mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Return to Chelyabinsk

Aside from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the meltdown at
Chernobyl is commonly regarded as the deadliest nuclear catastrophe in
history. But in fact that unhappy distinction belongs to another place
in the former Soviet Union, a place called Chelyabinsk. Tucked behind
the Ural Mountains far from European invaders, the oblast of
Chelyabinsk has provided armaments for Russian rulers since the time
of the czars. After World War II, it became a center of Soviet nuclear
weapons production. Between 1946 and 1967, Chelyabinsk experienced
three interlocking disasters whose cumulative damage not only exceeds
Chernobyl’s but persists to this day. The difference is, the
Chelyabinsk disasters did not become global media events. On the
contrary: They were kept secret for decades by both the KGB and the
CIA, each of which apparently feared an informed public as much as it
feared the enemy arsenal.

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Now the people and ecosystems of Chelyabinsk may suffer anew, thanks
to the desire of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin to boost their
nations’ respective nuclear industries. At the G-8 summit this past
July, Bush and Putin announced their joint desire to increase nuclear
energy use and reactor exports, a move they asserted would increase
global energy security. If the plan is implemented, much of the waste
those reactors will generate may well end up in Chelyabinsk.

Nuclear waste has been the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear-industrial
complex from the beginning, and so it is with the Bush-Putin plan.
Civilian nuclear reactors produce not only electricity but spent fuel.
As North Korea’s recent weapons test illustrated, spent fuel from
nonmilitary reactors can be “mined” to extract plutonium for weapons
use. To guard against that, the Bush-Putin plan requires countries
that import reactors to return all spent fuel to the exporting country
for reprocessing and use in breeder reactors. But since no civilian
reprocessing facilities yet exist in Russia or the United States, in
the interim the waste will have to be stored.

That’s where Chelyabinsk comes in. The Bush Administration does not
want to bring nuclear waste to the United States but seems happy to
see it go to Russia, assuming US law can be altered accordingly. In
that event, the Mayak nuclear complex in Chelyabinsk is the most
probable storage site, says Vladimir Slivyak, an activist with the
Russian group Ecodefense who has long tracked, and opposed, government
efforts to import nuclear waste.

The Bush-Putin plan can draw cover from the growing number of
scientists throughout the world who endorse nuclear power as vital to
fighting climate change. None have been as outspoken as James
Lovelock, the British biophysicist whose Gaia theory of the Earth as a
self-regulating organism has been influential in European
environmental circles. In a new book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock
derides opponents of nuclear power as anticorporate Luddites. In a
typical passage, he describes nuclear waste as “dangerous only to
those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation.” Would
Lovelock repeat that assertion, I wonder, to the people of
Chelyabinsk—people whose totalitarian rulers secretly exposed them to
massive amounts of nuclear waste for decades?

I was, I believe, the first Western reporter to visit
Chelyabinsk
and
report on its nuclear contamination, in 1991, when it was still a
closed city. The Mayak nuclear complex, located fifty miles north of
the city, suffered the first of its three nuclear disasters in 1949,
when officials started pouring nuclear waste directly into the Techa
River, which runs through the complex. According to studies by Russian
experts and scientists with the US-based Natural Resources Defense
Council, 28,000 people received average individual doses fifty-seven
times greater than those later received at Chernobyl. Only 7,500
people were evacuated, and people were not forbidden to use the river
water until 1953. The second disaster was in 1957, when a waste dump
exploded, spewing some seventy-five metric tons of radioactive waste
into the air, exposing 272,000 people to doses of radiation equivalent
to those at Chernobyl. The third came in 1967, when a cyclone whirled
across the drought-exposed shores of a lake being used as a waste
dump; 5 million additional curies of radioactivity were dispersed.

Even in 1991 radioactivity levels remained extremely high. One day I
visited Muslyumova, a village of unpainted wooden houses and cow
pastures that straddles the Techa twenty-two miles downstream from
Mayak. At the river’s edge, my Geiger counter read 445
micro-roentgens—twenty times the normal background level. A piece of
dried cow dung registered 850, a reflection of how radioactivity
becomes more concentrated as it ascends the food chain. Still,
authorities insisted there was no need to evacuate, and without
government help residents could not afford to move.

Today, the situation in Muslyumova remains much the same. Marco
Kaltofen, an environmental chemist based in Boston, and Sergey
Pashenko, a Russian physicist, visited Muslyumova in October 2005 to
conduct new radioactivity tests. “Our tests found that local people
are breathing highly radioactive air, drinking radioactive water and
burning radioactive wood in their fireplaces,” Kaltofen told me. “They
know not to drink the surface water, but they have no choice but to
use the groundwater, and it’s that water and the air that are
responsible for most of their exposure.”

Thanks to years of pressure from local activists, Russian authorities
have finally begun talking about evacuating the residents. But similar
promises have been broken before, notes Tom Carpenter of the
Government Accountability Project, which sponsored Kaltofen and
Pashenko’s visit.

The Bush-Putin agenda could still be blocked in either Russia or the
US Congress. “The agreement stands before Congress for sixty working
days after it is submitted by the President, and if Congress does not
pass a bill explicitly rejecting it, it becomes law,” explains Graham
Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International
Affairs at Harvard, who supports the Bush-Putin plan as a necessary
response to global warming. Congressional opposition is expected from
environmentalists on the left, led by Democrat Ed Markey of
Massachusetts, as well as Russia-phobes on the right and centrists
leery of shipping more nuclear materials around an unstable world.
Meanwhile, Russian public opinion has been sharply critical of
importing nuclear waste—polls showed 90 percent of voters wanted a
national referendum to decide the issue in 2000, but the government
simply rewrote the law anyway—which may explain why Russian officials
have recently sent mixed messages about whether they will indeed
accept such imports. Igor Konyshev, secretary of Russia’s atomic
energy agency, was quoted by the trade journal Nuclear Fuel in late
July saying that Russia would not accept future imports. Allison,
however, echoing the views of other analysts, believes that the Putin
government remains committed to the plan: “They just aren’t going to
stir up political opposition unnecessarily before the [parliamentary]
election takes place next year.”

People in Chelyabinsk have no idea that yet more nuclear waste could
be heading their way, says Kaltofen, pulling out a photo of a mother
and two young girls he met in Muslyumova. The girls’ Snow White
backpacks, braided hair and shy smiles made them look pretty much like
pre-teens in the United States. “Knowing what nuclear waste has
already done in Chelyabinsk, and knowing these kids are still there,”
Kaltofen asks, “how in good conscience can you send still more waste
there?”

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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