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Russia: Radiation Contamination Facts Shrouded in Controversy

By Katarzyna Wysocka

Prague, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Greenpeace says that Russia's only operating uranium mine complex is poisoning the environment in its area of Eastern Siberia. A Swedish institute says the mine isn't any problem at all.

Now comes the Russian Academy of Medical Science to say that neither organization has the data fully to back up its claims.

The mines are near Krasnokamensk, a formerly closed town with 76,000 inhabitants close to the Chinese and Mongolian borders with Siberia. The complex is run by the Priargunskiy Mountain Chemical Combine and includes three underground uranium mines, an open pit uranium mine and facilities for uranium processing.

The manager of the facility says it is the biggest complex of its kind in the world. At present, its entire production is sold in Europe, the United States, Argentina and Canada.

The Swedish branch of the international activist environmental organization, Greenpeace, has urged the Swedish government to stop importing Russian uranium. A spokesperson for Swedish Greenpeace says that Greenpeace research shows radiation from the uranium works is contaminating a large area. The spokesperson, Dima Litvinov, told our correspondent that the radiation and other byproducts are damaging peoples' health in the region.

Swedish Greenpeace made its first trip to Krasnokamensk two years ago and reported that the uranium mining raises the incidence of cancers and birth defects to alarming levels.

Last August, Russia expelled Litvinov and another Swedish Greenpeace activist. They had been researching what they said were environmental problems of the uranium mines in the region. As Litvinov described it to RFE/RL: "The police made us sign a document saying we had broken the law of the former Soviet Union."

In contrast with the Greenpeace position, the Swedish government's Radiation Protection Institute says that the uranium mining complex is having no impact on environment and public health in the region at all.

Responding to the early Greenpeace reports, the Swedish Ministry of the Environment last summer sent to the area a delegation led by the institute. In ten days, the delegation visited authorities in Moscow, went to Krasnokamensk, visited the complex, and met with local authorities and representatives of the mining company.

A member of the delegation, Hans Ehdwall, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that the visitors found no significant impact on the population of Krasnokamensk that could be related to the uranium mining.

Asked if the research wasn't one-sided, since the delegation dealt principally with governmental and mine-complex authorities, Ehdwall said: "This is how international diplomacy works." Ehdwall also is a senior official of the institute

The chairman of the East Siberian subsidiary of the Russian Academy of Medical Science told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that both Greenpeace and the Radiation Protection Institute took their data from a three-year-old preliminary report of a medical study which the academy was conducting. The academy official, Sergei Kolesnikov, said most of the conclusions of Greenpeace and the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute are based on that study.

He said each organization took the same data and used it to bolster its own position.

Kolesnikov said that the health situation in Krasnokamensk is a matter for legitimate concern. He said the academy study showed that cases of cancer in the Krasnokamensk region has increased by a multiple of three since 1979. Kolesnikov said that incidence of cancer in Krasnokamensk remains lower than the average in the rest of the Russian federation, but, he said, the rate of increase is higher.

He said the study showed that the incidence of children born with malformations is more than triple that of 17 years ago.

However, Kolesnikov said that the reason for the worsening health of the population is a complex combination of many factors. One factor is the worsening social situation in Krasnokamensk. Radon gas and radiation coming from the uranium works as well as from natural mineral deposits in the soil are important factors also, he said.

The small village of Oktyabrskiy is inside the industrial zone of the uranium combine. Health there is so bad that the Academy of Medical Science has called on the federation government to declare the village an environmental catastrophe zone. This would require evacuation of the village.

Kolesnikov said Greenpeace's interpretation of the data was simplistic in describing the uranium works as the only reason for deteriorating public health in the whole region of Krasnokamensk. But the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute's statements also were inaccurate, Kolesnikov said.

"The Swedish delegation didn't have the data to draw adequate conclusions; nobody showed them statistics about the health situation before 1985," he said.

He said that medical research organizations need to do more research to determine why health problems have increased so sharply, but the researchers lack the necessary funds.

The Greenpeace activist, Dima Litvinov told RFE/RL: "It is a vicious circle." Litvinov said that the Russian government uses the statement of the Swedish delegation to justify failing to allocate research money. He said the result is that facts about the health situation remain hidden, and Sweden can continue undisturbed to buy Russian uranium.

Recently the Russian newspaper "Nezalisimaya Gazeta" said that Greenpeace's protests about the health of the people in Krasnokamensk could cost Russia its place in the world uranium market. The newspaper quoted an official of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy as charging that Swedish Greenpeace is paid by French and American companies seeking to edge Russia out of the world market.