A Radioactive Plume That’s Clouded in Secrecy

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

September 29 marked the 60th anniversary of the world’s third most deadly— and least known — nuclear accident. It took place at the Mayak plutonium production facility, in a closed Soviet city in the Urals. The huge explosion was kept secret for decades. It spread hot particles over an area of more than 20,000 square miles, exposing a population of at least 270,000 and indefinitely contaminating land and rivers. Entire villages had to be bulldozed. Residents there have lived for decades with high rates of radiologically induced illnesses and birth defects.

Now, evidence is emerging of a potentially new nuclear accident and indications point once again to Mayak as one of the likely culprits. Ironically, if there was indeed an accident there, it happened on or around the precise anniversary of the 1957 disaster. The Research Institute of Atomic Reactors in Dimitrovgrad in the region is another possible suspect.

The presence of the man-made radioactive isotope, ruthenium 106, was detected in the atmosphere in early October by a French nuclear safety institute and by a Danish monitoring station, but only recently confirmed by Russia’s meteorological agency. However, the Russian authorities continue to deny that the releases came from one of their nuclear facilities and the source of the release is yet to be identified.

And the release of ruthenium 106 is a massive one, indicating a major accident, not a minor leak. The French radiological institute for nuclear safety IRSN) calculated the release at 300 Terrabequerels. To put this in perspective, it is an amount equivalent to 375,000 times the annual release of ruthenium 106 authorized for a French nuclear power plant.

IRSN has consistently downplayed the potential harm of the plume’s fallout across Europe, a position all too eerily familiar to the French, who were falsely told at the time of the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine that the radioactive plume would not cross into France.

Far higher readings have been detected in the Cheliabinsk region where the Mayak facility is located, lending more credence to the theory that the notorious nuclear facility is once again at the center of a new nuclear disaster. Are the hapless people of Mayak set to be the victims once again? And if they are, have the Russian authorities even admitted to them what has happened? Or is history repeating itself?

A longtime advocate for the victims of the 1957 Mayak catastrophe, Nadezhda Kutepova, who for years fought for the rights and compensation for the people of Mayak before being forced to flee with her family in 2015, is speaking out once again. Now settled in France, Kutepova is uniquely positioned to understand not only the culture of secrecy and coverup around Mayak, but can also deliver insights into the specific operations conducted at the facility that could be the source of this latest accident.

In testimony delivered in French on November 19, 2017, Kutepova surmised that if the release of ruthenium 106 came from Mayak, then it emanated either from an accident in the fuel reprocessing plant or from a malfunction in the radioactive waste vitrification plant. Kutepova considered Mayak likely responsible because precisely around the end of September the facility was testing new equipment in the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant where something may well have gone wrong.

Kutepova related that on September 22 a train arrived at Mayak transporting irradiated fuel from a VVER reactor. Everything about this transport was new to Mayak — the train, the waste fuel casks, and the irradiated VVER fuel which had never been reprocessed at Mayak before. Emergency alarms went off at Mayak that day, Kutepova said. Furthermore, Mayak has a long history of secrecy and cover-ups and is self-regulating.

Contradictory statements from Mayak officials about the presence, or not, of ruthenium at the Mayak facility sowed further doubt about the veracity of earlier denials that Mayak was not the source of the accident and release.

The independent French radiological laboratory CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation) has also weighed in, sounding the alarm in particular on behalf of the residents and workers in the immediate vicinity of the still unidentified accident site. In a November 10 press release, CRIIRAD said that the radioactive releases were “considerable and came from Russia or a neighboring country.”

CRIIRAD said the absence of information was “disquieting” because if the point of origin was not known event to those where it happened, people could not be protected. The laboratory insists that the site source of the accident must be identified with all due haste. The delays and cover-ups in the days and weeks following the Chernobyl disaster resulted in many people not receiving essential help and treatment. This, CRIIRAD says, cannot be allowed to happen again. Even though two months have now passed since the mysterious accident occurred, help can still — and must — be delivered to local populations.

CRIIRAD is well positioned to challenge this level of denial, both from the Russian authorities and its own, and rightly criticizes IRSN for belittling the likely impact on France of this latest Russian nuclear accident. CRIIRAD came into being right after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, challenging the official lies and cover-ups about the plume’s transit across Europe, and mapping numerous radioactive hotspots in France, resulting from Chernobyl fallout.

However, there may be a more mercenary motive at the heart of Russia’s silence. The Mayak site is owned by Rosatom, a Russian state monopoly company that is eagerly trying to fill the overseas marketing void left by the collapsed Westinghouse and the free-falling EDF. Rosatom sees massive profits to be made through nuclear exports, in Africa especially, but also in places like Finland. Consequently, the last thing Rosatom needs is a pubic relations black eye and the company is likely to go to any lengths to suppress the truth about a deadly nuclear accident at one of its facilities.

We may never know where the ruthenium plume came from. But this event should serve as a warning. In the event of a nuclear accident, information suppression will be the norm. The nuclear industry is banking on the old axiom — what you don’t know can’t hurt you. The one thing we can all be sure of is that everything they are doing most assuredly will.

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Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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