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Locals fear radiation spikes as Moscow plans road across nuclear waste dump: ‘Everything is very bad’ via Independent

Greenpeace claims radiation levels at the site are already many times above natural levels – and higher than the levels now seen in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Oliver Carroll

Up a small hill from the Moskvorechye commuter station in southeastern Moscow, there is a hole in a green corrugated fence. Radioactive warning signs, fly-posted by a group of local activists, are a clue to the mystery on the other side. 

Equipped with rubber boots, air masks and radiation counters, a motley crew is carrying out an inspection of the radioactive waste dumps behind the fence, on the perimeter of Moscow’s decommissioned Polymetal factory.  

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Campaigning group Greenpeace has recently published results from new tests of topsoil from the area immediately affected by the highway construction. Those tests showed radiation levels dozens of times above permissible levels, and pose a cancer risk to local residents, the group claimed. Samples at 0.5 metres below the surface showed significantly higher levels of radiation. 

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In among the human-made forest of bare trees, decommissioned factory bricks and reinforced concrete, at five spots in the area covered by projected road plans, radiation peaked at between five and 15 times above natural background radiation. In one area about 150 yards away from the proposed construction work, counters registered 9.2 µSv/h (microSieverts per hour), or 45 times above normal levels. This is higher than most spots in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (generally 1-7 µSv/h). 

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The secret garden near Moskvorechye station is the legacy of 1950s and 1960s, the earliest years of the nuclear arms race. That was a time when Russia looked to reverse, in Joseph Stalin’s words, “fifty or a hundred years” of backwardness in ten years. Achieving that giant leap meant cutting corners on nuclear safety, the dangers of which were not completely understood at the time.

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For many decades, the activity of the Polymetals factory remained a state secret. The full extent of what it produced will likely never be revealed. But we do know it was primarily concerned with extracting uranium and thorium from ores. It disposed of thousands of tonnes of waste products from these processes in areas adjacent to the factory. 

The Polymetals factory was not the only plant in Russia – or the world – to disperse of radioactive waste so incautiously. The Soviet network of institutes and factories left hundreds of such dumps across the country. But the volume of byproducts, and the tens of thousands now living nearby, make the plant’s legacy particularly troublesome. 

In 1999, Radon, the agency of the Russian government responsible for securing radiological waste, made a major survey of the site. That inspection revealed 40 separate zones of contamination, and authorities immediately embarked on an operation to make the area safe. But they stopped short of a full decontamination operation. In a 2006 interview, Alexander Barinov, Radon’s chief engineer for Moscow, explained that removing all the contaminated soil was “impossible”. Instead, engineers chose to lay new soil every year to keep the waste buried. 

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Rofer, who oversaw remediation of the disposal pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, where the first nuclear bomb was developed, cautions that the activists’ claims of radioactive clouds were exaggerated. That said, road and bridge construction in the area is not “not a great idea”, especially given the population nearby. 

“Building work can open things up and allow material to escape in other ways,” she says. “The thing about old disposal areas is that they always have surprises in store.” 

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