On November 1, GAP and its Russian associates released a groundbreaking report on a little-known but rapidly unfolding nuclear disaster at the Tomsk-7 nuclear facility in Siberia. The report demonstrates that dangerous levels of radioactivity are entering the Tom River from the facility just north of the city of Tomsk. In a Washington D.C. news conference, the groups called for an immediate end to the dumping of radioactive contaminants. GAP is also urging an investigation into the role of the U.S. Department of Energy in promoting new and troubling plans for nuclear reprocessing and storage in Siberia despite evidence of gross mismanagement.
The report is the product of an extraordinary collaboration between Russian nongovernmental organizations and GAP that began in early 1999, when GAP met with a group called Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility. A dialogue began, and in April, GAP sponsored a joint conference with the Russian Movement for Nuclear Safety, urging the U.S. and Russian governments toward nuclear and environmental security. Then, in September 1999, GAP Executive Director Louis Clark and Carpenter traveled to several nuclear weapons sites over a three-week period, to lend expertise on whistleblower and nuclear weapons issues to Russian activists. That trip led to further collaboration in the summer of 2000, in a second visit focused more explicitly on technical assistance and collaboration with groups seeking to exercise citizen oversight and conduct environmental surveillance around specific sites--including the facility at Tomsk.
In late summer, GAP fielded a team of five American and four Russian activists and videographers to visit four nuclear sites in Siberia. The team was made up of members of GAP, Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility, and the Tomsk Ecological Student Inspection. The trip was a success on many counts (see GAP's website for a full report), Carpenter observed. "But things really got interesting when we got to the Siberian Chemical Combine (Tomsk-7)." On the 10th of August, the team took a boat to the shore of the River Tom to take samples near a point of discharge from the facility. There, members of the joint expedition discovered high levels of radioactivity in plant life in the Romashka River, which joins the Tom and Ob Rivers to empty into the Arctic Ocean. Field detectors showed radioactivity readings of Strontium 90 and Phosphorous 32.
"Lab readings that we took later revealed levels of Strontium 90 at 250,000 pico curies per liter--extraordinary levels if you consider that the permissible levels in water in the U.S. are 8 pico curies," commented Carpenter. "We were particularly alarmed to see fishermen catching large quantities of fish at the mouth of the Romashka, and cattle grazing on the banks of the river just downstream."
The contamination, the team's report says, is greater "than any previously reported river contamination, even at the height of the Cold War, before the human and ecological consequences of artificial radioactivity in the environment were well known. In the post-Cold War era, this pollution of River Tom is in a league by itself. . ." The reason for the high levels are not clear, the report adds: "No present-day operations previously described at Tomsk-7 account for the discovered radioactivity."
The findings add fuel to the fire of controversy over Russia's plans to import and reprocess or store nuclear wastes and fuels from abroad--a scheme actively promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy. "This would vastly increase the transportation, handling, processing and storage of deadly materials in Russia, despite clear evidence that Russian authorities are unable to responsibly manage their current operations," said Carpenter. "Until a pattern of accountability can be charted, GAP and our allies will press DOE to reverse its position on this question." For more information on the issue and what you can do to help, see GAP's website.
Report from Russia
From July 21 through August 13, 2000, GAP fielded a team of five American and four Russian activists and videographers to visit several Russian nuclear sites in Siberia. The GAP team included physicist Norm Buske, Media Coordinator Chris Chandler, and Tom Carpenter, Director of GAP's Nuclear Oversight Programs. The following are excerpts from Tom Carpenter's travel journal.
At Mayak, Natalia Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety invited us to speak with activists who were conducting an antinuclear camp outside the facility when we arrived. We took extensive samples around the perimeter of the Mayak site, particularly near Muslyumovo, the last remaining village located on the infamous Techa River, which is heavily contaminated with cesium-137 and strontium-90.
Next, we visited the Novosibirsk Uranium Chemical Complex, where we had a run-in with the Russian authorities while investigating high levels of uranium contamination. The difficulty arose because the boundaries of the plant and the rules governing public access were not clearly defined. Our monitoring was interrupted by local militia and Federal Security Bureau (FSB) officers, who took us into custody after claiming that Russian members of our group had crossed into restricted areas. We were held for questioning for several hours and then released. When the local paper in Novosibirsk ran a front-page article declaring that "spies" had been arrested outside the Chemical Complex, we visited their offices and talked with reporters, who ran a much more balanced follow-up piece referring to us as environmentalists instead.
Krasnoyarsk, home of the underground plutonium production complex on the Yenisei River, was our next stop. Before visiting the complex, we made sure we were thoroughly briefed on the plant and its boundaries by a local official and scientist. In addition, a local FSB contact called to warn us not to stray too close to the plant boundaries lest a guard become nervous and shoot us accidentally. Needless to say, we were quite careful in our sampling efforts there. Despite this caution, we managed to discover shockingly high levels of radioactive contamination in the Tom River just outside the Seversk nuclear facility near the city of Tomsk.
Tuesday, August 8, 2000
We arrived in Tomsk at around 11:30 and we were met at the train station by Lena. She had hired a tour bus for us so we did not have to get two cars. She also secured for us the only hotel in town with hot water -- hallelujah!
We reviewed some basic background facts about the Tomsk facility. In brief: Tomsk-7, or the Siberian Chemical Combine, is the world's largest nuclear complex. It is three times bigger than Great Britain--and its contamination problems dwarf Hanford's. It is only 20 kilometers from the town of Tomsk, a 400-year old town of about 500,000.
After lunch we had a planning session and then headed to the office of the Tomsk Ecological Student Inspectorate (TESI), a group that performs nearly fulltime monitoring in and around the facility. It has conducted several hundred samples, but has no independent capability to analyze samples; it has to rely on the state-run lab for analysis.
TESI explained that until the last decade, the plutonium production reactors dumped hot waste water directly to the Tom River, a major river which joins the Ob. Poor Ob. They have often observed fishermen fishing in Black Lake--which runs on the border of the plant--despite the ban on doing so.
TESI told us one particularly worrisome story. They found highly-contaminated ducks, by accident, on a soil sampling mission at Black Lake. They shot the ducks because they were interested in dinner. Later, they found high readings on the soil wherever they went, and eventually figured out that the high readings were from the ducks in their backpacks.
We learned that in 1993, Tomsk suffered a major nuclear accident which resulted from an explosion of a nuclear process tank. TESI activists showed us a film they made documenting the effects of the accident. We saw footage of a high rate of mutation in the local trees. We also saw interviews with people from the local town describing the sickness and death following the accident, and recounting the fact that they learned that there had been an accident only from foreign newspapers and visitors.
The explosion released over 200 curies of plutonium and tons of uranium to the air. Nearby villages were blanketed with radioactive contamination, which persists to this day. Farmers are forbidden to sell their crops, and given a tiny compensation. They continue to grow, consume and sell their crops in town anyway, despite official sanction.
Likewise, the fishermen who fish Black Lake (as many as 60 at a time have been observed) do not personally eat the fish, but sell the fish in town. Surveys of the local market have confirmed that highly-contaminated fish are sold in downtown Tomsk. A survey done by a Swedish doctor revealed health effects in 100 percent of the children in the affected areas.
At one point, we learned that Tomsk-7 has dumped over one billion curies of plutonium into the aquifer. This may be the Auschwitz of the nuclear industry. It is twenty-two times the amount of radiation released by Chernobyl, which has killed and disfigured hundreds of thousands human beings so far, with more victims yet to come.
I feel sick.
Later we met with a State Counselor for the Russian Federation, Alexander M. Adam, with the state committee for Environmental Protection of Tomsk Region. Adam proudly said "This is the biggest and greatest nuclear facility in the world."
Wednesday, August 09, 2000
Today we headed out to look at one of the towns that was affected by the accident with atmospheric fallout, Georgevika. Our plan was to take a look around the town, especially around streams and marshes, and see if radioactivity had accumulated anywhere. We conducted several samples, but found nothing of interest from a radiological perspective.
This was very good news for the town, but somewhat surprising, I think, to the TESI students, who had expected to find high levels.
Later we discussed tomorrow's activities. We are planning to rent a boat and go up the Tom River past the plant. We have been told that the river is open, but that it is forbidden to get on the shore. Norm was quite insistent that he be allowed to get out of the boat next to a stream which is off limits in order to get good samples, but said he would keep his feet wet, i.e., stay in the river. I argued with Norm that this was playing the rules American-style, and it wouldn't play in Russia. We went round and round, with the Russians thinking Norm was crazy.
Meanwhile, it became increasingly clear as the discussion continued that the restricted zone was not well defined.
Finally, it was decided that three TESI students who had special permission to go on the shore would come with us and take the samples for Norm, who will not get out of the boat. So, our day is set for tomorrow, and I hope our luck holds.
Thursday, August 10, 2000
On August 10, our team tested samples near a discharge point from the Tomsk-7 facility and found high levels of radioactivity in plant life in the Romashka River, which joins the Tom and Ob Rivers to empty into the Arctic Ocean. Field detectors showed readings of strontium-90 and phosphorus-32.
Today was one of the trip's most extraordinary days. It started as planned at 9:45 am with the boat we rented for the day (3000 rubles) meeting us outside our hotel. We loaded ourselves, including many TESI students, onto the red fishing boat/trawler and headed up the Tom River. The day started out cloudy and damp but slowly improved over time. Everyone was in good spirits and we were looking forward to some field work.
The plan was to hit two sites by the river, both of them next to streams that flowed into the Tom River from the Siberian Chemical Combine. Norm's thought was that the facility, which operates two reactors and a radio-chemical plutonium separation plant, was polluting the waters there. We would check it out and see.
After some discussion, two of the Russians headed out to gather samples at one of the streams. Meanwhile, Norm and I scrambled out of the boat and started poking around the water looking for samples; we suspected high levels.
And we were right. The river plants were very hot. We found extremely high levels (500 cpm) in small bits of algae. The background on the soil was also very high. We were sampling in and amongst cows and horses that periodically waded into the river to drink. Fishing boats came and went. We bought a fish from one of them and it was 60 micro-roentgen per hour (wet), compared to a background of 10 m/r per hour. It seemed each sample we looked at was hotter and hotter. Buske said: "Later lab readings revealed levels of strontium-90 at 250,000 picocuries per liter -- extraordinary levels if you consider that the permissible level in water in the US is 8 picocuries. We were particularly alarmed to see fishermen catching fish at the mouth of the Romashka and cattle grazing on the banks of the river just downstream."
Eventually we headed back to pick up our two Russian teammates, who had gathered samples according to Norm's instructions. These were the hottest environmental samples of the trip. The Geiger counters just sang. One reading was well over 4,500 cpm.
The algae alone read at an average of 1.25 millirem an hour, 500 times the permissible level of a U.S. plant. The river weed called milfoil, meanwhile, read almost twice the algae samples. Norm said these were the hottest environmental samples he had ever seen.
It is clear that the Siberian Chemical Combine is contaminating the river in a very serious manner, and with no effort to stop people from fishing, watering livestock or swimming in it. As it was, spending the day there was a definite hazard to our health. The next step is to get these samples analyzed and to get a readout on exactly what we've got.
We have one day left, in which we'll do a press conference on our findings, and I'll do a presentation to law students, and then we head to Moscow on Saturday. The press conference will be led by the Russians. Despite his central role, Norm insisted that he not speak, and was delighted that the Russians had so quickly owned the methodology.
I am convinced that our greatest contribution to our Russian friends on this trip was Norm's know-how and expertise. If you don't know where and how to use the instruments you have, what good are they? Also, we've been able to coach our Russian colleagues on how to strategize and how to work with the media to reach the public, all lessons borne from experiences back home.