Radioactive Waste: Life with the Nuclear Heritage

The Mayak factory witnessed the first serious accident in the history of nuclear energy use. The inhabitants of the region are still struggling with the consequences.

Gilani Dambayev bought a car and invented supplies. Dozens of water cans have been dragged from his wine-red compact car into his brick house. Dozens of plastic bottles stand on the kitchen floorboards, a few hundred liters of drinking water. Until ten years ago, Gilani Dambajew was able to go shopping in the village shop.

Today the shop is empty, the windows are bricked up, the shop sign over the door is rusty. From other houses only remains of walls have remained. “Calm” is the life here in Musljumowo, says Dambayev, here in this still young, 65 kilometers north of the city of Chelyabinsk located desolation east of the Urals. Dambayev makes a joke: “The neighbors are alright,” he says.

The neighbors are gone. The fact that they have disappeared from Musljumowo is due to the Soviet Union’s careless handling of atomic bomb ingredients and wastes. It is located on the little river Tetscha, which connects the village with the “Mayak production network”, an old nuclear weapons factory 70 kilometers to the west. Mayak means lighthouse.

In the autumn of 1957, the first serious accident in the history of nuclear energy use occurred in Mayak. The nuclear arms race could now, after the announcement of Donald Trump, to terminate a 30-year valid disarmament agreement , return to the world. Russian President Putin just warned against it . For Gilani Dambayev it might sound like a threat.

No idea about radioactivity

The danger is not to be seen, heard or smelled. It can be measured. Anyone who stands on the bank of the Tetscha with a Geiger counter sees the numbers on the display skyrocket. The radiation is up to 60 times higher than the value considered legal by Russian health authorities. A few hours on the shore correspond to the radiation dose of an X-ray of the chest. The stay near the river is therefore prohibited.

Dambayev is 63 years old, he came from Chechnya to Musljumowo more than three decades ago. A small man with a mustache and accurately combed hair, his back always stretched. Dambayev is a trained dancer. As a guest worker, he built houses for collective farms in the region, until at the end of a summer he decided to stay because life in the Urals was “more pleasant” than in his old home, he says. He suspected nothing of the radiation. “We had no idea what radioactivity is.”

Dambajew serves tea and biscuits to his rare guests. Borschtsch and Salo, salted back bacon, are waiting in the fridge. A few greeting cards and family photos hang on the walls in the elongated room, which is the bedroom, dining and living room at the same time. Dambayev lives here with his wife. The five children of the couple, the youngest is 29 years old, live in Chelyabinsk.

From his house it is not far to the shore of the Tetscha. Dambayev only has to trudge down a small slope, only a few minutes, where the river gently slides past birches. When it’s warm, dragonflies are buzzing with water lilies and algae. Wind roams the reeds on the shore.

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Rising number of cancers

In the spring of 1948, the first Mayak reactor went into operation. For years, radioactive waste, mainly cesium-137 and strontium-90, was sent to the Tetscha. The river from which the inhabitants of the villages on its banks drew drinking water. People bathed in the river. In Musljumowo students in shallow places crossed the water on the way to school.

In many settlements, the number of cancer and leukemia cases increased , people had cardiovascular problems, suffered from radiation sickness, infertility and malformations. The authorities evacuated several villages in the mid-1950s, destroying houses to prevent their return. Muslyumovo was an exception, the people remained for the time being. It was only in 2007 that the residents began to move. Eight families still live in Musljumowo. They did not move because they were hoping for higher compensation, higher than what they were offered.

The Mayak plant continues to operate , serving for the treatment of nuclear waste and the production of “nuclear weapons components”, as formulated by plant management. Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear power company and Mayak operator, says that since 1956 no waste has been sent to the Tetscha. Environmentalists doubt this.

At the end of September 2017, European monitoring stations noted elevated radioactive ruthenium-106 levels. The trail led into the southern Ural. The Russian weather service Roshydromet recorded the highest concentration in a village not far from Mayak and Muslyumovo – 986 times above the value measured in the previous months. The Kremlin was ignorant. Rosatom announced that there had been “no incident and no breakdown”.

A commission is investigating the case

The German government writes in response to a request from the Greens in the Bundestag of “a nuclear accident of the third highest category on the international rating scale INES”. It must be a “serious nuclear accident” – the INES scale shows the incidents at Sellafield in the United Kingdom in 1957 and Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 in the same category.

Moscow set up a commission of inquiry, supported by experts from France, Sweden, Finland, Norway and two experts from the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection. The Commission met twice in the Russian capital.

Florian Gering was one of the Germans who attended the sessions at the Institute of Nuclear Safety of the Russian Academy of Sciences. At the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, he heads the department Radiological Situation Picture. “The Commission has reviewed and evaluated all available data,” he says. “Unfortunately, it is still not possible to specify the exact location of the release.” The Russian side had cooperated, but there were no independent measurements of international researchers. To completely exclude a manipulation was not.

Gilani Dambayev wants to leave Muslyumovo for a long time. From a bedside table next to the bed he digs out documents. On one page the diagnoses of his years are listed on the Tetscha. Asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, fine motor disorders, chronic gallbladder inflammation, duodenal ulcer. A blood test that he did in 2014 showed eight times higher radiation levels of his organs.

Another investigation, drawn up by an expert panel in Chelyabinsk, which reports to the Russian Ministry of Health, confirmed that although the radiation levels of its organs were increased eightfold, the result was that this was not clearly due to the life of the Tetscha. But Dambayev wants the authorities to recognize him as a radiation victim. “I am a human,” he says, “I have rights.”

Protest letters to the president

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He calls for better medical care, higher compensation or just a new chance to leave the region. “Give me an apartment in Chelyabinsk!” Many who live in the polluted area, he says, have resigned themselves to their fate: “They are ready to die without a fight.” But he wrote letters of protest to the president and moved Court for claims as radiation victims. Without success.

Rustam Mukhamedyarov knows diagnoses like those of Dambayev. As an emergency doctor, he looks after nearly 9,000 people in the surrounding area. Striking, he says, are the many cases of gastric, laryngeal or lung cancer that he has to treat. The number of sufferers increase.

The young doctor, plaid shirt, brown eyes behind narrow glasses, was born in 1982 in Musljumowo and grew up there. As a child, he swam in the Tetscha. Sometimes policemen came by and forbade local residents to approach the river. Why, they would not have explained. The villagers collected berries and mushrooms, caught in the Tetscha. They drank the milk of cows drinking from the river.

Today he lives in Russkaja Tetscha, a village just under 60 kilometers down the river, where the radiation is lower. Mukhamedjarov earns a salary of 12,000 rubles a month, barely 160 euros, so he can not afford to move away with his family.

Relocation or take money?

In 1993, the Soviet Union was history, Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin traveled to Muslyumovo. “Only then did we learn that the Tetscha was contaminated,” recalls Dambayev. Yeltsin announced the relocation of the place, but for a long time nothing happened.

When Rosatom and the regional administration finally relocated the villagers in 2007, Dambayev was able to choose between a house in Nowomusljumowo, a newly established settlement, or the payment of one million rubles – almost 30,000 euros.

Dambayev’s neighbors live there today, less than three kilometers from the old village – and thus hardly further from the Tetscha than before. There is a grocery store and a school, a hairdresser and a bank branch. A memorial commemorating the Soviet victory in World War II stands in front of the local administration, together they form something of a center.

All around, houses of identical design line up: one or two stories high, red pitched roof, yellow corrugated iron facade. In their simple design they are not made for the harsh winters in the Urals, people here say.

More serious is another problem: In the soil, environmentalists have measured high radon levels. In the middle of the village, a billboard stands out in the sky: “Nowomusljumowo is our home – keep it in order”.

Pressure by the police

Dambayev says that for the house where he lives with his wife, he would actually be entitled to two million rubles. After all, it consists of two residential units. In the end, he says, the authorities claimed that he did not want to move at all. So Dambayev stayed in a house that he says he wants to leave. “I do not get anything,” he says. “Rosatom cheated on us!”

Mukhamedjarov, the doctor, knows the fight against authorities and those responsible. He himself was for a time a deputy of the village administration of his new home Russkaja Tetscha. Together with other activists, four years ago he called together the inhabitants of neighboring villages, who, in his view, were also threatened by the radiation on the river. The goal: They also wanted to demand a relocation from Rosatom and the regional administration. It came differently.