January 14, 2003
Russia shuts down infamous site of nuclear disaster
Ural plant tainted water for decades
By Alex Rodriguez, Tribune foreign correspondent.
Russia has shut down a notorious, aging nuclear plant responsible for decades of environmental ruin in the Ural Mountains, a decision heralded Monday as an unexpected shift in how Moscow views dangers posed by nuclear waste.
Since the 1950s, the plant in Mayak, in central Russia, had been dumping radioactive waste into a nearby lake, contaminating drinking water for thousands of people. More than 40,000 Russians living in the villages and hamlets surrounding Mayak have been treated for the effects of radiation exposure in the last 10 years. Officials with Gosatomnadzor, Russia's nuclear safety agency, said Monday that they denied the plant a license to continue operations this year because of evidence that it was contaminating local drinking water.
"We are now deciding on what conditions need to be fulfilled so that work can resume," said Andrei Kislov, a senior official at Gosatomnadzor.
Known as Plant 235, the facility is part of a large complex that includes a U.S.-Russian project to store plutonium from Russia's dismantled nuclear weapons. The plant was the site of one of the former Soviet Union's worst nuclear accidents, eclipsed only by the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine.
In 1957 a radioactive waste tank at Mayak exploded and exposed more than 470,000 people to radiation. Officials kept the accident secret for years.
Since 1979, spent fuel from Russian nuclear power plants and nuclear submarines has been shipped to Plant 235, where reactor-grade plutonium was extracted for reuse. The recycling regimen produced radioactive waste that the plant dumped into Lake Karachay and the nearby Techa River.
Plant officials have said they lacked the technology to dispose of the waste any other way, said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense, a Russian environmental group.
"We are very happy that the reprocessing of radioactive waste at Mayak is going to be suspended," Slivyak said. "This is what we demanded a long time ago. The region has been suffering because of this plant for the last 50 years."
Russia's rejection of Plant 235's license is surprising, given the country's decades-long track record for environmental neglect.
Dozens of submarines containing nuclear fuel await dismantling as they rust in ports along the Barents Sea and the country's Pacific coast. Russia has aggressively pursued a program to import the world's spent nuclear fuel, an effort that environmentalists warn would turn the country into a nuclear waste dump.
Just weeks after he was inaugurated in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin abolished Russia's environmental- and forest-protection agencies, assigning their functions to the Ministry of Natural Resources, which regulates mining and oil exploration.
Slivyak said Moscow may have another reason for the license denial. Putin's government remains interested in lucrative contracts to import and eventually dispose of spent U.S. nuclear fuel, but Washington is reluctant because Russia wants to extract plutonium for reprocessing.
Slivyak said the Plant 235 decision stops plutonium extraction at the facility.