Record nuclear pollution in Siberia

Posted: 21 December 2000

Dangerous levels of radioactivity are entering the Tom River from the Siberian Chemical Combine, better known as Seversk, just north of the city of Tomsk, according to a report published in November (2000) by a group of Russian and American non-governmental organizations.

The groups are calling for immediate end of dumping radioactive waste into the Romashka and Tom Rivers. They have sent letters to the Russian Federation and to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, requesting immediate action to abate the radiological crisis.

"This appears to be the largest discharge of nuclear contaminants into the environment anywhere on the globe," said Norm Buske, physicist and oceanographer for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), based in Washington, DC. GAP collaborated with Russian NGOs, including Siberian Scientists for Global Responsibility (SSGR), based in Novosibirsk, and Tomsk Ecological Students' Inspection (TESI).

Satellite photo showing Seversk and the Tom River, Siberia. Credit: Federation of American Scientists.

The radioactive pollution of Tom River from Seversk is as much as the radioactive discharge from 10,000 commercial nuclear reactors - more than would provide for all the world's electrical power demand.

The reported radioactivity, dominated by strontium-90 and phosphorus-32, was discovered with dosimeters by a joint Russian-American team. Lab analysis has revealed strontium-90 in plant life in the Romashka River at 250,000 picocuries per litre. The maximum permissible activity in drinking water in the United States is 8 pCi/L. Even higher activities of radioactive phosphorous 32 are also reported.

There were originally 5 nuclear reactors at Seversk. SCC still reportedly operates two closed-loop-cooled nuclear reactors, uranium scrap processing services, contracted civilian nuclear fuel reprocessing, and nuclear fuel element fabrication services. The only one-through-coolant reactor at Seversk (Ivan-1) was closed in 1990.

No previously identified, present-day operations at Seversk account for the short-lived fraction of the radioactivity reported here. Based on descriptions of Seversk operational history, little or no short-lived radioactivity can plausibly be released now into open surface waters from historic operations or from stored or recently imported materials.

Because P32 is produced by neutron bombardment of naturally occurring P31, some unidentified, intense source of neutrons must be operating at Seversk, unannounced and out of rational control. This unidentified neutron source is presumably an unusual military reactor or, conceivably, an immense particle accelerator.

"We are concerned for the health of people who eat fish from the Tom River and those who drink milk from cows grazing on the banks of the river," said a joint statement by Tom Carpenter and Sergey Pashenko of SSGR. "We are also concerned for the health of people living farther downstream." The Tom River joins the Ob, which empties into the Arctic Ocean.

Read the complete report on the GAP website.