Aside from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the meltdown at Chernobyl is commonly regarded as the deadliest nuclear catastrophe in history. But in fact that unhappy distinction belongs to another place in the former Soviet Union, a place called Chelyabinsk. Tucked behind the Ural Mountains far from European invaders, the oblast of Chelyabinsk has provided armaments for Russian rulers since the time of the czars. After World War II, it became a center of Soviet nuclear weapons production. Between 1946 and 1967, Chelyabinsk experienced three interlocking disasters whose cumulative damage not only exceeds Chernobyl’s but persists to this day. The difference is, the Chelyabinsk disasters did not become global media events. On the contrary: They were kept secret for decades by both the KGB and the CIA, each of which apparently feared an informed public as much as it feared the enemy arsenal.
Now the people and ecosystems of Chelyabinsk may suffer anew, thanks to the desire of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin to boost their nations’ respective nuclear industries. At the G-8 summit this past July, Bush and Putin announced their joint desire to increase nuclear energy use and reactor exports, a move they asserted would increase global energy security. If the plan is implemented, much of the waste those reactors will generate may well end up in Chelyabinsk.
Nuclear waste has been the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear-industrial complex from the beginning, and so it is with the Bush-Putin plan. Civilian nuclear reactors produce not only electricity but spent fuel. As North Korea’s recent weapons test illustrated, spent fuel from nonmilitary reactors can be “mined” to extract plutonium for weapons use. To guard against that, the Bush-Putin plan requires countries that import reactors to return all spent fuel to the exporting country for reprocessing and use in breeder reactors. But since no civilian reprocessing facilities yet exist in Russia or the United States, in the interim the waste will have to be stored.
That’s where Chelyabinsk comes in. The Bush Administration does not want to bring nuclear waste to the United States but seems happy to see it go to Russia, assuming US law can be altered accordingly. In that event, the Mayak nuclear complex in Chelyabinsk is the most probable storage site, says Vladimir Slivyak, an activist with the Russian group Ecodefense who has long tracked, and opposed, government efforts to import nuclear waste.
The Bush-Putin plan can draw cover from the growing number of scientists throughout the world who endorse nuclear power as vital to fighting climate change. None have been as outspoken as James Lovelock, the British biophysicist whose Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism has been influential in European environmental circles. In a new book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock derides opponents of nuclear power as anticorporate Luddites. In a typical passage, he describes nuclear waste as “dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation.” Would Lovelock repeat that assertion, I wonder, to the people of Chelyabinsk–people whose totalitarian rulers secretly exposed them to massive amounts of nuclear waste for decades?
I was, I believe, the first Western reporter to visit Chelyabinsk and report on its nuclear contamination, in 1991, when it was still a closed city. The Mayak nuclear complex, located fifty miles north of the city, suffered the first of its three nuclear disasters in 1949, when officials started pouring nuclear waste directly into the Techa River, which runs through the complex. According to studies by Russian experts and scientists with the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, 28,000 people received average individual doses fifty-seven times greater than those later received at Chernobyl. Only 7,500 people were evacuated, and people were not forbidden to use the river water until 1953. The second disaster was in 1957, when a waste dump exploded, spewing some seventy-five metric tons of radioactive waste into the air, exposing 272,000 people to doses of radiation equivalent to those at Chernobyl. The third came in 1967, when a cyclone whirled across the drought-exposed shores of a lake being used as a waste dump; 5 million additional curies of radioactivity were dispersed.
Even in 1991 radioactivity levels remained extremely high. One day I visited Muslyumova, a village of unpainted wooden houses and cow pastures that straddles the Techa twenty-two miles downstream from Mayak. At the river’s edge, my Geiger counter read 445 micro-roentgens–twenty times the normal background level. A piece of dried cow dung registered 850, a reflection of how radioactivity becomes more concentrated as it ascends the food chain. Still, authorities insisted there was no need to evacuate, and without government help residents could not afford to move.
Today, the situation in Muslyumova remains much the same. Marco Kaltofen, an environmental chemist based in Boston, and Sergey Pashenko, a Russian physicist, visited Muslyumova in October 2005 to conduct new radioactivity tests. “Our tests found that local people are breathing highly radioactive air, drinking radioactive water and burning radioactive wood in their fireplaces,” Kaltofen told me. “They know not to drink the surface water, but they have no choice but to use the groundwater, and it’s that water and the air that are responsible for most of their exposure.”
Thanks to years of pressure from local activists, Russian authorities have finally begun talking about evacuating the residents. But similar promises have been broken before, notes Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project, which sponsored Kaltofen and Pashenko’s visit.
The Bush-Putin agenda could still be blocked in either Russia or the US Congress. “The agreement stands before Congress for sixty working days after it is submitted by the President, and if Congress does not pass a bill explicitly rejecting it, it becomes law,” explains Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, who supports the Bush-Putin plan as a necessary response to global warming. Congressional opposition is expected from environmentalists on the left, led by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts, as well as Russia-phobes on the right and centrists leery of shipping more nuclear materials around an unstable world. Meanwhile, Russian public opinion has been sharply critical of importing nuclear waste–polls showed 90 percent of voters wanted a national referendum to decide the issue in 2000, but the government simply rewrote the law anyway–which may explain why Russian officials have recently sent mixed messages about whether they will indeed accept such imports. Igor Konyshev, secretary of Russia’s atomic energy agency, was quoted by the trade journal Nuclear Fuel in late July saying that Russia would not accept future imports. Allison, however, echoing the views of other analysts, believes that the Putin government remains committed to the plan: “They just aren’t going to stir up political opposition unnecessarily before the [parliamentary] election takes place next year.”
People in Chelyabinsk have no idea that yet more nuclear waste could be heading their way, says Kaltofen, pulling out a photo of a mother and two young girls he met in Muslyumova. The girls’ Snow White backpacks, braided hair and shy smiles made them look pretty much like pre-teens in the United States. “Knowing what nuclear waste has already done in Chelyabinsk, and knowing these kids are still there,” Kaltofen asks, “how in good conscience can you send still more waste there?”