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Russia: Urals Nuclear Accident Passes 40th Anniversary

By Nigel Glass

Vienna, 7 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The 40th anniversary session of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) also marked the fortieth anniversary of one of the world's worst military nuclear accidents, which occurred in the South Urals. Now the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, successors to the territory, are attempting to come to terms with the effect of the accident.

On September 29, 1957, a container of radioactive waste at the Mayak nuclear installation in the Chelyabinsk region exploded with a force of 10 tons of TNT. The explosion propelled the contents of the casket 1 kilometer into the air where it was taken up by the wind to contaminate a tract of land five kilometers wide stretching at least 50 kilometers north to north east of the plant.

The installation was situated in the restricted access town of Chelyabinsk 40, and under the conditions of the Cold War no information on the incident and any consequential loss of life and health was released at the time.

The explosion occurred when a cooling system failed and a mixture of fissile nitrates and acetates overheated. One of the sixty waste caskets, each about the same volume as a small house, was completely destroyed and others severely damaged.

More than ten thousand people were evacuated to 23 purpose built villages and 180 square kilometers of land was deep ploughed to bury the contamination which was mainly Strontium 90 with a radioactive life of 300 years. An area of 4,000 square kilometers was euphemistically re-designed as a Reserve for Studying the Effect of Radiation on the Ecology, and remains a restricted zone

According to a study presented to the IAEA by the USSR in 1989, which still did not then identify the location of the accident, there was no impact on the health of the population.

But current reports from the Russian news agency Tass, say that only 51 of the 132 people who were drafted to deal with the accident are still alive. Now the government of the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia has formed a fund to provide assistance to the injured survivors and the families of those killed.

According to the Russian Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, the accident was a result of the lack of nuclear expertise in the former USSR during the beginning of the intense nuclear arms race with America during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"We lacked experience and there had been no previous research (into the handing of nuclear waste)," they said.

Inexcusable as the Soviet performance at Mayak was, the safe handling of nuclear waste remains an international problem. At the time of the Mayak accident the world's first nuclear power plant had just been commissioned in the United Kingdom and the civil nuclear community was beginning to face the disposal of radioactive waste. The task has now widened from the storage of military nuclear waste by the five nuclear powers in 1957, to that of dealing with the waste from the 442 nuclear power stations operated worldwide.

The long term solution still preoccupies the nuclear community. In the face of this, America has recently shifted its policy from burial of all waste, to the possibility of reprocessing some of it for further use.

There is little international agreement on the issue. At the IAEA conference on nuclear fuel management in June 1997, a German representative asked: "What are the reasons for the nuclear industry's failure to extend international cooperation to such areas as spent fuel storage?"

The reason is that the industry lacks the experience of long-term storage. No spent fuel repository has yet been constructed nor has encapsulation of significant quantities of spent fuel taken place.