Russia’s Mayak nuclear whistleblower seeks asylum in France

A Russian antinuclear activist asks for asylum in France  Mediapart , October 2, 2015, by Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal, As the head of the NGO Planet of Hope [Planeta Nadezhd], Nadejda Koutepova has fought for fifteen years for the victims of radioactive contamination in the Urals, near the Maiak factory which, in 1957, gave the world its first nuclear catastrophe. In July, she was forced by circumstances to dissolve the NGO and leave Russia. This Friday, October 2nd, as Francois Hollande receives Vladimir Putin in Paris, she is asking for asylum in France.
Nadejda Koutepova’s story goes from the Soviet past to the Russia of today. She has been fighting unrelentingly for the last fifteen years to get recognition of the nuclear disaster which began in the Urals in 1949. She found herself under attack in 2012 when the Kremlin began clamping down on NGOs, in particular ones concerned with the military and the environment. Threatened with prosecution, she finally left her country in July.
With her departure, one of the most polluted regions of the world is losing its strongest advocate. The Ozersk region (south of Ekaterinburg in the Urals) has been widely irradiated, since the post-war period, and the contamination is still going on thanks to the continuing operations at Maiak. The name is less well-known than Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the gravity of the disaster is comparable, especially if one considers that it has been ongoing for close to sixty years and nothing has been done to resolve the contamination.
It was in 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War, that construction began on the nuclear complex. It was to produce the plutonium necessary for a Soviet atom bomb. It was built by forced labor under Stalin, close to the closed city of Ozersk, between Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk in the Soviet period). Such closed cities near military-industrial complexes were fairly common in the Soviet Union. They didn’t appear on maps, and permits were required to enter them. In total, there were ten closed cities devoted to nuclear weapons. The first uranium-graphite reactor was opened in Maiak in 1948, and the first bomb was detonated in 1949.
Between 1949 and 1957, very large quantities of highly radioactive liquid waste were dumped into the Techa, a 240 kilometer-long river that flowed past dozens of villages. Today, the Techa is the most radioactively contaminated body of water in the world, and nearby Lake Karachai is considered one of the most polluted places on the planet.
In 1957, an explosion in a container of highly radioactive waste caused a new massive contamination along a plume that was 300 kilometers long and 30-50 kilometers wide. In Russian it is referred to as VOURS–Vostochono-Ouralski Radioactivni Sled, the Eastern Ural Radioactive Plume. This explosion was covered up for twenty years before it was revealed by the biologist Jaurès Medvedev (twin brother of the dissident historian Roy Medvedev). Medvedev, in exile in the UK, published the first article in 1976, followed by the book Nuclear Disaster in the Urals in 1988. Taking a name from the closest town on the map (Maiak still didn’t officially exist), the disaster was then designated as the Kychtym nuclear disaster.
Lake Karachai was close to Maiak and was used as a dump for masses of radioactive liquids. In the spring of 1967 it ran dry and the wind carried off radioactive sediment as far as 75 kilometers, causing large-scale contamination, notably of Cesium 137.
In addition to these three massive emissions, the Maiak complex released radioactive wastes continuously in lesser quantities. Meanwhile, the contamination problems were never resolved. According to the relevant estimates given by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the wastes dumped into the Techa in the early period, essentially between 1949 and 1951, amounted to 100 PBq (10E15 becquerels). According to Patrick Boyer of the IRSN (France’s Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire ), that is about four times as much as what Fukushima has released into the Pacific Ocean.
The releases of Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 during the 1949-51 period also contaminated the Techa floodplain, an area of 240 square kilometers where 80 square kilometers were above the Chernobyl zone limit of 3.7x10E10 Bq/km km2.
Starting in 1956, while Maiak continued to grow, storage areas were built out of natural ponds or by building dams on the Techa. Military production of plutonium ended in 1987. At the time there were seven military reactors on the site. Afterwards, Maiak was put to use for both military and civilian purposes, for producing radioactive materials, and for reprocessing of nuclear fuel.
In spite of the waste reservoirs, liquid contamination never stopped. The main dam leaked, as did creeks flowing out of the canals built to channel the water, and contaminants leached out of the soil. “These are long-term mechanisms, very long,” explains Patrick Boyer to Mediapart. “The situation is stabilized in the sense that the releases are much less than they were in the 1950s, but the leaks continue, and the Techa is going to remain very contaminated for decades.  Additionally, the lakes used as reservoirs of nuclear waste contain a considerable level of radioactivity, which constitutes a risk.”
Contamination in the Maiak complex and the surrounding area has had effects on workers and the rural population. According to a Norwegian report, in 1949, workers received a dose corresponding to 1,000 times the maximum allowed dose for nuclear workers today. The villagers along the Techa were also exposed to high levels of radiation which led to high mortality rates and chromosomal abnormalities. Even though the practices of the Cold War no longer occur, radioactive effluents still flow out. The IAEA document mentioned above notes that releases of strontium in the Techa doubled in the 2001-2004 period.
In fact, the population of the region remains exposed to a level of radioactivity which should, according to a 2011 report by CRIIRAD (Comité de recherche et d’information indépendantes sur la radioactivité), require evacuation. This was precisely one of the struggles that Nadejda Koutepova fought, but Russian authorities paid no attention. The pressures that led to her departure from Russia are symptomatic of the opacity that surrounds the Maiak site. Since 2011, scientific data on the site has no longer been available.

The following is an interview with Nadejda Koutepova that was conducted on October 2, 2015 just as Vladimir Putin was welcomed at the Élysée by Francois Hollande to discuss the wars in Ukraine and Syria…..


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