The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet

In the late 1940’s, about 80 kilometers north of the city of Chelyabinsk, an atomic weapons complex called “Mayak” was built. Its existence has only recently been acknowledged by Russian officials. Mayak, bordered to the west by the Ural Mountains, and to the north by Siberia, was the goal of Gary Powers’s surveillance flight in May of 1960.

For forty-five years, the Chelyabinsk province of Russia was closed to all foreigners. Only in January of 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin sign a decree changing that. As a result, western scientists who studied the region, declared Chelyabinsk to be the most polluted spot on earth.

Forty Years of Nuclear Contamination in Chelyabinsk, Russia
the World

Chelyabinsk, the capital of the Chelyabinsk province in Russia, is located at the eastern foot of the Ural mountains and has a population of 1.3 million. The province has a land area of 90,000 sq. km and a population of 3.6 million.

Chelyabinsk was one of the former Soviet Union’s main military production centers, which included nuclear weapons manufacturing. Accidents, nuclear waste disposal and day to day operation of the Mayak reactor and radiochemical plant contaminated a vast area of the province. In the early 1950s there were so many occurrences of death and disease from the nuclear waste dumping in the Techa river that 22 villages along the river banks in a 50 kilometers zone downstream from Mayak were evacuated. In 1957, a nuclear waste storage tank accident released radiation double the amount released by the Chernobyl accident. This accident was kept secret and 10,700 people were evacuated. The severe environmental contamination of this region led to dramatic increases in cancer rates, birth defects, and sterility. Over the past 33 years, there has been a 21% increase in the incidences of cancer, 25% increase in birth defects and 50% of the population of child bearing age are sterile.

Cause of the Environmental Crisis
During World War II, Chelyabinsk was one of the Soviet Union’s major armament production centers. Entire factories on the western side of the Urals were taken apart and reconstructed on the other side of the Urals, the Chelyabinsk province. Chelyabinsk had one of the largest tank factories in the country, as well as one of the major nuclear armament plants. Due to these “strategic industries” the province was closed to visitors until 1989. Following the political and economic transformation in Russia, the tank factory now produces tractors, and the Mayak nuclear armament plant is trying to evolve into a fast breeder recycling plant for foreign spent-plutonium (nuclear wastes).

The Mayak nuclear complex was one of the Soviet Union’s main military production centers. During the last fifty years this complex has contaminated the Chelyabinsk region with highly dangerous nuclear and chemical wastes. The following is a chronological listing of the practices and accidents that caused the environmental crisis:

1949 to 1956: Liquid wastes from the Mayak nuclear complex were dumped into the Techa-Iset-Tobol river system

From 1949 to 1956, medium and high-level radioactive liquid wastes were dumped into the river system Techa-Iset-Tobol. During this period about 76 million m3 of radioactive wastes were released into the Techa river. Over 124, 000 people living along the banks of the river system were exposed to radiation. Protective measures finally began in 1956 when hydrological engineering measures aimed at immobilizing deposited radioactive substances in the upper reaches of the river were implemented. The river system is currently in the process of a natural deactivation that will take a few hundred years. The water downstream is nearly free of excess radioactive caesium, however the riverbed sediment and the riverbanks still contain high levels of caesium and strontium.

1957: Explosion of a nuclear waste storage tank at the Mayak nuclear complex

On September 29, 1957 a liquid radioactive waste storage tank exploded following a failure in the cooling system and polluted an area equal to the size of New Jersey with plutonium and strontium. The explosion formed a radioactive cloud over the provinces of Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk and Tyumen. A total area of 23,000 sq. kilometers was contaminated and the area is now called the East Ural Radioactive Trace, the EURT. This accident was kept secret from the outside world for military safety reasons and 10,700 people were silently evacuated. This nuclear accident released twice the amount of curies that were released by the Chernobyl accident.

1967: The Lake Karachay accident

Two self-contained natural lakes near the plant were chosen to divert waste dumping in the river-system – lake Karachay for high-level waste and lake Staroe Boloto for medium level waste. During the long, hot summer of 1967, lake Karachay dried up and radioactive waste from the exposed lake blew over an area of 2,200 sq. kilometers. Other accidents, irresponsible nuclear waste disposal and day-to-day operations of the Mayak nuclear-chemical facility have contaminated an area with a diameter of 400 km.

In addition to pollution from the nuclear complex, the metallurgical industry has heavily contaminated this region. The Ural mountains are rich in iron ore, chromium, copper and nickel and the region has an enormous metallurgical industry. The amount of lead in the air in Chelyabinsk city is equal to the total amount of lead pollution in the Netherlands (population of 15 million) in 1982, before unleaded petrol and catalytic converters were introduced. Any improvement of air quality in the Urals has been due to the economic downturn and closing of factories. Hardly any investments have been made by the government to reduce pollution levels.

Impact of the Environmental Crisis
Soon after the Mayak nuclear complex became operational, death and diseases in the region increased dramatically due to the dumping of medium and high level radioactive waste into the river system. As a result, 22 villages on the riverbanks, in a 50 km downstream zone from the complex, were evacuated. The village of Muslymova, just outside the 50 km zone was particularly contaminated, but it was never evacuated. Muslyumova lies 45 km north west of Chelyabinsk city and has 4,000 inhabitants. The village had no wells and until recent years depended on the river Techa, for drinking water.

The villagers of Muslyumova grew increasingly ill following contamination of their water. The number of birth defects and cancer deaths soared, but the authorities refused to take remedial measures. Statistics show that gene-mutations in the villages just outside the evacuated zone were 15 times the average for the Russian Federation. The local authorities attributed the high level of birth defects among newborns and the high mortality rates to a low standard of living.

A report on the health of the people living on the banks of the Techa River was published in 1991, which showed that the incidence of leukemia increased by 41% since 1950. From 1980 to 1990, all cancers in this population rose by 21% and all diseases of the circulatory system rose by 31%. These figures are probably gross under-estimations, because local physicians were instructed to limit the number of death certificates they issued with diagnosis of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. According to Gulfarida Galimova, a local doctor who has been keeping records in lieu of official statistics, the average life span for women in Muslyumovo in 1993 was 47, compared to the country average of 72. The average life span of Muslyumovo men was 45 compared to 69 for the entire country.

Chelyabinsk regional hospitals were not allowed to treat the villagers and they were sent to the Ural Centre for Radiation Medicine. The medical data of the UCRM was classified until 1990. Records of the UCRM chart the decline in health of 28,000 people along the Techa and all of them are classed as seriously irradiated. Since the 1960s, these people have been examined regularly by public health officials.

According to the head of the UCRM clinical department the rate of leukemia has doubled in the last two decades. Skin cancers have quadrupled over the last 33 years. The total number of people suffering from cancer has risen by 21%. The number of people suffering from vascular diseases has risen 31%. Birth defects have increased by 25%. Kosenko carried out a small epidemiological study of 100 people selected at random. From this group 96% had at least five chronic diseases (heart diseases, high blood pressure, arthritis and asthma), 30% had as many as ten chronic conditions. Local doctors estimate that half the men and women at child bearing age are sterile.

Even today, the local population still does not know the actual levels of radioisotopes in its home grown products. German scientists who did a field study in Muslumova in 1996 have measured some food samples in the villages and found astonishing levels of radioactivity, 17,000 becquerrel per kg in fish, and 8,000 per kg in vegetables (in Europe, products with more than 600 bequerrel are taken off the market). Only since 1989, the villagers have started to get information about the dangers of the radioactive contamination of their river.

After the 1957 storage tank accident, 10,700 people were permanently evacuated from the EURT. Half of these people were evacuated eight months after the accident. These people had been consuming contaminated food without restriction, since the accident and until their evacuation. The Karachay accident from 1967 affected 63 populated areas with a population of 41,500 with 3.7 kBq/sq m (0.1Ci/sq km) The 4800 residents nearest to the lake received an average dose of 13mSv. At the time of the Karachay accident, the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) had set the safe limit on radiation at 5mSv per year. At present, the ICRP standard is 1mSv per year.

According to the Russian Scientific Centre Kurchatov and the Obninsk Institute of Radiology, a total of 437,000 people have been affected by the three accidents at Mayak. Of the total 437,000 people affected, very few were ever evacuated from the area. Very often the evacuees were moved to areas not far from the contaminated zone and the people continued to use their gardens within the contaminated areas.

Other people exposed to elevated levels of radiation in Chelyabinsk region are workers of Mayak, people living in the districts in the vicinity of Mayak and participants during cleanup and restoration activities. At the beginning of operation of Mayak, the average annual exposures for reactor workers and chemical plant workers was 940 mSv and 1,130mSv respectively. (At present, the ICRP safety standard is 1mSv per year.) The workers from Mayak lived in Chelyabinsk-65 and Chelyabinsk-70, both closed cities situated about 80 km from Chelyabinsk city, and close to the Mayak complex. Chelyabinsk-65 and -70 were nicknamed chocolate city, because these cities were among the few cities in USSR where chocolate was available in abundance.

In the early 1990s, Ivan Druzhko, a Mayak plant official, told reporters from a US television show that he believed nearly 8,000 Mayak workers were exposed to doses exceeding 1,000mSv. L.A. Buldakov, deputy director of the institute of biophysics in Moscow presented data on a conference in Paris in 1991 that showed a total of 1,812 Mayak workers were exposed to least 2,450mSv over the period 1949-1954 and another 1,286 people were exposed to at least 1,220mSv. These exposure levels are horrifying when you compare these levels with the ICRP’s present safety standard, which is 1mSv per year. In the 1980s, Ural Medical Radiation Center started registering diseases caused by radiation. In 1989 a booklet was published stating that 935 workers at the Mayak complex were suffering from chronic radiation syndrome. This number later came down to 66 but was changed back to the former figure after campaigns by local organizations.

While the rural communities in Chelyabinsk suffer from the effects of radioactive contamination, the urban populations face the effects of the chemical and metallurgical industries. In 1994 the Chelyabinsk Provincial Institute for Public Health and Environment did a survey on non-infectious diseases in the cities of Karabash, Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk, Zlatoust, Kopeisk and Miass. The survey showed considerable increases of various diseases in the Chelyabinsk region. The results from Karabash and Magnitogorsk were so bad that the provincial Ministry for the Environment classified these cities as ecological disaster zones. (SOE rep. P. 195) Children from Karabash were found to be considerably smaller than children from the control group; they had 3.5 times more birth defects; 2.7 times more skin diseases; streptodermia 10 times more, and 2.1 times more diseases of the digestive organs.

Cancer rates in the metallurgical district of Chelyabinsk are four to five times higher than the Russian average. Children’s morbidity and mortality rates in the metallurgical district are three times higher than the average for the city. Lead intoxication from the metallurgical factories causes blood diseases and brain damage. Chromium is another major pollutant. U.S. studies have shown that the incidences of lung cancer for chromium factory workers are 28 times than the average rates. Workers barely survive until their retirement age and male life expectancy has gone down to 57.

Statistics from the neighboring province of Ekaterinaburg show that in the early 1990s the number of women workers in the metallurgical and electrical engineering industry doubled, and their numbers in light industry tripled. Statistics in Chelyabinsk, if available, would probably show the same trend. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, unemployment soared and Russia’s social security system became more and more insecure. Today, most women cannot afford to lose their jobs and will keep on working as long as possible. The women work even though the working conditions badly affect their own health and their children’s health. Maternity leave with pay was well taken care for under the Soviet system but now for fear of losing their jobs, women keep silent about their pregnancy as long as possible. Many women work more than one job. Apart from working under very unfavorable conditions women also have to take care of their families. Wages are low and poverty is increasing.

Even in the “workers paradise”, as the former Soviet Union was called, working conditions were not always favorable. In the late 1980’s, 20-50% of workplaces did not meet Soviet standards. By the end of the Soviet era, 14.5 million women worked in industry and 3.4 million, about one-fifth of them, worked under hazardous conditions such as toxic fumes, extreme high or low temperatures, and excessive noise and vibrations.

Chelyabinsk has long been a region of strategic military importance and has a history of secrecy. Even today it is not easy to obtain environment or health information. Obtaining information from independent sources is even more difficult.

Response to the Environmental Crisis
In 1992, Movement for Nuclear Safety (MNS), in co-operation with local authorities, organized an international conference on the consequences of nuclear industry in the South Urals. This was the first time that the public gained access to classified information concerning the health of the population affected by radionucleides from the nuclear military complex, Mayak. In the same year MNS began campaigns to register people affected by nuclear contamination in Muslyumovo. By the end of 1993 the democratic process was interrupted and the co-operation with authorities became less effective. By then, however, MNS had obtained a large group of voluntary workers and support from the local population.

During the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Natalya Mironova of MNS met with Women in Europe for a Common Future and partners in Uzbekistan and the Ukraine and discussed setting up a joint project on women, health and environment. In 1996, a project entitled Women Join Forces for Health and Environment, was launched to better understand the health effects of the environmental contamination in the Chelyabinsk region, particularly effects on women and children. MNS offered courses to women on healthy living and on strengthening their immune system. The NGO also sponsored seminars on how to reduce the effects of contamination of the human body caused by bioaccumulation of radionucleides. Women received information from a dietician and were taught how to cook to retain vitamins.

MNS also started publishing a series of brochures titled ‘Simple Answers to Complicated Questions,’ on the immune system and healthy food in a region contaminated with radionucleides. The brochures were widely distributed among the villages just outside the evacuated area near Mayak.

Together with other NGOs, MNS has been campaigning for resettlement of the village of Muslyumovo. In 1997 these actions finally became effective: the province administration decided to resettle the village. It is still unclear, however, when this will happen and where the villagers will go. MNS is also active in local politics and has been campaigning against the development of plutonium recycling facilities at Mayak to treat imported plutonium waste from abroad, particularly from Germany and the U.S.A. MNS promotes sustainable economic alternatives including energy-saving, alternative energy sources and organic farming.

Recommendations for Action
Most of the information about plutonium contamination and plutonium impacts is still classified, although plutonium contamination has affected a geographical area 10 times larger and 100 times more intensely than expected. Despite this, the local administration is eagerly looking at potential revenues from plutonium recycling. Plutonium recycling is not a sustainable solution. Chelyabinsk needs assistance from the international community to identify viable alternatives to polluting industries.

When the Cold War ended Russian women wrote letters to the UN asking for assistance and tried to force the Russian authorities to listen to the voices of the NGO community. The international community can support the fight for a healthy and sustainable future by endorsing our demands to:

Set up an international institution to set new health standards for radiation protection, because 1950 standards are no longer adequate or relevant;

Disseminate information about the health effects of the nuclear industry;

Support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and make sure that victims get adequate compensation;

Stop the export of nuclear waste;

Collect data on environmental health problems;

Promote research and development of medical detoxification methods and promote the exchange of knowledge on successful methods;

Fund long-term epidemiological research in regions adversely affected by environmental pollution; and

Establish health care and health monitoring programs for victims of environmental pollution and people living in hazardous zones.


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