Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999
Chernobyl in Slow Motion
Radioactive Mismanagement in the Soviet Union - Part I
In the process of the Soviet Union's rapid attempt at nuclear weapons development beginning in the late 1940s, little consideration was given to the radioactive wastes these facilities produced, let alone the environmental and health impacts these wastes posed. To compound this dilemma, atomic power and subsequent radioactive waste management was concealed behind the "curtain of secrecy," since it fell primarily under the jurisdiction of the Soviet military industrial complex. The Cold War inevitably sped up the process of nuclear development to a feverish pace. Furthermore, over the last 30 years, the Soviet Union has experienced a rapid expansion in the number of nuclear power plants - a programme designed to modernise the Soviet economy and consequently supply the military with weapons-grade plutonium to fuel atomic weapons. However, this rapid expansion has translated into an environmental catastrophe. In many cases, the damage caused by radioactive waste mismanagement is irreversible; in others, the threats posed by radioactive contaminants are potential disasters waiting to happen.
Information regarding nuclear waste disposal sites, methods of disposal, as well as quantities of radioactive wastes largely remained secret or classified. Due to the environmental neglect and mismanagement of nuclear wastes over the past several decades, the now defunct Soviet Union and its successor states must come to terms with this crisis. To complicate matters further, the dissolution of the USSR brought new challenges - politically, economically and technologically - for locating, isolating and disposing of these radioactive wastes in a fashion that is both environmentally sound and globally acceptable.
Building blocks of a nuclear arsenal
At the source of the liquid radioactive waste dilemma is the so-called "mining" process, which strips irradiated rods of their plutonium. The process consists of dissolving fuel rods in acid. After the plutonium is extracted, the residues remaining in the acid constitute a highly toxic mix of poisons. The plutonium, in turn, is then used to fuel nuclear weapons or discarded at the end of a fuel rod's life cycle. The Soviet Union produced approximately 55,000 nuclear warheads during the Cold War, the majority of which were produced with plutonium recovered from irradiated fuel rods.
Environmental concerns arise when the question of disposal is posed. These wastes are inorganic in nature and are not readily diluted. Among the contaminants are cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years, and strontium-90, with a slightly lower longevity of 28 years. (A "half-life" is the time required for half of the radioactive substances to decay into atomic particles that are less harmful to humans.) These two substances bind easily to human bones and are highly carcinogenic. The greatest potential hazard to public health is plutonium contamination. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and is the most deadly component of the radioactive waste crisis. The consequences of plutonium contamination on public health are severe. An individual may contract lung cancer from a millionth part of a gram of radionuclides by inhaling plutonium into the respiratory system. The severity of this crisis cannot be minimised. Russian nuclear facilities continue to produce thousands of tons of radioactive waste per year. Some 3000 towns and cities and 2.3 million people have so far been contaminated by radioactive pollution in Russia alone. Over the course of the Cold War, the Soviet Union mismanaged the disposal of these radioactive wastes through various inadequate means. Moreover, the crude disposal methods employed have proven to be largely ineffective and have, in turn, posed a threat of cataclysmic proportions. Military secrecy and national security interests have plagued the environment from the very beginnings of the Soviet nuclear programme. The defence industry and its effects on the environment can be characterised by both classified data and false information. The Soviet military disregarded the environment as well as public health and safety for the sake of building up the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
Entire cities involved in nuclear weapons production were the core of the Soviet Union's nuclear defence industry. These cities were closed to all but those who worked there and their locations were only disclosed on military maps. The infamous secret cities referred to by their numerical postal abbreviations included Atomgrad, Chelyabinsk-40, Krasnoyarsk-26 and Tomsk-7; others still remain classified. No expense was spared for these enterprises; the Krasnoyarsk-26 facility was as large as a medium-sized city. Located deep inside of a mountain, Krasnoyarsk-26 was built to be able to withstand a nuclear attack. Tunnels and roadways were cut out of sheer rock at an estimated cost of USD 100 million per kilometre. In retrospect, few funds were allocated to the safe disposal of the radioactive wastes these colossal enterprises produced. Subsequently, these facilities were built primarily in remote areas of Siberia and Central Asia where the dumping of radioactive wastes would continue for decades. Moreover, the production of nuclear weapons components was purposely spread over different regions of the Soviet Union in order to maintain the utmost secrecy.
The emergence of a large-scale radioactive waste dilemma began in 1948, at the Mayak military complex in the secret city of Chelyabinsk-40, located near the city of Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains. The Mayak enterprise provided the Soviet Union with its first atomic bomb. Consequently, for over a decade, the Mayak complex was responsible for pumping 1.2 billion curies worth of caesium- and strontium-laced nuclear waste into the bottom of Lake Karachai. This resulted in nearly 24 times the radioactive content released by the Chernobyl reactor failure. In comparison, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs released an estimated one million curies of radiation. During the summer of 1967, a portion of the exposed irradiated lake evaporated due to hot and dry weather conditions. Radioactive dust spewed from the lake, affecting an estimated 41,000 people in an area of more than 40,000 square kilometres. By 1990, radiation levels near the lakeshore were still high enough to provide a lethal dose within 60 minutes of exposure. Accordingly, Lake Karachai remains the most contaminated spot on the earth's surface.
Furthermore, between 1948 and 1952 the Mayak plant released nuclear wastes directly into the Techa River, a tributary of the Ob. The intense radiation levels resulted in the irradiation of 124,000 people living by the Techa's banks, and traces of radiation were detected in the Arctic Ocean, some 1000 kilometres away. Some 27,000 square kilometres in the region have been contaminated over the 40 years that the Mayak military complex has been in operation. Presently, the plant still has 100 ponds containing high levels of radioactive waste, each with a capacity of 300 cubic metres.
The attitude the Soviet government had towards these radioactive wastes was both ignorant and naive. During the early years of nuclear weapons production little was known about the effects of radioactivity. As a protective measure against radiation sickness, Soviet scientists believed that drinking large amounts of alcohol would flush radioactivity from the body. Unfortunately, the same level of ignorance and indifference applied in the case of the chief engineer who made the decision to dump radioactive wastes into the Techa River:
We reckoned that the river water would dilute the radionuclides to safe levels. We failed to take into account - we simply did not know - that the radioactivity would be absorbed by the silt on the bottom; it bound and concentrated two million curies of radioactivity in the upper course of the river. Knowledge about the atom among academics then was at the level of today's tenth graders.
The policy the Soviets maintained at the time was that the environment was capable of mitigating any form of pollution created by society. Environmentalist Ze'ev Wolfson has estimated that the military industrial complex is responsible for 40 to 45 per cent of all environmental pollution and overall degradation of nature in the former states of the USSR. Moreover, the military division of the nuclear industry continues to be a much greater source of potential contamination for humans, plants and animals than the 90-odd nuclear power plants still in operation; 20 are the same RBMK Chernobyl-type reactors which produce weapons-grade plutonium for warheads. As for the vast amounts of radioactive wastes produced, the Soviet leadership believed that advances in science and technology through socialism would be able to solve the waste problem. However, this utopian prediction never materialised. In fact, what ensued was the destruction of the environment en masse and the emergence of the radioactive waste crisis.
Radioactive pollution was not only limited to remote areas of the Soviet Union. The city of Moscow itself fell victim to radioactive waste mismanagement during the 1940s and 1950s. Moscow is only one of many cities where industrial-, research- and defence-related activities produced large amounts of nuclear wastes over the last 40 years. As a result, radioactive materials were buried within and beyond Moscow city limits. Officials had an extremely lax attitude toward the handling of these wastes, many of which wound up being discarded within landfills or city dumps. According to a Moscow city official responsible for hazardous waste, "...the basic policy used to be to collect basically everything in sight and send it away - the further the better." Accurate records of locations and quantities were neither kept nor disclosed until recently. As the city expanded outward, these dumpsites were unearthed or built upon.
In one case, radioactive waste was found buried under a thin layer of sand in the playground of a day-care center at Moscow's Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute. The Geo-ekotsentr organisation discovered some 600 radioactive sources within Moscow between 1982 and 1991. St Petersburg also had approximately 1500 radioactive sources emanating from within the city, only a fraction of which have been decontaminated to date. According to sources in Uzbekistan, radioactive wastes have been detected at dumpsites in Tashkent Oblast, possibly relocated there from Moscow. In the town of Zagorsk, Moscow's nuclear wastes were reportedly discarded in the local city dump as recently as 1978, and in Mytischi, where high levels of radiation were detected within an apartment building.
The locations of these early dumpsites remain the subject of speculation at best. This represents a serious problem in low- and medium-level radioactive waste management since long exposure to low-level radiation may induce the risk of cancer and birth defects among a wide band of the exposed population. According to a study by Philip R Pryde, entitled Panel on the Soviet Environment at the Start of the Nineties, urban burial of radioactive wastes in the former Soviet Union has taken on an "iceberg" analogy. Since these materials have been present in large quantities in many cities only relatively recently, the most serious consequences of careless storage of radioactive materials may well yet be experienced in the future.
The not-so bottomless pit
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the so-called "curtain of secrecy" has revealed some frightening realities and the destructive extent to which large scale radioactive waste mismanagement has endangered the environment. Russian scientists have disclosed that for more than 30 years, the Soviet Union has secretly pumped billions of litres of radioactive wastes directly into the earth. Scientists have disclosed the precise locations of high-level wastes from nuclear power plants and weapons-production facilities. Previously, the Soviet Union vaguely disclosed that radioactive wastes were disposed of by "deep burial in stable geological formations." Information has recently been published which refutes the official statement that the Soviets had used for decades. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy has admitted that about half of all nuclear wastes produced by the USSR had been injected directly into the ground at three widely dispersed sights and all near major rivers; including Dimitrovgrad on the Volga, Tomsk-7 near the Tom and Krasnoyarsk-26 on the Yenisei.
The radioactive liquids went directly into underground formations and not into steel liners or concrete mixes, as was commonly believed. The injection method utilised violates the global consensus which oversees radioactive waste disposal, requiring radioactive waste to be isolated in impermeable containers for thousands of years. This practice was deemed safe in theory, since the geological composition of sandstone, shale and clay would technically shield radioactivity from the earth's surface. The injection technique began more than 30 years ago to eliminate the massive surface storage dilemma of the 1950s. Injection was deemed the most cost-effective method of eliminating large quantities of radioactive wastes. However, no mention was made of expenditures, which were undoubtedly quite low in comparison with those methods used by Western nations.
The Dimitrovgrad facility contains the deepest injections, ranging in depth from 3600 feet down to 4600 feet. The largest injections took place at Tomsk-7, with an estimated 30 million cubic metres, or 8 billion gallons, of high-level radioactive waste. The current level of injected effluent amounts to 1.45 billion curies of radioactivity, with injections at depths of 800 to 1200 feet. Scientists estimate the original injections had radioactive concentrations of up to 3 billion curies before isotope decay. The shallowest deposits were located at Krasnoyarsk-26, where liquid waste was pumped to depths of about 650 and 1200 feet deep. The total injected volume was 1.2 billion gallons. Originally, Soviet scientists deemed the injection method as being safe, or "benign," to the environment. However, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy is now concerned with the containment of these toxins within the burial sites themselves.
Chernobyl in slow motion
Since the injections all took place near major river systems, the concern now is the extent to which these wastes may spread into nearby tributaries, thereby contaminating the Caspian Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Experts believe that if the radioactivity were to spread through the world's oceans, it may prompt a global rise in birth defects and cancer deaths. This so-called "slow motion Chernobyl" scenario poses a looming global threat since decades or even centuries may pass before scientists know the full repercussions of these toxic injections. Although very stable geologically, the West Siberian basin is very wet by nature, and hence radioactive waste may percolate vertically as well as horizontally due to the permeability of the soil. This permeability poses a particularly dangerous threat to underground aquifers, which are most likely already tainted by radiation.
Geochemist Dr John Apps maintains the view that the formations will remain contaminated until the primary fission sources are decayed - 500 to 600 years from now. Dr Apps summed up the situation in the following manner: "Deadly or benign, the injections have to be judged in the context of the Cold War and bureaucracy in Moscow, driven by a desperate desire to maintain parity with the West. A lot of compromises were made that will come back and haunt them." Nobel winning physicist Dr H W Randall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology labeled this incident as:
Far and away, the largest and most careless practice that the human race has suffered. It's just an enormous scale of irresponsibility. They misjudged the geology, and some of the wastes are on the way back to the surface... It's down there and it's done. They put it close to these rivers - that's the big danger - that it will seep in there over time, that cancer rates and all kinds of other things will go up.
Unforeseeable dangers are bound to arise with the injection method, as was the case at the Krasnoyarsk-26 facility, where the heat build-up from high-level wastes in one injection reached 356 degrees Fahrenheit before temperatures were brought down by the addition of low-level radioactive effluents. This scenario is similar in nature to the Mayak disaster of September 1957, when the explosion of a liquid waste holding tank containing 80,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste sent 20 million curies into the atmosphere, 20 times the contamination levels released at Chernobyl. It is incidents such as these that continue to show their tenacity, decades after nuclear contaminants first fouled the depths of the earth.
The clean-up costs for this large-scale contamination have not been assessed since expenditures would be too great and the extent of environmental degradation is yet to be fully determined. With the current state of the Russian economy, it seems very unlikely that any major decontamination projects will take place at these injection sites in the near future. In all probability, scientists may attempt to contain the dispersing radioactive wastes through elaborate methods of surface pumping. However, much has yet to be learned from this unprecedented example of mass-scale assault on the environment. Unless an alternative to liquid radioactive waste disposal is found, it is more likely than not that the injection method may continue well into the next century - despite all the adherent dangers. In lieu of the epidemic economic malaise Russia is experiencing, it is unlikely that this procedure of radioactive waste disposal will cease any time in the near future.
Peter Szyszlo, 30 October 1999
Next Week: Part II - Burial at Sea
A look at Soviet offshore radioactive waste dumping and the potential of a maritime Chernobyl.
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