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The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry

Russia’s Mayak, where “People have become a sort of radioactive waste.” 

Those words were spoken to me by the Russian human rights lawyer, Nadezhda Kutepova. For years she, with her NGO, Planet of Hopes, defended people who suffer in one of the most radioactively polluted places on this planet: the area surrounding the nuclear waste and reprocessing complex, Mayak, in Russia’s Southern Urals. Kutepova continues to stand up for her people from Paris where she has been exiled to because she was no longer safe in her home town. She made the comment when we were discussing the latest radiation measurement findings that Greenpeace published this week.

The people around Mayak are suffering from the third biggest nuclear catastrophe in history: The Kyshtym disaster that happened 60 years ago today. The radioactive pollution from Mayak continues to this day.

The Kyshtym Disaster is named after the nearest known town on the map. In 1957 a mistake in the reprocessing plant led to an explosion that contaminated 20,000 square kilometres – an area that did not appear on any map. Nor did the nearby town of Chelyabinsk, which was a so-called “secret” or “closed town” for Mayak nuclear complex workers. It is also Kutepova’s birth place. Around 270,000 people were directly affected by the disaster.

Only in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, did the true impact of the accident become apparent. Only then did the Russian nuclear industry, now known as Rosatom, take some responsibility. Only after Kutepova started supporting local victims and photographer, Robert Knoth, who recorded the the lives of those affected, did Rosatom concede to evacuating those who suffered most.

Well, kind of.

First of all, not everyone in the village was moved. Some of the people’s documents were not in order. They had to stay in a ghost town without services. And five other villages were not evacuated at all.

The pollution from Mayak never really stopped, either. Radioactive waste-water continues to be dumped in ponds around and connected to the Techa river. In all the local villages Greenpeace Russia found highly elevated strontium-90 levels. The same levels as found in the evacuated village of Muslyumovo.

Rosatom already acknowledged several times that water is seeping out of the ponds into the Techa river system. And the people of Muslyumovo and it’s surroundings are still depending on that water for their gardens. Still, Rosatom continues to dump its waste into the ponds. But, they are not called “ponds” anymore. They are now called “special industrial ponds”, “objects of nuclear energy use”, and the dumping is called “inserting liquid radioactive waste for storage”.

Mayak is everywhere. Rosatom may be polluting a Mayak near you: by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from your nearby nuclear power station, by building a nuclear power station that will later send its spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing, or by loading your neighbouring nuclear plant with reprocessed uranium fuel from Mayak.

Rosatom’s operation in Mayak illustrates that the nuclear industry is not interested in people. After all, 60 years since the disaster the people around Mayak are “a sort of radioactive waste”.

Jan Haverkamp is an expert consultant nuclear energy and energy policy for GreenpeaceCentral and Eastern Europe and part of Greenpeace’s Radiation Protection Advisors team.

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September 30, 2017 - Posted by | environment, Russia, social effects

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