Mayak sixty years on: radiation leaks and cover-ups in Putin’s Russia

Abandoned Children's Camp, ChernobylThe starting point for writing The Chernobyl Privileges came about because, coming up to the 30th anniversary of one of our greatest man-made environmental disasters, I didn’t know anything about the event, and felt that I should. So I began reading about what happened at Chernobyl — particularly Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, and Adriana Petryna’s A Life Exposed. What I learnt was both terrifying and heartbreaking. What I also discovered was that, with what happened at Mayek in 1957, Chernobyl was far from a one-off.

In the early hours of September 29, 1957, a tank containing nuclear-weapons waste exploded on the grounds of the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s primary spent-nuclear-fuel-reprocessing centre. According to Radio Free Europe’s Tony Wesolowsky, fallout from the disaster affected more than 200 towns and villages and exposed more than 240,000 people to radiation. But that accident was just the peak moment of an ongoing slow disaster in which radioactive waste had been seeping into the ground and groundwaters of the region since the reprocessing centre’s establishment.

Sixty years on from that catastrophe — and thirty years on from Chernobyl — the Mayak plant is still Rosatom‘s main nuclear fuel processing plant. At the time, Mayak was a secret site and the town in which most of its workers lived, Chelyabinsk, was a “closed town”, and details of the disaster didn’t emerge until August 1987 in Austria, when the Russians provided the report on Chernobyl to the international community. 

It wasn’t until 2009, fifty-two years later, that the inhabitants of the worst-affected village, Muslyumovo, were relocated. Some of these were only pushed two kilometres down the road to Noveye (“New”) Muslyumovo. Some took the million roubles deal (about US$30,000) to relocate; some of these were ripped off by black market estate agents. The government subsidies for medicines to treat the illnesses — according to Oslo-based environmental NGO Bellona, people living in the area suffer cancers at 3.6 times the national average, and birth defects at 25 times the national average — add up to around US$15 per month, about half of what the medicines cost.

You might want to think this is a purely historical story — but of course the continuing suffering of the local people says otherwise. “People here die, several die a week. Most from tumours. Cancer. Edik was 42. Salavat 52. Just on this street, so many young people have died,” a woman called Nailya told journalists from RFE/RL’s Idel.Reality who visited Noveye Muslyumovo recently.

And there is a second reason why this is not merely historical. In November this year (2017), reports Bellona’s Charles Digges, French and German nuclear regulators said that they had detected high levels of the non-naturally occurring isotope ruthenium-106 in their atmosphere, and that it was likely to have originated from the Ural Mountains where Mayak is located.

“Russia’s federal weather service, Rosgdormet, subsequently confirmed – and quickly downplayed ­– that it had found levels of ruthenium measuring nearly 1,000 times normal in a village neighboring the nuclear facility,” adds Digges. But both Rosatom and the administration of Vladimir Putin have repeatedly denied that the ruthenium came from Mayak, and “Rosatom has endorsed a conspiracy theory that the radioactive pollution measured by the Europeans came from a western government’s spy satellite crashing to earth.”

But just last week, a senior official at the Mayak Chemical Combine came close to admitting that a radioactive isotope did come from that facility.

 Nadezhda KutepovaThis is, in Putin’s Russia, not only career suicide. In 2015, Nadezhda Kutepova, the head of a Russian NGO investigating radiological disasters and protecting the rights of its victims, fled the country and applied for political asylum in France, where she now lives and works. Both her father and grandmother died of cancer. She grew up in Ozersk, codenamed “City 40” as it was the home of the Mayek plant.

Kutepova is still actively working to protect victims’ rights, and only this weekend Al-Jazeera published an interview with her. She’s wary that her old hometown is still far from safe. She told Al-Jazeera:

Every day when I go to sleep I think about Mayak and ‘my dear God, save Mayak’. Part of [the] equipment [is] really old … commercial interest is much higher than the interest in nuclear safety and nuclear security. I think [it] can give us a new nuclear accident.

Kutepova fled Russia because she feared her work of exposing the failures and corruption of the Russian state would risk her freedom and probably her life.

If you know anything about Chernobyl, you know that it was Swedish scientists who first registered the cloud of radioactive gases moving across Europe after the explosion, and that it was ruthenium they found in the atmosphere. And now in Mayek, 2017, on November 29, three weeks after ruthenium was again detected in Europe, Rosatom quietly announced a tender for contractors willing to clean up after a radiation incident at Mayak’s vitrification plant. This while they also released a statement to the press, stating that a new panel of experts had found no traces of ruthenium at the plant…

Gorbachev’s programme of glasnost —  of openness — seems a long time ago. Russia continues to play games and deny nuclear incidents, to the acute cost of people and planet. It is a global concern, of course. Only last week, Thursday 14th December, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement for Russia to help the Saudis build nuclear power plants. I wonder how Saudi Arabia welcomed or not Russia’s assurances on safety.

I never knew that these would be the type of things I was writing about when I set out to write a novel that was, and is, ostensibly about sibling rivalry and survivor guilt. Fiction, however, remains a valid place for exploring our planet’s issues and how we respect, or do not, each other and the world we live on. But fiction continues to ask these questions: Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, Freedom and Purity, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and of course Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang name just a few famous texts that take corporate and governmental toxic environmental pollution seriously as subject matter.

Does it make a difference? Literature can, sometimes, yes, change public attitudes. It can inspire. It is an art form where the outcomes cannot be articulated or mapped directly. It is not direct activism. But stories are powerful beyond our understanding. And I personally now know how to counter some of those arguments that have arisen recently that nuclear power has to be part of the solution in responding to climate change. Does it? Really? And, more to the point, can it safely?

Abandoned Children’s Camp at Chernobyl (cc) Michael Kotter

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