Rad Storm Rising

A ghastly tour of a land of radioactive sausage, poisoned onions, and bald children

A hundred and fifty years ago the Russian philosopher Petr Chaadayev wrote that "we are one of those nations that somehow are not part of mankind but exist only for the sake of teaching the world some kind of terrible lesson." In the area of nuclear affairs the steady emission of environmental horror stories from the USSR confirms that the Soviet Union is in the process of teaching the world another in its series of terrible lessons.

Recent disclosures from the USSR demonstrate that the total insulation from public scrutiny which the Soviet nuclear industry enjoyed for so long has left a legacy of pollution and lax practices that remains exceedingly difficult to escape. Soviet officials themselves are today saying that the USSR is being transformed into a nuclear-waste dump. Even allowing for the Russian penchant for hyperbole, the latest revelations in the ever more candid Soviet press make clear that Soviet problems in the area of nuclear pollution and safety continue to be extraordinarily severe.

In 1989, the first year for which the USSR openly published monthly statistics and an annual report on nuclear-power-plant performance, there were 118 unplanned shutdowns and 100 "unscheduled reductions of capacity"—a "decrease" from 1988, for which no figures have been provided. A quarter of all the stoppages occurred in the Balakovo nuclear plant, near a branch of one of the largest water reservoirs in the USSR. The authorities attributed the stoppages to "personnel not doing their jobs properly" and "the indolence of managers," along with other "weak aspects of operation." A high rate of shutdowns may be a positive sign if it means that the authorities are now prepared to sacrifice electricity output for the sake of safety. But the Soviet reports also indicate that along with design flaws, the principal causes of the stoppages are the same sort of human-factor problems that led to Chernobyl: mistakes by operating officials, poor maintenance, and inadequate coordination. One of the most serious blunders occurred in June, 1989, at a facility in the Russian city. Kursk, when, because of "negligence on the part of workers," radioactive water was allowed to spill from a cooling circuit, "swamped the floor of the plant," and overflowed onto the territory surrounding the power reactor.

The record in the first half of 1990 shows that things are getting worse. The number of unplanned shutdowns increased by 15 percent, chiefly as a consequence of "personnel error and plant defects in equipment." In July the Smolensk nuclear reactor, which has "one and the same design" as the Chernobyl nuclear plant, was shut down when a cable caught fire. The director of the Smolensk station worries that Soviet-manufactured electrical equipment is substandard. "Consider the cable," he says. Abroad it would be "insulated by fireproof materials, but here, as in the past, we use oil-soaked paper: a little overheating and it gives off smoke." Viktor Sidorenko, a top-ranking nuclear-safety official, says of Soviet reactor safety, "Our designs, alas, lag behind the standard of the designs of leading foreign countries."

The Soviet press has disclosed that secret construction under way for the past fifteen years at "site number 27," near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, is for an underground repository to store spent nuclear fuel imported from abroad. Part of the facility is to be located in a tunnel that has been dug under the Yenisey, one of the largest rivers in Siberia. According to Radio Moscow, because of the danger of contaminating the river, the "proximity of a large urban area, and the risk of earthquakes in the area, the plan is being challenged on safety grounds, both by scientists and by local members of the USSR Supreme Soviet." In exchange for living next to the repository, residents were promised a "hog-raising complex" and other benefits. More than a million people from in and around Krasnoyarsk are said by Radio Moscow to be campaigning to halt construction of the facility. The population of Krasnoyarsk is 900,000.

In the Soviet far north, where aboveground nuclear testing was carried out in the 1950s and early 1960s, the authorities have now admitted that there has been a "sharp growth in oncological diseases" among the indigenous Chukchi population. Moscow News reports that liver cancer afflicts that population at a rate ten times the national average, and that the death rate from cancer of the esophagus is "the highest in the world." And over the past twenty years the number of cases of leukemia and cancer of the stomach has doubled. According to the Moscow News account, "All this is leading to a considerable drop in length of life and to a growth in child mortality among the indigenous population."

A severe problem with nuclear waste is also said to exist in Central Asia. According to Colonel Nikolay Petrushenko, one of Kazakhstan's representatives in the new Soviet parliament, more than 70,000 nonmilitary "radioactive sources," distributed among 8,664 installations, exist in the Kazakh republic. Ten percent of these sources need to be buried, a task currently entrusted to "the housing and municipal services." Moscow television announced that radioactive containers have been found near Tashkent, in neighboring Uzbekistan, and that "specialists regard the discovery as a major emergency." Nearby, in ancient Samarkand, cancer patients were inadvertently exposed to "sources of radioactive emanation" found in a local oncology clinic.

For more than a decade, beginning in 1949, aboveground nuclear testing was also carried out in Kazakhstan, and the population near the test site, at Semipalatinsk, is afflicted with severe health problems. Izvestia reports that the average life-span in the area has fallen by three years over the past two decades. Doctors say that half the local people they studied were found to be suffering from what they call "Semipalatinsk AIDS," a disease characterized by a "drastic weakening of the immune system." The authorities have also admitted that a local health clinic, ostensibly charged with combating brucellosis, was actually operated in secret by the third department of the Soviet Health Ministry for the purpose of studying the effects of radiation on human health. A written statement from the clinic's director notes,

Only 25-30 percent of the population subjected to ionizing radiation in the period 1949 through 1963 were studied.... Approximately 10,000 more people were studied as control groups.... Some of those studied in the control groups were people from population centers that had not been subjected to pollution by fission products.

In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk authorities prepared a radiation map of the city for public distribution in an effort to allay widespread fears of contamination. Using a helicopter carrying radiation-sensitive instruments, a map was drawn up that indicated eighty-four separate "radiation anomalies." Fourteen of these were caused by radioactive ampules from scientific and industrial instrumentation that should have been interred at a radioactive-waste disposal site, but "were mindlessly and recklessly thrown out into streets and yards."

"Dozens of anomalies" were found to be the result of widespread theft of state property. Pilferers had made off with "radioactive bricks, wooden beams, slate, and metal and had used them to construct sheds, garden plots, and private homes. Water pipes employed for irrigation purposes by a market-garden cooperative had been stolen from an industrial enterprise that had used the pipes to pump radioactive pulp." As a consequence, for many years gardeners had been sprinkling their vegetables with water containing the residue of radium-226. Specially clothed workers succeeded in cleaning up all of Novosibirsk's "anomalies" except for one forty-acre radioactive strip at the mouth of the Yeltsovska-Vtoraya River This zone had been "brought down by the river itself from its upper reaches where contaminated soil had been irresponsibly dumped at some time in the past."

Soviet television revealed that in Moscow, a city of some nine million people, nine nuclear-research reactors are operating. "This figure is being quoted for the first time," the report said. Although research reactors are sited within major urban centers in the United States as well, the Soviet announcement gave cause for special concern. The report stated that at present "radiological protection for Muscovites is one of the most important and crucial subjects," and that the authorities are contemplating mapping radiation levels in the city systematically, and publishing and selling radiation charts to the public. The broadcast followed a recent plenum of the Moscow Communist Party's city committee, where the "capital's radiological situation was sharply discussed."

A radiation "disaster"—the word used by Radio Moscow's domestic service—has in fact recently occurred near the city. During "routine" radiation monitoring of the Moscow suburbs, a "high radiation" zone was discovered. The source turned out to be 200 tons of radioactive metal that had been deposited on the grounds of the Podolsk nonferrous-metal-processing plant. Moscow television reported that half the aluminum-smelting furnaces at the site had been contaminated, and that railway workers refused to handle the factory's output and neighboring factories had stopped working. Authorities have launched an investigation, but the radio report stated that it is almost impossible now to say who did it, because the scrap comes from all parts of the country." Radio Moscow also announced that a large amount of radioactive thorium was found in a garbage dump near Moscow and was leaking into groundwater in the area.

The Soviet Union has declassified information about ten accidents at nuclear power stations that occurred from 1964 to 1985. Several of the mishaps led to fatalities and to significant emissions of radioactivity.

• On February 6, 1974, a ruptured cooling loop in a Leningrad nuclear power station spilled "highly radioactive water" into the environment. Three people were killed.

• In October of 1975 one and a half million curies of "highly radioactive radionuclides" were emitted into the environment through a vent pipe, owing to a metal flaw in the core of the same Leningrad reactor. Sweden and Finland both queried the Soviet government about heightened levels of radiation detected in their countries.

• In 1977 half the fuel assemblies in the core of the Beloyarsk nuclear reactor melted. The Soviet account does not explain what caused this accident, but it notes that repairs took about a year, "during which personnel of the station were over-irradiated."

• On December 31, 1978, operators lost control of the same Beloyarsk reactor when a slab of the turbine room's ceiling fell into the turbine's oil reservoir, igniting a fire that burned the reactor's central control cable. According to the Soviet account, "eight persons received overdoses" while trying to cool the reactor.

• In October of 1982 a generator exploded at an Armenian nuclear power station. As the turbine room burned, most of the plant's operators "fled the station in panic, leaving the reactor without supervision." To help "save the reactor," workers were flown in from another nuclear-power station.

• On June 27, 1985, a safety valve blew at the Balakovo nuclear power plant, near the Volga River, releasing steam that killed fourteen people. The accident resulted from "unusual haste and nervousness following mistakes by inexperienced operating personnel."

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