The Soviet Union: 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 nuclearwaste 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 nuclearpower-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 of 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 topranking 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 eightyfour separate “radiation anomalies.” Fourteen of these were caused by radioactive ampules from scientific and industrial instrumentation that should have been interred at a radioactivewaste disposal sire, 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.”

THE CONSEQUENCES of Chernobyl remain the single most significant radiation-pollution problem in the USSR, but the obstacles to decontaminating the affected portions of the country are so formidable that it is doubtful that the Soviet Union will ever be able to make much progress in this area. The United States has its own serious pollution problems connected with nuclearweapons manufacturing, and the steep estimates for the cleanup costs suggest why a Soviet cleanup is unlikely. The U.S. Department of Energy and Congress calculate that to tidy up our nuclearweapons-manufactu ring pollution mess will cost from $100 billion to $200 billion, a sum on the order of our budget deficit for fiscal year 1989. The Soviet Union, whose radiation-pollution problems are by all accounts far more extensive than ours, suffers from a far larger budget shortfall, which as a percentage of GNP dwarfs the deficit of the United States. Beyond balancing the budget, there are other claimants to the USSR’s scarce resources. The Soviet Union’s rickety industrial infrastructure cries out for a cash infusion. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to restructure his country’s anarchic planned economy is draining away even more funds in exchange for much-heralded but thus far indiscernible returns.

Even in the improbable event that the resources required for combating its environmental woes miraculously materialized, the Soviet Union’s radiation-pollution problems would be competing for cleanup with other, more conventional ecological fiascoes, the deleterious health and economic effects of which may exceed, at least in the short term, those that stem from radiation. The Aral Sea is evaporating from misguided irrigation policies; as a result, sandstorms full of salt and chemical fertilizers blow across Central Asia, causing the blossoming of a luxurious bouquet of diseases. Air and water pollution at extraordinary levels is now characteristic of the Soviet industrial landscape and in some cities has reached nightmarish science-fiction dimensions.

In Kirishi women complain that they are covered with scabs caused by exposure to toxic chemicals from a singlecell protein factory. In Sverdlovsk ninety-three students out of a group from Urals State University summoned to help with the onion harvest subsequently collapsed from “pain in their joints.”Doctors determined that they were suffering from “mass illnesses of the peripheral nervous system.” The soil from which they had pulled the onions was found to contain chemical and pesticide concentrations ranging from 20 to 120 times the permitted levels. The Soviet report notes that schoolchildren “were also affected.”

About 300 children fell ill with stomach cramps and hallucinations and then lost their hair in the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy in the autumn of 1988. According to Moscow News, the illness triggered an exodus from the city, in which parents, desperate to send their offspring to safety, “stormed the railway station, besieged the airport, and battled to get a seat on a bus.” In all, 40,000 children were sent away. Whatever its etiology, the affliction known in the USSR today as the “chemical disease" has not disappeared. Although no cases of complete baldness have been reported in Chernovtsy since November of 1988, a “softer, weakened” version of the illness caused at least 220 children and fiftyone adults in the city to become partly bald in 1989. The “chemical disease” has also appeared in other locations.

With such dramatic health problems mounting, there is no reason to believe that the fight against radiation will or even should receive the highest priority.

IN CONTRAST WITH most ordinary industrial pollutants, many of which are easily detectable by sight and smell, radiation pollution is invisible, as are its health effects over the short term. It is rarely possible to trace any particular case of illness to radiation, unless the exposure dosage is quite substantial. There is general agreement that counting the additional cancers that can be expected as a result of radiation exposure is a statistical art that remains inexact. “Errors in the calculations will certainly be very large,” says the biophysicist Dmitri Grodzinsky, a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Given the constraints on Soviet resources, the range of problems that demand urgent attention, and the possibility that radiation-induced health effects will prove to be both modest and far in the future. it would not be surprising if the authorities made only limited efforts to clean up, and let the population learn to live with the elevated levels of radiation.

The picture of Soviet efforts that emerges from a review of the evidence increasingly suggests that this is the direction in which the authorities have opted, or are being driven by circumstances, to move. On the one hand, in some of the most severely affected regions trees and houses are still being washed, roads asphalted, and radioactive soil buried. Evacuations of villages that have been found to have especially high levels of radiation continue. On the other hand, in Belorussia, where a fifth of the land was contaminated by the Chernobyl accident, reports from Soviet journalists and statements from officials and scientists indicate that in many cases the authorities have simply opted to wave a white flag at the invisible and uncertain danger.

The Soviet cleanup has largely focused on decontaminating settlements; contaminated farmland continues to be exploited. Radioactively contaminated fields are being worked with ordinary tractors, because in the three years since Chernobyl, according to the first deputy chairman of the Belorussian Council of Ministers, only 825 tractors with “hermetically sealed cabs" have been delivered, “which is several times less than needed. Indeed, those are without air filters.”

Three leading Soviet physicians, writing in Pravda, report that “there is an absolutely inadequate number of agricultural machines with airtight cabins, there are few special clothes . . . there is a shortage of showers. . . . The result of these defects is additional dosages and the carrying of radioactive matter into living accommodations.”

Because contaminated farmland remains in use, the safety of the food supply continues to be a subject of official concern and a source of widespread public anxiety. “For the last two or three months before they are slaughtered, animals must be fed ‘clean fodder,’” A. Gulyayev, a correspondent for the newspaper SelskayaZhizn, suggests. The military journal Voyennye Znaniya instructs its readers that for “cattle and pigs being fattened, as well as draft animals, feeds with a content of cesium-137 and strontium-90 may be given, but only when concentrations are no higher than those set for a daily ration.” These animals should be fed only “pure” feeds in the two to four weeks before they are slaughtered, because “in this period the amount of strontium-90 and cesium-137 in the muscle tissue decreases significantly.”One problem is that “dirty” cattle are allowed to graze in “clean” areas. As a consequence, “more and more land is becoming contaminated through their dung.” Another problem, according to the biophysicist Grodzinsky, is with “hundreds of thousands of ducks” that have appeared in the restricted-access Chernobyl zone. They fly off “to the most varied places.” But it is “not desirable for the population to eat radioactive game,” he notes drily. Grodzinsky has suggested that everyone be equipped with dosimetric devices, like “the Japanese who go to the market with counters and measure the radioactivity of cabbage and fish.” The scientist believes that at present “there is a strong probability of an unmonitored contaminated agricultural product ending up on the table.”

One choice contaminated item making its way to table is mushrooms, a delicacy with a special propensity to absorb radiation. From 1986 to 1988 the sale of dried mushrooms grown in the highly contaminated Narodichi area of the Ukraine increased more than sevenfold, from 1.3 tons a year to 9.4 tons. These mushrooms are sold in Zaporozhye, in the Crimea, and in the Krasnodar area. In Novosibirsk radiation-detection devices in a laboratory were activated when laboratory workers made tea. The tea had been sold as a blend of Georgian and Indian tea, but was found to be “a blend of Georgian tea plus.” Among its ingredients were cesium-137 and cesium-134, which had been deposited on a Georgia tea plantation in 1986 by the Chernobyl cloud. According to Vasil Yakovenko, a member of the Belorussian Communist Party’s Central Committee, refrigerated meat lockers at meat combines in Belorussia are “stuffed with ‘dirty’ 1986-vintage carcasses,” and “tens of thousands of tons of this dangerous meat” have been used as a food additive. Officials concede that from August of 1986 to March of 1989 “meat contaminated with cesium” from heavily irradiated areas near Chernobyl was shipped to Yaroslavl, where it was sold to an unwitting public. Eight hundred tons of this radioactive meat was diluted “in various proportions” with clean meat and boiled into “radioactive sausage.” The Ministry of Health approved this process, but classified all documents pertaining to the meat as “official use only.”

Some of the radioactive meat and produce is allowed to spoil. But it is a “crime” to allow meat contaminated with cesium to rot. says Dmitri Popov, who is identified in the Soviet press as a “major authority in the country" on radioactive fallout. Such meat could be “processed according to the recommended technology, diluted with clean meat and components, and put on the worker’s table.” The scientist is also upset that potatoes are being wasted. Moscow recently turned away an entirefreight train full of this staple when radiation instruments “went off scale” while the potatoes were measured. Last year, Popov says, Moscow went without potatoes because of such “ignorance,” but things are improving. “It took a great deal of effort on our part to prove that the cesium content in potatoes was practically zero. The dirt simply has to be washed off, as every housewife does, before peeling the potato.”

Civil-defense authorities are assisting in the purification of the food supply by publishing simple instructions on how to treat food exposed to fallout from a nuclear accident before consuming it. Meat, cheese, butter, and cottage cheese should be “deactivated by removing the upper layer to a depth of not less than 2 to 3 millimeters.” Fish, vegetables, and fruit must be washed with a “stream of water, and if necessary cut off the outer layer.” Milk should be “thoroughly boiled and it can be made into cottage cheese (during preparation and storage a natural decline in the radioactivity occurs).” Other liquids, like vegetable oil, “can be deactivated by letting them stand (3 to 5 days).”

SOVIET AUTHORITIES have advertised equipment that the public can use to protect itself from the ubiquitous radiation, but there are complaints that these devices are not available. One top-of-the-line weapon in the defensive radiation war is the KZD-4, an “infant protective chamber.”The KZD-4 is the “basic unit of individual defense” for children from birth to one and a half years of age. It comes equipped with a viewing window that permits “oversight of the behavior of the child.” The chamber can be mounted “on the chassis of a baby stroller" or on a sled, for winter use, or it can be carried in the arms.

A military textbook intended for middle-school students concludes with a chapter on civil defense, which includes instructions on fitting cows and other livestock with cloth masks to prevent them from grazing on radioactive grass in zones that have been contaminated by nuclear attack or accident. Sewing plans are included. Younger students are given simpler tasks. According to a description of the latest curriculum reform, students in the second through sixth grades are now taught “to adapt their everyday clothing and shoes to protect their skin from radioactive dust.”

Soldiers on duty in contaminated areas are issued respirators to protect them from radioactive dust. The Lepestok-200 “breathing apparatus” is standard issue, but it has proved unreliable. It conforms poorly to the face, and “radioactive dust is drawn through the cracks.” Specialists examined ten respirators that had been worn by soldiers guarding the Chernobyl nuclear station. Three were discovered to have a radioactive element on their interior surfaces. And even if the soldiers had had adequate gas masks, radioactive particles might accumulate in the masks’ filters, making them a “source of radiation carried at the soldier’s side.”But there is good news as well. Servicemen engaged in cleanup activities in the Chernobyl area are to be guaranteed “shielded living accommodations” and will receive transfers to a region of their choice in which to continue their term of service.

Despite the shortcomings of the gas masks, civil-defense authorities have come under criticism for failing to make masks and other protective devices available to the civilian population. “Why are dosimeters, gas masks, and other individual protective equipment not freely available for sale?" a reader of the mass-circulation weekly Argumenty i Fakty asked. In the journal Voyennye Znaniya the public received an answer: to issue such equipment free of charge to the entire population

PARADOXICALLY, the reports of contaminated food and discussions of radiation-proof baby strollers may themselves be having a deleterious effect on health which, at least in the short term, exceeds the direct consequences of the radiation exposure. The first secretary of the KievCommunist Party reported to the Politburo that “mass psychosis” had gripped the inhabitants of the Polessky and Ivankovsky areas, adjacent to the Chernobyl zone. He attributed the outbreak to the activities of an extremist movement of “unqualified individual groups” that is “fueling rumors” in an effort to close the reactors still in operation at Chernobyl.

But Soviet medical authorities attribute the hysteria to another cause. They describe a new and widespread would be too expensive, and to sell it would be inequitable. The typical family of four requires “two adult gas masks, one children’s and one infant’s protective chamber,” which together cost more than 100 rubles—half a month’s salary for the average worker. Young families with several children and a low income would not be able to afford this, “so wre can only be talking about a free issue.” However, the Politburo has announced that 100,000 radiation dosimeters will soon go on sale to the public. psychological disorder, “radiophobia,” that has infected the population. In Pravda, Soviet doctors have offered a definition of radiophobia as “an increased psycho-emotional reaction to a real or imagined danger of radiation,” and among its consequences, a Belorussian journalist has written, “are psychological stresses and the rejection of vegetative foods.” Popov, the radiation scientist, says, “The only special medical treatment the population here is in need of is psychotherapy.” The biophysicist Grodzinsky has reported that as a result of radiophobia, “many people have in general ceased to eat greens, fearing radiation. This is completely mistaken. Radiation affects a vitamin-deprived organism more intensely.” Because of the widespread fears, Grodzinsky says, “some people who are mentally unstable have decided that for them ‘life has ended,’ and they have died. Others have let go in revelry and still others have fallen into depression. . . . Medical personnel should expect an increase in the number of nervous illnesses, heart attacks, cases of hypertension.” Soviet television has shown some of the victims of radiophobia: a female resident of the hard-hit Gomel oblast asks Yegor Ligachev, a visiting Politburo member, “ Tell me, please, how are we supposed to live? We are afraid of the water; we are afraid of the sun; we are afraid of the grass; we are afraid of the soil. . . . How can we go on living?”

A decade ago one of the leading Western experts on Soviet energy technology, in contemplating the Soviet disinclination to invest in nuclear-safety measures, wrote that “we might think of Soviet nuclear power policy as a kind of experiment inflicted on the Russian people that we would not choose to risk ourselves, but from which we can greatly benefit if the experiment is a success.” Thanks to glasnost, the results of the experiment are beginning to come in, and they are entirely unambiguous. We are now also watching the progress of a follow-up experiment, one that, again, we would not choose to risk ourselves. The USSR, in particular its European part, has become an enormous laboratory in which the impact of radiation pollution on the economy, the politics, and the health of a society is being vividly demonstrated to the world.

—Gabriel Schoenfeld