Earlier this week, we noted that Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy agency had taken baby steps toward recognizing the dangers posed by an aging nuclear storage facility in Chelyabinsk, a town located on Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan, when it officially acknowledged the extraordinary high levels of radiation in the area. Though the government refused to admit culpability, as many believe the radiation leaked out of the Mayak nuclear power plant, which has a history of serious nuclear accidents.
Still, a month after the mysterious radiation cloud was first observed over Europe, Russian authorities have said little other than admitting the spike in radiation – a troubling trend that’s making some locals nervous and angry.
As the Financial Times points out, 76 years after radiation first began seeping from Mayak into the surrounding rivers, lakes and atmosphere, Russian authorities admitted that the nearby town of Argayash was at the center of a radiation cloud containing “exceptionally high” levels of radioactive isotope ruthenium-106, which spread so far west that it reached France.
But residents of the town are demanding more information from authorities, whom they blame for putting the health of locals at risk.
The FT described Argayash is a cynical, mistrustful town. Apparently, decades of being lied to by the government about being down the road from a leaking nuclear plant does that to a place. So too does watching generations of people dying of radiation-related ailments while officials assure them nothing is amiss.
A small, two-road settlement where homes roofed with corrugated iron and Soviet-era Lada cars nod to its poverty, Argayash is one of a handful of towns surrounding the Mayak Production Facility in southern Russia, one of the world’s biggest radiation emitters where a litany of tragic accidents has made it a byword for the dangers of the atomic industry.
Until earlier this week, Russia's state-controlled Rosatom corporation – the same company implicated in the Uranium One scandal – had insisted that there had been no radiation leak from Mayak’s facilities. Then earlier this week, it revised its story, admitting that radiation was leaking in the area around the plant but refusing to accept that the plant was responsible for the leak after the Russian meteorological service (Rosgidromet) reported that it had detected record levels of radiation in the area. Some calculating that the radiation exposure levels were up to 1,000x higher than the normal rate.
In a statement, the Russian Meteorological Service said that it recorded the release of Ruthenium-106 in the southern Urals in late September and classified it as "extremely high contamination."
At this point, the denials are almost comical – but local residents don’t find them funny in the least.
Many scoff at official denials, having heard similar for decades, even as they watched family and friends die from radiation-related ailments.
“We are not told anything about Mayak,” says Nadia, an 18-year-old medical student living in the town, 1,700km east of Moscow. “The government should not keep things secret when people suffer."
“People in the west know more about this than we do here,” she adds.
The Russian government’s refusal to admit that Mayak is probably the source of the radiation leak is in keeping with a decades-long pattern of secrecy surrounding the activities at the plant. An explosion at the site in 1957 rained down nuclear fallout on the surrounding area, causing the third-worst nuclear crisis in history (after Chernobyl and the meltdown at Fukushima).
Still, locals know relatively little about the threat posed by the plant. One woman who spoke with the FT said she only learned of the radiation that had enveloped her town when a friend in Germany read about it in a western newspaper. Before the authorities admitted its existence, text messages had been sent to residents saying that high levels of pollution from nearby industrial factories meant people should stay indoors.
Regardless of the potential health risks, many here say the government’s initial silence, denial and obfuscation has dredged up painful memories of a past that refuses to stay buried.
Secretly constructed in the 1940s, Mayak was at the forefront of the USSR’s scramble to catch up with the US nuclear programme. As it raced to produce weapons-grade plutonium, a vast amount of nuclear waste was discharged into nearby lakes and the Techa river.
Then, in 1957, nuclear waste storage tanks at the site exploded, raining fallout over hundreds of towns – and releasing more radiation than any other nuclear accident except Chernobyl and Fukushima. Ten years later, an adjacent reservoir used for waste disposal dried out, and powdered radioactive dust was blown over the area.
In 2004 the government confirmed that waste was being dumped in the local river. Nuclear regulators say that no longer happens, but anti-nuclear activists say it's impossible to tell, and are deeply mistrustful of the government’s assurances.
Earlier this week, Greenpeace said that it would petition the Russian Prosecutor General's office to investigate "a possible concealment of a radiation accident" and check whether public health was sufficiently protected.
Still, given Russia’s history with horrendous nuclear accidents, it’s possible that locals will never learn the real story behind the radiation cloud.