Moscow’s Nuclear Past Is Breeding Perils Today

August 11th, 2004 - by admin

C.J. Chivers / New York Times – 2004-08-11 23:05:53

MOSCOW (August 5, 2004) — The radiation experts arrived at Viktor Avram’s auto repair shop last month, appearing beside the wall separating the shop from an enormous factory. The men warned Mr. Avram to take care where he strolled.

“They told me I could walk on the road,” he recalled, nodding toward a dirt track that descends to the Moscow River. “But they said I should stay to the left. To the right is radiation.”

Mr. Avram works beside a disquieting legacy of the early years of the nuclear arms race, a large radioactive waste site inside a city of 11 million people.

On the territory of the former Soviet Union the work of finding and recovering radioactive waste goes on not only near the plutonium-producing reactors in Siberia or the Urals, or on the test range in Kazakhstan that in 1949 detonated Moscow’s first atomic bomb. It also occurs in the midst of daily life in Moscow — near offices, factories, train stations, highways and homes.

Nuclear Research Inside Moscow
It is a result of the peculiar history of a rushed Soviet effort to tease secrets from the atom. Every country that has had atomic programs has been left with the difficult task of recovering the byproducts and waste. But the former Soviet Union, under orders from Stalin, began extensive nuclear research inside its most populated and central place, its capital.

“The program of creating the nuclear bomb, the atom bomb, started in Moscow,” said Dr. Sergei A. Dmitriyev, general director of the Moscow region’s branch of Radon, a little known arm of the Russian government charged with locating, retrieving and securing radiological waste.

Radon works to undo the consequences of an incautious time, when researchers, working in totalitarian secrecy and with an incomplete understanding of radiation’s dangers, built a network of institutes and factories with little planning for dealing with the discarded material.

Those sites left behind all manner of radiation-emitting waste; more than 1,200 orphaned sources have been retrieved in Moscow over the years, according to Aleksandr S. Barinov, chief engineer of Radon’s Moscow branch.

Moscow’s own development made matters worse. Some radioactive material piled up at factories or laboratories. Much was hastily dumped in forests that at the time were outside the city line. Then Moscow grew, overtaking its outskirts and sending down roots into illicit radioactive dumps.

“Eventually housing and offices were started in these areas,” Dr. Dmitriyev said.

A Decade of ‘Orphaned Waste’
Radon, which operates a network of more than a dozen regional waste storage centers throughout Russia, began its work in 1961, after well over a decade’s worth of waste had been orphaned. Work became more intensive after the explosion in 1986 at Chernobyl, when the Soviet Union ordered Radon to survey population centers and search for waste.

A map of work completed shows recoveries throughout the city, from Moscow’s inner ring near the Kremlin to subway stops and residential areas at its edge.

Mr. Barinov said Radon recovers and stores only low- and medium-level radioactive waste. Becauseothe materials are not fissile, they are incapable of the chain reaction leading to a nuclear explosion. Their danger lies in emission of radiation.

Health Risks Still Not Established
The health risks of these low- and medium-level sources have not been conclusively established. Radon simply says much of the material has posed probable health risks, and its retrieval is essential both to reduce the risks and to ensure that radioactive waste will not be used in terror attacks. Its officials note that the medium-level sources sometimes have enough radioactivity to fuel so-called ”dirty bombs.”

Since 1996 Radon has also been required by law to monitor new construction sites, in case workers unearth long forgotten waste. And it retrieves unwanted sources from hospitals, institutes, factories and the city’s nine nuclear research reactors, while working on several old waste sites where cleanup is incomplete, its officials say.

Once material is recovered, it is trucked to a dump about 50 miles northeast of the city, near Sergeiv Posad. Some of the waste is burned in intense heat and converted to black obsidian-like blocks, and the ashes are mixed with cement. All is entombed beneath cement, clay and soil, to keep the radioactivity from spreading.

Part of the work receives financing from the United States, which regards the collaboration as an important area of security cooperation. “They’ve got a just daunting task,” Paul M. Longsworth, deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency in the Department of Energy, said on a recent visit to the American Embassy in Moscow.

The Danger of Diversion
Abandoned radiological material is periodically found in cities elsewhere in the world. To help Russia secure radiological material that could be used in terrorist attacks, the nuclear security administration has been providing Radon with equipment, security upgrades and training.

“Every day that these sources go unsecured, or partly secured, is a day these sources could be used in a malevolent way,” Edward McGinnis, director of the administration’s Office of Global Radiological Threat Reduction, said in a telephone interview.

Last fall, the security administration completed work improving security at the storage facility for the more dangerous categories of waste Radon stores, underwriting new barriers, fencing, locks, video monitoring equipment and other features designed to deter theft or loss.

The upgrade is especially evident at a cavernous storage center near Dr. Dmitriyev’s office near Sergeiv Posad, where, behind a series of gates, the most dangerous radioactive materials are buried.

The center resembles an aircraft hanger with a concrete floor dotted by rows of circular caps, each the size of a manhole cover. Under every cover is a subterranean vertical slot, nearly 20 feet deep. Radioactive materials are interred inside.

Radon regularly receives more material. Excavation of contaminated soil and the retrieval of other waste continues at several sites in Moscow, including the Kurchatov Institute, a nuclear research center that had its genesis in the Stalin era, when its grounds were beside an artillery range in the forest. Now it is well within the boundaries of the sprawling city.

The Plant of Polymetals
Another active site is the Plant of Polymetals in southwestern Moscow, beside Mr. Avram’s garage.

Last fall, an entire building on the plant’s grounds was dismantled, carted away and entombed at Radon’s dump. An extensive area of contaminated soil remains, Radon says, including a large fill on the embankment that drops to the Moscow River, opposite the Bochkarev beer plant.

Mr. Avram and another man who works near the plant said they had been visited by Radon’s experts but had not been told what sort of manufacturing or research occurred in the building, or the level of radiation emitted by the site.

Edward Shingaryov, a spokesman for the federal Agency for Atomic Energy, said the plant manufactured control rods for nuclear reactors and extracted thorium and uranium from ore. A spokesman for the plant declined to comment further. “We are a closed enterprise,” he said.

American officials noted that although Stalin’s legacy is atypical, with so much orphaned waste in a national capital, the broader problem of Russia’s radiological inheritance is not unique.

The other side of the arms race at times also conducted work in cities. In 1942, for example, before the United States government decided that nuclear tests should be conducted far from population centers, the world’s first man-made nuclear reaction was made on a squash court at the University of Chicago.

Three High-risk Rad Sources Discovered in US Every Day!
On average, the Department of Energy recovers three unwanted, high-risk radiological sources every week in the United States, Mr. McGinnis said, and not only from isolated sites. He noted that four sources of strontium-90 were recovered inside Houston this year on the day the city was host to Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Still, the problem of urban radiation in Moscow is of an entirely different order, sometimes forcing residents to evaluate the safety of where they live or work. Mr. Avram, for his part, takes an accommodating view.

Shirtless and streaked with grease, he said he was not especially worried about the radiation near his garage. “I’m from Moldova and I drink Moldovan wine,” he said. “It cleans everything. Radiation doesn’t hurt me.”

Resources in the printed version:
• The Plant of Polymetals, a nuclear waste site in southwestern Moscow, where an entire building was dismantled, carted away and entombed.;
• Radioactive material from Moscow is stored at a site 50 miles away in vertical slots under covers like these.
(Photographs by James Hill for The New York Times)(pg. A6)

• ”Hot Spots in Moscow”
• The 1993 official map of sites contaminated by radioactive waste.
• Map of Moscow highlighting sites contaminated by radioactive waste.
• Normal background radiation in Moscow is 0.25 microsieverts per hour.
(Source by Government of Moscow)(pg. A6)