Nuclear nemesis

Russian scientists confess to dumping atomic waste near major rivers to hide their Cold War sins

By Rita Anand
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Nuclear nemesis

-- (Credit: K Laxmi & Shri Krishan)SECRETS spills of radioactive nuclear waste in Russia are creeping insidiously into the seas and may plague the world for the next 300 years. For more than 3 decades during the Cold War, billions of gallons of atomic waste had been secretly pumped directly into the earth at 3 sites near major rivers. Half of Russia's atomic waste has been injected into the earth at Dimitrovgrad near the Volga river, at Tomsk near the Ob river and Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisie river. The Volga flows into the Caspian sea, and the Ob and Yenisei into the Arctic Ocean.

In May 1994, Russian scientists addressed a small scientific conference held at Lawrence Berkeley laboratory of the United States Energy Department in California. They were ready to address the issue publicly, amid growing rumours back home about indiscriminate nuclear-waste dumpings in the sites mentioned.

During the Cold War, the erstwhile Soviet Union manufactured about 55,000 nuclear warheads, chiefly from plutonium recovered from fuel rods. As the Cold War ended, the Russians began to prepare a detailed inventory of a series of atomic tragedies. In 1957 in Kyshtym near the Urals, a tank holding liquid waste exploded. The nearby Lake Karachai was filled with 1,220 million curies of radioactive waste, making it the most contaminated spot on the earth's surface till date.

Russian experts say that they began injecting the waste to avoid surface storage disasters. The amount of radioactivity injected by the Russians so far is up to 3 billion curies. The injected wastes include cesium-137, with a half life of 30 years, and strontium-90, with a half life of 28 years. A 'half life' is the time taken for half of a radioactive substance to decay into atoms that are less complex and harmful to humans.

To get rid of the waste, huge pipes encased in cement were inserted into the ground and the liquid waste injected through them at a very high pressure. The stratum preferred for deep injection was porous sandstone covered by several layers of shale or clay -- seen as good barriers to prevent leakage upwards.

The largest injections took place at Tomsk, a sprawling nuclear complex. About 30 million cubic meters of waste were pumped at depths of about 243.84 m to 365.76 m. The shallowest injections took place at Krasnoyarsk, near the east bank of the Yenisie river. Liquid waste was pumped to depths of about 198.12 m and 426.72 m. The total injected volume was a staggering 1.2 billion gallons.
Poisoning the earth Lydia Popova, a nuclear physicist with Russia's Socio-Ecological Union, the nation's major environmental organisation, says that since liquid waste was injected at high pressure, scientists are concerned that this may have caused the cement casing to crack at places. Scientists, she said, reported that the areas in some sites rose by about half an inch.

At the Krasnoyarsk facility, concerned scientists found that crevices had appeared in the injection site which penetrated through the supposedly leakproof clay layers. Nuclear waste had begun to seep into these crevices and inch menacingly towards the Yenisei river, and the surface as well.

In Tomsk and its surrounding areas, cesium-137 was found to have leaked into the drinking water. "I don't think there is an immediate threat to the Arctic", observed Popova. "It has to be watched, but who knows what will happen in 100 years."

Complex calculations of geochemistry and hydrology are required to predict how this liquid poison will move. Says John A Apps, a geochemist at Lawrence Berkeley: "The biggest danger is that the waste might find its way into ancient, buried river beds and spread undetected." Apps added that the high cost of operations made environmental restoration of the injection sites tough. "The formations will be contaminated until the primary fission products are delayed -- about 500 to 600 years. Remediation would be excessively expensive."

"The key issue is, to what extent cesium and strotium will bind with local clays and minerals, because this could slow the speed at which they spread through local aquifers," said N Foley, a hydrologist with the Pacific Northwest Laboratory. Experts feel that ultimately the magnitude of the danger would depend on the flow rates of underground waters.

At best, the Russian waste may stay underground long enough to be rendered largely harmless by the process of radioactive decay. And the worst thing that may happen is that it might leak to the surface and produce regional environmental calamities in Russia, and any other areas downstream along the rivers. And if the radioactivity spreads through the world's oceans, it might even prompt a global rise in birth defects and cancer deaths.

It is difficult to predict precisely what the effects are going to be. There is little comparative data on the large-scale injection of radioactive waste. Also, the waste potency will drop because of radioactive decay.

In March 1993, the Russian government issued a report, called the Russian White Book, which detailed how the erstwhile Soviet Union had dumped large amounts of radioactive wastes in the sea since 1960. The government report also alluded to the problems with land-based naval radioactive dump sites and nuclear service vessels in naval shipyards. The mass decommissioning of the 1st and 2nd generation nuclear submarines, as well as the continued operation of newer vessels was adding to the existing waste.

In 1993, Greenpeace learned that some 4 million curies of radioactive waste had been collected at the bases and storage sites of the Pacific fleet alone. A Greenpeace report published in Jane's Intelligence Review, March 1995, states that the Russian navy faces an unprecedented crisis in dealing with nuclear waste generated by its nuclear-powered submarines.

Submarine perils
Now the burial trenches are leaking radiation into the surrounding ground. Aging submarines, with their cargoes of radioactive waste on board, are in danger of sinking at the dockside. Naval officers worry that the decommissioned submarines could also sink. Because the navy and the government are providing only inadequate resources for this, and inter-agencies coordination haphazard, the waste crisis is likely to persist.

In the spring of 1990, cracks appeared in the concrete walls of one of the burial trenches at the Kamchatka waste site. A military commission admitted that radiation had leaked, A subsequent survey conducted by the regional administration found several spots of contamination along the shore. The oldest burial site was thought to be the source of contamination. In late June 1994, melting snow washed some of the radioactive contamination out of the burial site into the Baldevaya bay. Reportedly, levels as high as 8 million roentgen were found.

The existing nuclear waste management problem has been compounded by the number of nuclear-powered submarines being decommissioned. Between late '70s and 1986, approximately 10 per cent of the Soviet Pacific Fleet's nuclear submarine force was permanently taken out of service due to accidents. Another 4 were decommissioned due to reactor accidents during 1979-1986.

Joshua Handler, researcher, Greenpeace, reports that for some 20 years, spent nuclear fuel from submarines has been shipped on an annual basis from the Kamchatka peninsula to a waste site near Vladivostok. Recently, ships in poor conditions carried this cargo.

Two nuclear submarines in the Pacific Fleet are out of commission due to damaged spent fuel being stuck in their holds. The Kamchatka, based near Petropaclovsk, may be in danger of sinking. At the navy's wet storage for spent fuel near Vladivostok, fuel rods are breaking and falling into the cooling pool. Radioactive waste leakage from around the site was found in the mid-80s. The pools were drained in a dangerous operation and the water was ultimately dumped at sea.

Located at the head of the Kola peninsula, Murmansk has been on the critical list of Russian regions where radioactivity exceeds several hundred times the permissible limits. Decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines of the Northern Fleet based there, lie in the harbour, while storage facilities for nuclear fuel recovered from other vessels, like icebreakers, have been filled to their capacity. Comments Leonid Ilyin, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Biophysics: "Unfortunately too many things are still being kept secret in the country and the authorities do not listen to the experts."

According to Ilyin's calculations, nearly 1 million Russians could have been exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation. "Everyone knows how difficult work conditions are in nuclear-powered submarines. Accidents occurred there in the past, but officials always kept quiet about them. They simply used the people and then discarded them."

It is only now that the Russians are beginning to get hold of concrete statistics, says Ilyin. "For instance, we now have information on about 7,400 people who used to work at the Mayak nuclear production centre. They were exposed to large doses of radiation at a time when technology was far from perfect. But all the statistics were kept secret, and doctors could establish the direct link between plutonium and lung cancer only decades later."

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