Published on Friday, November 3, 2000 in the Guardian of London
'Worst Ever' Radioactive Leaks Found In Siberia
Condemned weapons plants still spewing out poisons, say experts
by Ian Traynor in Moscow
 
Radioactive contamination of rivers around a top-secret Russian nuclear weapons complex in Siberia has reached "staggering" levels, the worst ever monitored, and is out of "rational control", a joint team of Russian and American radiation monitors said yesterday.

Following a monitoring expedition in July and August to the closed plutonium complex at Seversk, near Tomsk in western Siberia, the Russian and American nuclear watchdogs said they had registered alarming levels of radioactivity in tributaries of the River Ob, a key Siberian waterway.

"We've never encountered such radiation. It's the worst contamination we've found," said Sergei Pashchenko, a Novosibirsk professor and atmospheric pollution expert who headed the Russian side of the survey carried out by Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility and Government Accountability Project.

The director of the American watchdog, Tom Carpenter, said: "We were shocked at the levels of contamination."

The environmentalists said they found levels of caesium and strontium-90 vastly exceeding safety levels in the rivers Tom and Romashka close to the "Siberian Chemical Complex", a sprawling facility established by the former Soviet Union in the 1950s to make weapons-grade plutonium for warheads.

But even more disturbingly, said Mr Pashchenko, plant life in the rivers contained high levels of phosphorus-32 which decays within a couple of weeks, meaning that the radioactive effluent was of very recent origin whereas the strontium and the caesium could date back to the 1960s.

"The phosphorus-32 is a very short-lived isotope and this means they are very fresh," said Mr Pashchenko.

The closed nuclear town of Seversk is effectively a suburb of Tomsk, a city with a population of half-a-million in western Siberia. Seversk was born in 1949, at the very onset of the superpowers' nuclear arms race.

It ranked among the top three sites for the manufacturing of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium enrichment for the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal throughout the cold war.

The plutonium was manufactured from five nuclear reactors commissioned between 1955 and 1967. "They are very old reactors and very unsafe," said Igor Forofontov, radiation specialist with Greenpeace in Moscow.

The three oldest reactors were closed between 1990 and 1992, and, under a 1992 agreement between Moscow and Washington aimed at halting plutonium production, all five reactors should have been closed down by this year.

But two reactors are still operating, providing heating and electricity to Tomsk. "The authorities have no intention of closing them," Mr Forofontov said.

An explosion ripped through the plant in 1993 which resulted in large amounts of radioactivity being emitted. Mr Forofontov also said lethal amounts of radioactivity were leaking into the soil and the water in the region because of the practice of storing waste from the reactors in liquid form which is then pumped deep below ground.

Last summer, the Russian monitors spent two months touring the most sensitive nuclear materials production installations - one of the most dangerous legacies of the Soviet era - at Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, and Tomsk.

But the environmentalists' findings in Tomsk were the most alarming. "The nuclear waste is being piped straight into the environment," said Norm Buske, one of the American researchers and an oceanographer and physicist. "This has not been done anywhere in the world since the cold war."

The monitors were unable to pinpoint the source of the pollution because they were not granted access to the secret plant. Mr Pashchenko and 10 of his colleagues were detained for six hours questioning by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, while carrying out research around Novosibirsk last summer.

At Seversk they were told the town was closed but that they could carry out research in the rivers a few miles away. The environmentalists found contaminated fish with radioactivity more than 20 times the safety level, they said.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000

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