MOSCOW -- Sitting on a park bench near Kurchatov Square in north Moscow, a visitor's eye is immediately drawn to two signs.
The first, reading "Glory to Soviet Science" in tarnished block letters, is a harmless relic of another era. The second, a digital meter, is just as dated but much more troubling. It keeps constant check on the radiation level in the neighborhood, letting the thousands of people who live in nearby apartment blocks know how safe or unsafe the local nuclear reactors are today.
On a sunny afternoon, the radiation emanating from the Kurchatov Institute of Nuclear Physics bumps around between 8 and 10 microroentgens an hour, a level most scientists believe to be safe. But as the glowing red numbers flick upward to 9.8, then back down again to 9.4, a woman waiting at a nearby bus stop narrows her eyes. (At 10 microroentgens an hour, a person would receive 87,600 in a year, with 100,000 considered the health-safety ceiling.)
"They say it's not dangerous to our health, but, of course, we're scared," says 74-year-old Dina Kurnosova, referring to a grim-looking complex across the street that residents have dubbed a "micro-Chernobyl."
After a 10-day span that saw Chechen rebels set off a bomb on a Moscow subway and then the roof of a new city swimming pool simply collapse, she's terrified that the Kurchatov Institute is a nuclear explosion waiting to happen in her neighborhood
"An accident will surely happen if they don't shut it down," Ms. Kurnosova said, shaking her head in disgust. "We live beside a volcano."
Her fear springs from the fact that the Soviet-era secrecy that surrounded the nuclear industry is now gone. She and others living in the area know that the Kurchatov Institute's six functioning research reactors are well past their 30-year life spans, and that the risk of a malfunction grows with every year. The reactors are small -- the largest is eight megawatts -- but some are now almost 50 years old.
The age of the reactors isn't the only worry. There are concerns that the institute, which had 9,900 workers at the end of the Soviet era, no longer has enough staff or funding to guarantee safety. The institute shed 4,600 workers over the past decade; salaries are a fraction of what they once were; and new concerns, including terrorism, have emerged.
Moscow is considered by experts to be the most "nuclear" of the world's major cities, with 11 nuclear reactors, 33 nuclear research stations and 24 nuclear-waste storage sites. For decades, many Muscovites were unaware of the risks. But ever since the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, some residents walk around with their own pocket radiation counters.
"Moscow is the only capital city in the world where there are nuclear reactors. No other capital has even one, and we have 11," said Alexei Yablokov, an adviser on environmental issues to former president Boris Yeltsin. If something went wrong at any of the reactors, "it wouldn't be a Chernobyl, but it would still be very, very serious," he said.
Environmentalists say the aging reactors at the Kurchatov Institute pose the biggest risk to the city. Opened in 1943 as dictator Joseph Stalin ordered scientists to begin pursuing an atomic weapon, it was here that physicist Igor Kurchatov began the research that eventually produced the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal.
At the time, however, the institute and its research reactors were located in a wooded area outside Moscow. No one foresaw a time when the capital would have a population of more than 10 million, and would grow around the reactors to the point where they're now neatly situated between two subway stations, and across the street from a children's playground and a movie theatre.
Even those who believe the institute's reactors are safe recognize the location is horrible. Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev, a former director of the institute, said last week that though he believes that the risk of explosion is minimal, he worries about the large quantity of nuclear waste that has been buried in the area.
Some of it was buried just seven meters deep, well shy of the modern safety standard of 30 meters
Removal of that waste has been under way for years, but Mr. Rumyantsev acknowledged that what remains beneath the soil poses unknown health risks to the community.
There's also radioactive material left behind in the main 40-megawatt reactor that was shut down 10 years ago, which still requires round-the-clock monitoring.
When the Kurchatov Institute was built, the area "was just a field, an artillery-testing zone, but now it's almost downtown. It's a very densely populated area, so of course it's wrong to have it there," Mr. Rumyantsev said.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has mused about moving the institute, but its directors have dismissed the idea, saying it would be too costly and too potentially risky.
Environmentalist Vladimir Slivyak says politicians afraid of angering the country's powerful nuclear industry are avoiding discussion of the safer, cheaper option -- closing the complex completely.
"After the many terror attacks in Moscow over the past two years, we know a bomb can explode near Red Square and no one can prevent it. They could get into the Kurchatov Institute, too," Mr. Slivyak said.
"But the reactors are now so old that we may not even need the terrorists. The Kurchatov Institute is just no longer safe."
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc