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Locals Left In Dark About Russian Radiation Spike

Sixty years after the nearby Mayak facility was the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, local residents worry about what the authorities aren't telling them.

ARGAYASH, Russia -- People living near a nuclear reprocessing plant that is suspected to have caused a spike in radioactivity over the Ural Mountains in Russia say they were never warned by officials of any potential danger.

Residents and even local officials in the town of Argayash told RFE/RL on November 21 that they first heard reports of the rise in radioactivity from Western news reports.

"No, we don't know anything. Just read about it on the Internet myself. We don't know any more. Only doctors might know," said a local official who requested anonymity, he explained, due to his working for the government.

However, at least one doctor in Argayash, Abdulkhay Valeyev, said he couldn't comment because there was not enough information.

"No, these are unconfirmed facts. We can't confirm or deny it because there's no data about it," Valeyev told RFE/RL.

The comments come after Russian authorities earlier on November 21 confirmed reports of a spike in radioactivity in the air over the Ural Mountains.

The Russian meteorological service said in a statement that it recorded the release of ruthenium-106 in the southern Urals in late September and classified it as "extremely high contamination."

It also said high levels of radiation in residential areas adjacent to Rosatom's Mayak plant for spent nuclear fuel had been detected. Air samples in the town of Argayash, 30 kilometers from Mayak, in late September-early October, for example, showed levels nearly 1,000 times higher than those recorded in previous months.

In 1957, the Mayak facility was the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, and nearby residents say the government is still paying little attention to their plight 60 years later.

In a statement on November 21, Mayak denied being the source of contamination. The plant said it has not conducted any work extracting ruthenium-106 from spent nuclear fuel "for several years."

But many of those living near Mayak appear skeptical of such assurances, given the trickle of official information so far.

A local antinuclear activist said the information vacuum around the incident smacked of the Soviet response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

"It's sad that we learned about this [radiation spike] from Western media. People are anxious for information to know whether it's dangerous or not, expecting explanations if it is dangerous or not," said Albert Garapov, the chairman of the Tatarstan Antinuclear Society.

"We learned about Chernobyl from Swedish media. Despite the passage of time, we still get this type of news about our country from the West," Garapov added.

PHOTO GALLERY: 'Left To Die As Guinea Pigs': Tatar Village Struggles On, 60 Years After Nuclear Catastrophe

Garapov also said high radiation levels were being detected elsewhere in Tatarstan. "In Bugulma, its [radiation] level is 16 times higher than normal. That means it probably got there through rain clouds," he said, adding that local people should not panic but be cautious.

"I'd suggest people wash fruit and vegetables more thoroughly. We'll be monitoring the situation. It's not that dangerous but we need to know how to protect ourselves."

Greenpeace said in a statement on November 21 that it would petition the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate "a possible concealment of a radiation accident" and check whether public health was sufficiently protected.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky