Photo of the week: Chelyabinsk – A lack of environmental responsibility

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A Geiger counter registers toxic levels of radiation while children play along the Techa River, ignoring the high degree of contamination here from careless dumping and major accidents in a nearby weapons plutonium plant. Muslyumovo/ Chelyabinsk, Russia 1993 © Gerd Ludwig

The fortress of Chelyaba, from which the city takes its name, was constructed on the site in 1736; town status was granted to it in 1781. Around 1900, it served as a center for the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

A serious nuclear accident occurred at the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, which housed 5 plutonium production reactors and a reprocessing plant a mere 150 km north-west of the city.  As part of the Russian nuclear weapon program, the Mayak plant was built in 1945–48, in a great hurry and in total secrecy, as part of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon program. The plant’s original mission was to make, refine, and machine plutonium for weapons.

In the early years of its operation, the Mayak plant released quantities of radioactively contaminated water into several small lakes near the plant, and into the Techa river, whose waters ultimately flow into the Ob River.  Working conditions at Mayak, and a lack of environmental responsibility in the past, led to additional contamination of the surrounding lake district and severe health hazards and accidents.

The most notable accident occurred on 29 September 1957, when the failure of the cooling system for a tank storing tens of thousands of tons of dissolved nuclear waste resulted in a chemical (non-nuclear) explosion having a force estimated at about 75 tons of TNT. This released 740 PBq (20 MCi) of fission products, of which 74 PBq (2 MCi) drifted off the site, creating a contaminated region of 15,000-20,000 km2 called the East Urals Radioactive trace.

Later the plant came to specialize in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors, and plutonium from decommissioned weapons.  The administration of the Mayak plant has been repeatedly criticized in recent years for environmentally unsound practices, and some areas are still under restricted access because of radiation.

Only in 1992, shortly after the fall of the USSR, did the Russians officially acknowledge the accident.  In the past 45 years, about 400,000 people in the region have been irradiated in one or more of the incidents.

According to Anna Gyorgy, who invoked the Freedom of Information Act to open up the relevant Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) files, the CIA knew of the 1957 Mayak accident all along, but kept it secret to prevent adverse consequences for the fledgling USA nuclear industry.

“Ralph Nader surmised that the information had not been released because of the reluctance of the CIA to highlight a nuclear accident in the USSR, that could cause concern among people living near nuclear facilities in the USA.”

The Mayak plant is associated with two other major nuclear accidents.

The first occurred as a result of heavy rains causing Lake Karachay, a dried-up radioactively polluted lake (used as a dumping basin for Mayak’s radioactive waste since 1951), to release radioactive material into surrounding waters.

The second occurred in 1967 when wind spread dust from the bottom of Lake Karachay over parts of Ozersk; over 400,000 people were irradiated.

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