russia's nuclear problems could affect them, the Mayak catastrophe is it. If Lake Karachay's radioactive load leaks into the Arctic Ocean, one of the planet's last great wildemesses, it could travel halfway across the globe. Norway is worried that it will not be able to afford the measures necessary to stop this happening. Russia, although it certainly bears moral responsibility for what has taken place at Mayak, could never pay for it. Self-interest suggests that other European countries, and even the US, should dig deeper into their pockets. The moral logic is even more persuasive. Shouldn't all the nations that were caught up in the nuclear arms race start paying for cleaning up the mess it made?

RADIOACTIVE contamination from the production of plutonium for the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons was far higher than anyone believed, warns new study. A scientific investigation by the Russia and Norwegian governments conclude that since 1948 the Mayak nuclear complex in the southern Urals has leake 8900 petabecquerels (PBq) of the radio active isotopes strontium-90 and caesium 137 into the environment. This is more than five times greater than all the radioactivity from the same isotope released by the world's 500 atmospheric nuclear tests (1550 PBq), the 1986 Chernobyl accident (70 PBq) and the Sellafield nuclear plant (47 PBq) put together. The Mayak complex, next to the city now called Ozyorsk in the Chelyabinsk region was the most important of the Soviet Union's bomb factories. It included seven plutonium production reactors and three plutonium separation plants. Two of the reactors and one of the separation plant are still working alongside 40,000 cubic metres of stored high-level waste. Accidents and deliberate discharge from Mayak have polluted hundreds of lakes, over 200 kilometres of the Techa river and 20 000 square kilometres of country side. More than 16 000 residents have been evacuated from 40 villages since the 1950 and people are still banned from living or farming in a zone 350 square kilometre around the complex. "It is the most radioactively contaminated area in the world," says Per Strand from the Norwe gian Radiation Protection Authority. The study, published last week in Oslo by a group of Norwegian and Russian radiologists, says that almost half the radioactivity released is still contained in one lake. According to Russian scientist anyone foolish enough to linger around Lake Karachay for a few hours risks acute radiation sickness. Mayak began discharging liquid wast into the lake in 1951 and is still putting i 25 PBq a year. The expert group, which took 475 samples from 22 sites in 199* discovered groundwater 3.6 kilometre from Lake Karachay containing up to 8800 Bq of strontium-90 per litre. Strand is worried that this could poison the drinking water of tens of thousands of people in nearby towns, leach into rivers and b transported to the Arctic Ocean. In April 1967, following a drought, Lake Karachay dried out and its heavily contaminated sediments were scattered up to 70 kilometres away. In an attempt to prevent similar disasters, the lake is now gradually being reclaimed. But the Norwegian and Russian radiologists warn that radioactivity could still be remobilised by storms, floods or droughts. They point out that strontium-90 is continually leaking out of the Asanov swamp at the head of the Techa river. The next stage of their study is to examine the risk of accidents and their potential impact on health. T'he most widespread contamination in the past was caused by the explosion of a highlevel waste tank at Mayak in 1957. Known as the Kyshtym accident, after a nearby town, it spread a plume of radioactivity hundreds of kilometres downwind of the complex ('Two decades of dissidence", New Scientist).