Russian radioactive contamination reported

Most contaminated site in the world surveyed by Norwegian-Russian team

A ground-breaking report by a Norwegian-Russian expert group on a previously secret complex of Russian nuclear installations now thought to suffer the highest degree of radioactive contamination in the world was released in Oslo today.

The report covers the first stage of a study of a more than 900 square kilometre area surrounding the Mayak Production Association (Mayak PA) near the Southern Ural towns of Kyshtym and Kasli, and including the previously closed administrative centre known as Chelyabinsk-65, now renamed Ozyorsk, with a population of over 85,000.

The report surveys the extent of pollution caused by the release of radioactive materials to rivers, lakes and atmosphere, and describes the consequences of a serious accidental explosion in 1957 and the spread of contaminated dust in 1967.

Mayak PA, the first installation of its kind in the former Soviet Union, started producing weapons-grade plutonium in 1948. Of seven military reactors, five were shut down between 1987 and 1991, while the remaining two continue to produce radionuclides for civil and military use.

A 20-year-old radiochemical plant continues to reprocess nuclear fuel from civil reactors, and a radioactive isotope plant is one of the world's largest suppliers of radionuclides, radiation sources and radionuclide preparations.

According to the report, Mayak PA has affected areas of northern Chelyabinsk, southern Sverdlovsk, and part of the Kurgan Region along the Techa and Iset rivers. The second stage of the study will focus on the threat of radioactive contamination carried via the river systems to the northern maritime regions, in particular the river Ob and its tributaries and the Kara and Barents Seas.

The conclusions and summary of the first stage report include detailed data on the distribution, type and activity levels of the various isotopes. More generally, the area investigated is described as "heavily contaminated by radionuclides."

"The dispersal of radioactive materials to the environment has led to harmful effects on the environment itself, restriction on land application, relocation of inhabitants from several settlements and observed health effects on human populations."

About 80 square kilometres of farmland are still abandoned downstream of the river Techa, Following the 1957 Kyshtym accident, when a tank containing high-level radioactive waste exploded, "the use of 180km of land is still banned and the location of population restricted". Significant quantities of intermediate and low-level radioactive waste are still being released into the environment.

Follow Up:
Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority tel: +47 67 16 25 00. References: "Sources contributing to radioactive contamination of the Techa river and areas surrounding the 'Mayak' PA, Urals, Russia."

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