Those words were spoken to me by the Russian human rights lawyer, Nadezhda Kutepova. For years she, with her NGO, Planet of Hopes, defended people who suffer in one of the most radioactively polluted places on this planet: the area surrounding the nuclear waste and reprocessing complex, Mayak, in Russia’s Southern Urals. Kutepova continues to stand up for her people from Paris where she has been exiled to because she was no longer safe in her home town. She made the comment when we were discussing the latest radiation measurement findings that Greenpeace published this week

Monument to the Liquidators of the nuclear accident of 1957. It stands just meters away from a driving school and a busy road. The Kyshtym disaster on 29 September 1957, was one of the worst accidents at the Federal State Unitary Enterprise ‘Production Enterprise Mayak’ (the FSUE ‘PE Mayak’), a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in the Chelyabinsk province in the South Urals, Russia, during which a spent nuclear fuel tank exploded, spewing massive amounts of radiological contamination.
Monument to Mayak victims. 28 September, 2014. 

The people around Mayak are suffering from the third biggest nuclear catastrophe in history: the Kyshtym disaster that happened 60 years ago today. The radioactive pollution from Mayak continues to this day.

The Kyshtym disaster is named after the nearest known town on the map. In 1957 a mistake in the reprocessing plant led to an explosion that contaminated 20,000 square kilometres – an area that did not appear on any map. Also missing from maps at the time was the nearby town of Chelyabinsk, a so-called “secret” or “closed town” for Mayak nuclear complex workers. It's here that Kutepova was born. Around 270,000 people in the area were directly affected by the disaster. 

Only in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, did the true impact of the accident become apparent. Only then did the Russian nuclear industry, now known as Rosatom, take some responsibility. Only after Kutepova started supporting local victims and working with photographer, Robert Knoth, who recorded the the lives of those affected, did Rosatom concede to evacuating those who suffered most.

Funeral of a girl who came from a village nearby Muslyumovo. The girl was lucky to get a job in Chelyabinsk and escape the polluted areas around Mayak. Unfortunately she became the victim of a robbery and was murdered at her home. Because of the very bad economic situation crime has risen in the region.Funeral in Muslyumovo. 1 September, 2001.

Well, kind of. 

First of all, not everyone in the village was moved. Some of the people’s documents were not in order. They had to stay in a ghost town without services. And five other villages were not evacuated at all.

The pollution from Mayak never really stopped, either. Radioactive waste-water continues to be dumped in ponds around and connected to the Techa river. In all the local villages Greenpeace Russia found highly elevated strontium-90 levels. The same levels as found in the evacuated village of Muslyumovo.

Rosatom already acknowledged several times that water is seeping out of the ponds into the Techa river system. And the people of Muslyumovo and it's surroundings are still depending on that water for their gardens. Still, Rosatom continues to dump its waste into the ponds. But, they are not called “ponds” anymore. They are now called “special industrial ponds”, “objects of nuclear energy use”, and the dumping is called “inserting liquid radioactive waste for storage”.

Heinz Smital (left) and Florian Kasser (center), anti nuclear program staff members, sample cow milk at a private house in the village of Muslyumovo, located near the Mayak nuclear complex. Different Nuclear Power Plant providers in Europe, like AXPO in Switzerland or AREVA in France, are provided by reprocessed nuclear fuel, coming from Mayak. The nuclear complex around Mayak is one of the most radioactive wasted landscapes in the world and is closed for journalists or international investigation.Sampling milk in Muslyumovo. 19 November, 2010.

Mayak is everywhere. Rosatom may be polluting a Mayak near you: by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from your nearby nuclear power station, by building a nuclear power station that will later send its spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing, or by loading your neighbouring nuclear plant with reprocessed uranium fuel from Mayak.

Rosatom’s operation in Mayak illustrates that the nuclear industry is not interested in people. After all, 60 years since the disaster the people around Mayak are “a sort of radioactive waste”.

Jan Haverkamp is an expert consultant on nuclear energy and energy policy for Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe and part of Greenpeace’s Radiation Protection Advisors team.