Ramzis has hydrocephalus. “I don’t like to go to school, because the boys call me bad names. The girls avoid me and don’t want to go out with me. I hope I will not have children who look like me.” Ramzis lives near Mayak, the site of a former Russian nuclear plant and the most radioactively polluted place on Earth.
The Mayak nuclear plant in the Southern Urals was one of the
dark secrets of the cold war. It was the Soviet Union's primary
nuclear complex, a massive set of plutonium production reactors,
fuel production facilities, and reprocessing and waste storage
In 1957 a storage tank with highly radioactive liquid waste
exploded. More than half the amount of radioactive waste released
by the accident in Chernobyl was blasted into the atmosphere. A few
villagers were evacuated, but most were not. 217 towns and at least
272,000 people were exposed to chronic levels of radiation. The
plume was 50 kilometers wide and 1,000 kilometers long.
But the explosion wasn't the only incident of contamination.
Between 1948 and 1956 radioactive waste was poured straight into
the Techa River, the source of drinking water for many villages. It
exposed 124,000 people to medium and high levels of radiation.
Nuclear waste was also dumped into the lakes of West Siberia, where
storms blew nuclear dust across a vast area around the lake.
The largest nuclear complex in the world
Today, around 7,000 people still live in direct contact with the
highly polluted Techa river or on contaminated land. In the town of
Muslyumovo, studies have show genetic abnormalities to be 25 times
more frequent than in other areas of Russia. The incidents of
malignant cancer are significantly higher. And the number of
residents of Muslyumovo on the Russian national oncology registers
is nearly 4 times higher than in the rest of Russia. In other
surrounding towns and villages people have cancer rates more than
double the Russian average. (See the Greenpeace Report,
Mayak: A 50-Year Tragedy)
Half a century later, Mayak is one of the most radioactive
places on Earth, and the accident continues to have a devastating
legacy. Many thousands of people have never been evacuated from
Dutch photo-journalist, Robert Knoth, visited the Mayak region
in 2000 and 2001 and took a series of
highly disturbing pictures of the victims of radiation in the
region. (Parental warning: The link above contains images of malformed foetuses and other disturbing photos.
Now, the real tragedy
Surely, no government could oversee this kind of disaster and
not decide to change its ways. Yet, rather than learning the
lessons of the tragedy, the Russian Government has passed
legislation to import spent nuclear fuel from other countries to
Mayak that would then permanently stay at the plant.
None of the countries shipping their dirty nuclear waste to
Russia would allow Mayak to continue operating on their own land.
Countries considering sending their radioactive waste to Russia are
abdicating responsibility for their nuclear activities by dumping
it somewhere else. They may like to think that once it's out of
their sight they've got rid of the problem, but nothing could be
further from the truth. The people who will suffer its devastating
effects are right here, the same victims that have suffered the
effects of the radiation disaster for the last 50 years.
The foreign fuel processed in Mayak so far has led to some three
million cubic metres of radioactive liquid being dumped and
released into the environment. Mayak has reprocessed over 1,540
tons of spent nuclear fuel from several countries including
Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic.
Russian authorities now hope to negotiate future reprocessing
contracts with Switzerland, Spain, South Korea, Slovenia, Italy,
Belgium, and Slovakia.
With its 50 year contamination legacy, Mayak is a horrific
example of the true face of the global nuclear industry.
The lesson of Mayak is that nuclear energy is not a solution.
This anniversary should serve as a wake-up call to the world about
the real costs of nuclear power. Nuclear power
undermines the solutions to climate change, by diverting
resources away from the massive investment in renewable
technologies and energy efficiency the world urgently needs to
tackle the climate crisis.
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