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Russia’s nuclear nightmare flows down radioactive river via AP

MUSLYUMOVO, Russia (AP) — At first glance, Gilani Dambaev looks like a healthy 60-year-old man and the river flowing past his rural family home appears pristine. But Dambaev is riddled with diseases that his doctors link to a lifetime’s exposure to excessive radiation, and the Geiger counter beeps loudly as a reporter strolls down to the muddy riverbank.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) upstream from Dambaev’s crumbling village lies Mayak, a nuclear complex that has been responsible for at least two of the country’s biggest radioactive accidents. Worse, environmentalists say, is the facility’s decades-old record of using the Arctic-bound waters of the Techa River to dump waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, hundreds of tons of which is imported annually from neighboring nations.

The results can be felt in every aching household along the Techa, where doctors record rates of chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects and cancers vastly higher than the Russian average — and citizens such as Dambaev are left to rue the government’s failure over four decades to admit the danger.

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Thousands already have been resettled by Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp. to new homes two kilometers (a mile) inland from the river, leaving Dambaev’s village of Muslyumovo in a state of steady decay as shops close and abandoned homes are bulldozed. The evacuations began in 2008, two decades after Russia started to admit disasters past and present stretching from Mayak’s earliest days in the late 1940s as the maker of plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bombs.

The question, 30 years after the former Soviet Union’s greatest nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, is whether Mayak is truly cleaning up its act or remains primed to inflict more invisible damage on Russians. Nuclear regulators say waste no longer reaches the river following the last confirmed dumping scandal in 2004, but anti-nuclear activists say it’s impossible to tell given the level of state secrecy.

Vladimir Slivyak, an activist for the Russian environmentalist group EcoDefense, has visited villages downstream from Mayak many times to help document the poor health of locals in the area, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Moscow near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.

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But when the AP took a Geiger counter to the riverbank outside Dambaev’s home, the meter reading surged at the water line and the machine began beeping loudly and continuously. Measurements ranged from 8.5 to 9.8 microsieverts — 80 to 100 times the level of naturally occurring background radiation. A typical chest X-ray involves a burst of about 100 microsieverts.

Nuclear Safety Institute member Leonid Bolshov bills these levels as safe, saying: “The level of pollution in the water today is incomparably less to what it used to be.”

What it used to be is pretty bad. Environmentalists estimate that Mayak tossed 76 million cubic meters (2.68 billion cubic feet) of untreated waste — enough to fill more than 30,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools — into the river from 1948 to the mid-1950s as nuclear scientists scrambled to catch up to the U.S. nuclear program.

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A study by Greenpeace in 2007, citing hospital records and door-to-door surveys of Muslyumovo residents, reported cancer rates 3.6 times higher than the Russian national average. Russian scientists have reported residents suffer 25 times more genetic defects than the general population.

A decades-long Radiation Research Society study of people living near the Techa River conducted jointly by Russian and American scientists has linked radiation particularly to higher rates of cancer of the uterus and esophagus. In their latest 2015 report, the scientists analyzed 17,435 residents born before 1956, among them 1,933 with cancer. They found that the vast majority of residents had accumulated heightened deposits of strontium-90 in their bones and such “radiation exposure has increased the risks for most solid cancers.”

Such figures come as no surprise to one of Muslyumovo’s longest-serving doctors, Gulfarida Galimova, a gynecologist and family general practitioner who started work in the village’s hospital in 1981. Galimova says she was immediately struck by the exceptional volume of pediatric emergencies involving miscarriages, early and still births, and newborns with malformed limbs and other defects.

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