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Russia: Scientist -- Siberian Radioactive Pollution Has Recent Origin

Russian officials are denying the findings of a recent environmental survey calling two Siberian rivers the most radioactive bodies of water in the world. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini spoke to one of the authors of the survey, who explained the study's methods and the results.

Moscow, 6 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials and environmentalists are locked in a war of words over allegations that the eastern province of Siberia is home to the world's most radioactive rivers.

Physicist Sergey Pashchenko, who took part in a recent Russian-American non-governmental survey of radioactive pollution in Siberia, says the study proves the Seversk nuclear complex is guilty of discharging radioactive elements into nearby rivers.

But Russian officials refuse to acknowledge the results and say the claims are absurd.

The survey was the work of the U.S. group "Government Accountability Project." That NGO worked with prominent Russian scientists earlier this summer compiling the findings. The group made the results known last week.

Pashchenko says the group was not surprised to find pollution in the Techa River near the infamous Mayak nuclear facility (Chelyabinsk). But he says it was very surprised find the Romashka and Tom rivers to contain so much radioactivity.

The Romashka flows through the Seversk complex, considered to be the biggest nuclear complex in Russia, before flowing into the larger Tom River.

At first, the group assumed the pollution was a holdover from Cold War days. The Seversk plant produced weapons-grade plutonium and commonly discharged radioactive pollutants such as strontium-90 into the river. Strontium residue can last for decades.

But when scientists analyzed the sample, they discovered most of the radioactivity was not caused by strontium but by another element, phosphorus-32. Phosphorus-32 is notable because it's only present in measurable traces for about two months. This told the scientists the pollution was relatively recent.

"This is a fresh discharge because in two months, it would have completely disintegrated and it's an important discharge of phosphorus-32. Now begins the technical questions about what happened but that we cannot answer because we weren't allowed to inspect the reactor."

This is not the first time the Seversk complex has been in the news. In 1993, a tank at the complex exploded, releasing radioactive waste. Russian authorities at the time called the accident the most serious nuclear incident since the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident. The plant later reduced its activity and closed three out of its five reactors under a 1992 U.S.- Russia safety agreement.

Pashchenko believes the radioactivity did not come from an accident or from a storage leak, but from water flushed every day around the two remaining reactors to cool them down.

"So where does the phosphorus-32 come from? It's very simple. In the environment and water there's a lot of phosphorus-31. When this phosphorus-31 is irradiated, it becomes phosphorus-32, and that's already a radioactive element."

He says this would make sense if the two Seversk reactors are cooled by an older type of system called "one-through" systems. These coolant systems were built in the 1960s and used river water to cool the reactors.

"The...old reactors always need to be cooled, the same way an engine needs to be cooled. So the first reactors took water from a nearby river, flushed it though the radioactive elements to take away excessive heat, and then the water was again thrown into the river. These reactors were mostly military ones for making weapon-grade plutonium, so no one tried to save the heat. The reactors of the next generation already used heat for electricity and heating."

In its report, the Government Accountability Project does not name the cause of the discharge. It says no present-day operation can account for the short-lived fraction of radioactivity, but the report does speculate that the source could be a military reactor or an immense particle accelerator.

Pashchenko says phosphorus-32 is dangerous to human health and can penetrate the body through drinking water or eating fish from the river. It can also penetrate through the skin or be inhaled through water droplets in the air. Pashchenko says laboratory studies show that mice die quickly when exposed to phosphorus-32.

He says the next step is to calculate the intake of the element by locals inhabitants but this is expensive and would exceed the NGO's resources.

Reacting to the report over the weekend, Russian officials played down the situation in the two rivers.

Natural Resources Ministry official Andrey Pechkurov says there are "pockets of radioactive residue." But he says calling the Tom the most radioactively polluted river in the world is "baseless." The ministry says occasional observations, such as used in the study's methodology, are no substitute for permanently monitoring the environment, as the ministry does.

A local government representative in Seversk says the survey is inaccurate and the ecological situation in the area has actually improved.

The Seversk plant now is threatening to sue at least one foreign publication, the British daily The Guardian, for running news of the survey last week.

It's not clear what effect the survey will have. Earlier this year, the country's only independent but officially recognized organ for monitoring the environment, the State Committee for the Protection of the Environment, was disbanded and integrated into the Natural Resources ministry. Environmentalists at the time issued warnings the absence of an acknowledged watchdog would leave the country without protection from dangerous industrial projects backed by the government.