Wastes of War
Radioactivity Threatens a Mighty River
By David Hoffman
But the placid tableau of the Yenisey masks an environmental disaster.
According to studies completed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Yenisey River has been contaminated severely in places by three decades of discharges of radioactive particles from a state-run factory making bomb-grade plutonium. Bolshoi Balchug is just downstream from the factory.
The contamination is hidden in the sands of the riverbed, on the islands and in the flood plains. Radionuclides, the product of nuclear fission, including plutonium-239, cesium-137 and strontium-90, have been found hundreds of miles downstream, apparently carried by the river's powerful floods, and have been detected in the food chain.
In downstream villages, experts have found a disturbing statistical pattern of illnesses: an increase in children with leukemia, in breast cancer among women, in genetic aberrations, and a higher death rate. All are possible effects from radiation exposure.
Despite the evidence, little has been done to protect either the 64,000 people living immediately downstream from the factory or the tens of thousands of others farther down the river, where radiation also has been found. No cleanup is underway. The managers of the plutonium factory insist that no serious health threat exists.
Fishermen, boatmen and families living along the Yenisey say they have heard of the radioactive contamination, but ignore the warnings, or just don't care. They go on fishing and foraging for berries and mushrooms.
"We eat the fish we've heard of the problems, but we still eat the fish," said Yelena Polezhayeva, resting on the hull of a riverboat while her husband, Viktor, hammered at the dented metal of their own vessel on the riverbank, preparing it for the summer. "We hope it won't affect our health."
The contamination and its effects are just one chapter in a long list of environmental disasters that Russia inherited from the Cold War. Among the most serious, and extensive, is the tide of dangerous radioactive materials released into the environment from the Soviet nuclear weapons program a vast, once-secret archipelago of plants designed to create, manufacture and test atomic bombs.
In addition to nuclear tests, dangerous radiation releases came from three factories that manufactured the plutonium for the Soviet atom bomb. They contaminated the air, water and soil of the regions around them long before the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. The three factories were contained in secret cities known by their military designations: the Mayak facility at Chelyabinsk-65, the Siberian Chemical Combine at Tomsk-7 and the Mining and Chemical Combine at Krasnoyarsk-26, which stands on the shores of the Yenisey.
At Mayak, located in the Ural Mountains, immense releases of radioactivity came from wastes that were pumped into open reservoirs and Lake Karachai, as well as the 1957 catastrophic explosion of a radioactive waste container that created a massive aerial plume that exposed hundreds of thousands of people to radiation. At Tomsk-7, there was an explosion in 1993 in a 9,246-gallon tank containing uranium and plutonium that released substantial amounts of radioactivity.
After the Mayak explosion, the Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk factories began injecting their radioactive wastes into deep underground caverns, a practice that has pumped far more contamination into the Earth than was released at Chernobyl, though the effects of Chernobyl were more immediate because the radiation was released into the air.
For most of the Cold War, Soviet authorities concealed the history of radiation poisoning. Even now, Russian authorities have not fully acknowledged the extent of the damage, or acted to protect the people who may be endangered by it. After the Mayak disaster, about 10,500 people along the Techa River were evacuated, but others were left behind. Efforts to track the health effects have been made years after the explosion, but the long delays have made it difficult. At all the sites, there has been little or no effort to clean up the radioactive contamination.
The story of the Yenisey River shows how post-Soviet Russia has just barely begun to face the colossal problem of what to do about the pollution caused by its bomb factories. It shows how the military and civilian authorities in charge of weapons production continue to resist the evidence that health problems exist and cleanup is necessary. It also demonstrates how little is known and how difficult it has been to uncover the full extent of the radiation pollution.
Inside the Russian military and scientific establishment, emerging environmental disasters have set off an intense struggle between activists who favor disclosure and remedial measures and a resistant old guard. In the Yenisey case, one of the pioneers in investigating the damage has been Alexander Bolsunovsky, 44, a bearded senior researcher at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk. He has carried out expeditions that found "hot particles" of radiation along the river, and has written a new account for Green Cross Russia, an environmental group, arguing that the contamination of the river is severe in spots.
For 30 years, the Yenisey was contaminated by radiation from a secret plutonium plant built in a city that was itself secret. Krasnoyarsk-26, now known as Zheleznogorsk, was built after World War II along the rocky east bank of the Yenisey, 37 miles downstream from the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia. The Yenisey, Russia's most powerful river by water volume, runs 2,050 miles through Siberia before emptying out into the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean.
It was, and remains, a "closed" city under the Ministry of Atomic Energy. At its heart is the Mining and Chemical Combine, a factory to make the bomb-grade plutonium. Two reactors were installed more than 650 feet into a mountainside. The first went into operation in 1958, and the second in 1961. They produced plutonium-239 for weapons using a graphite-moderated, light-water-cooled reactor similar to the U.S. plutonium reactor at Hanford, Wash.
Both Russian reactors were cooled by water directly from the Yenisey. In 1964, a third reactor went into operation with a closed-loop cooling system, not directly discharging into the river.
After the end of the Cold War, in 1992, the two older plutonium production reactors were shut down. Under a U.S.-Russian agreement, the third plutonium reactor is to be shut down by 2000.
In addition to discharging cooling water into the river, the plutonium plant generated radioactive wastes. Some were stored in open-air reservoirs and stainless steel tanks. But the factory also bored holes deep into the Earth, and injected millions of cubic meters of radioactive wastes into underground caverns.
These injections remain some of the largest discharges of radiation ever made into the global environment. Donald J. Bradley of the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in a recent study on radioactive waste in the former Soviet Union, reported that the injections at Krasnoyarsk released 1 billion curies of radioactivity into the Earth, of which 450 million curies remained in 1996.
By comparison, he said, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in April 1986 released 5.8 million curies, of which 1.57 million remained. (A curie is a unit of radioactivity in matter, equivalent to the number of disintegrations undergone by one gram of radium in one second.) Thus, the radioactivity in the underground caverns amounts to hundreds of times more than that of the Chernobyl accident. The Chernobyl radiation was released into the air, while in this case it is being injected into deep underground caverns of natural clay and rock, which managers of the plutonium factory say does not pose an environmental risk.
But others question whether the wastes could leak. Bolsunovsky said there is a "serious danger" of the radioactive wastes moving through nearby layers of coal, and leaking. Bolsunovsky also said a waste-laden pipeline from the factory to the injection point is in "critical" condition, leaking radioactive wastes that could be washing into the Yenisey.
Russian authorities, however, deny there is a problem. A spokesman for the factory, Pavel Morozov, said in response to written questions from The Washington Post that the possibility of leaks of waste from the underground caverns is "close to nil."
He said "a narrow shore strip" downstream from the plant had been contaminated, and that some flood lands and islands were polluted by sediment carried there by flood waters. Morozov said the factory believed the contamination was caused by "natural uranium" in the waters of the Yenisey that passed through the reactors and turned into plutonium.
In fact, the full extent of contamination of the Yenisey is not yet known. The broad river curves gracefully through pine forests and past villages that were settled in the mid-17th century. On one bank sits the Tayozhny Pioneer Camp, a summer camp for children, and the neighboring village of Atamanovo, with small boats lined along its banks. On the other side is Bolshoi Balchug, an isolated hamlet with a distinctive, dilapidated two-steeple wooden church rising from the forest.
The reported contamination stretches from these two villages hundreds of miles downstream. Although the banks are sparsely populated with small villages, tens of thousands of people live along the river. The radioactive contamination also has reached a city, Yeniseysk, with a population of 21,900. There, 200 miles downstream from the factory, is one of the most severely contaminated points, Gorodskoi Island.
According to Morozov, the maximum amount of plutonium found in soil samples from the river flood lands has been 8 becquerels per kilogram of soil, or about 26 times the natural radiation level found in soil in the region. (A becquerel is another, far smaller unit for measuring the amount of radioactivity in a given sample of matter.) In an interview with a Krasnoyarsk newspaper, he claimed that only "tiny" amounts of cesium and strontium had contaminated the riverbed and flood plain. "This scares the public, but there is no real danger to health," he said.
However, others say the contamination is far more widespread, and severe, especially in the flood lands. Vitaly Kovalenko, deputy chief doctor for radiology at the regional sanitary-epidemiological center in Krasnoyarsk, said plutonium has been found on Gorodskoi Island at readings of up to 48 becquerels per kilo. That is 160 times the level found in natural soil in the region, which is 0.3 becquerels per kilo. The concentrations of cesium-137 on Gorodskoi Island reach up to 25,000 becquerels per kilo, he said. On the edge of the factory grounds, the plutonium in soil is on average 10.1 becquerels per kilo, Kovalenko said.
Bolsunovsky also has discovered what he calls "hot particles," radionuclides with extremely high measurements of radiation. Bolsunovsky has made several expeditions up and down the river searching for the particles, starting in 1995. Some of the particles have radioactivity "off the scale," he said.
Bolsunovsky said the "hot particles" could only have come from spent fuel that the factory secretly or perhaps accidentally discharged into the river. He said that when plutonium production was at its peak, aluminum fuel canisters inside the reactor cracked, and the particles were discharged into the Yenisey. He said these spills probably occurred a decade ago.
But the factory has never released information about such accidents. Morozov, the spokesman, said there were "no cases registered." He said some fuel canisters had "depressurized," but denied that they leaked radioactivity into the water.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company