MOSCOW -- Villagers from the Chelyabinsk region in the Ural Mountains delivered contaminated soil to the Russian parliament Monday. The soil comes from the gardens and farms that surround the giant Mayak nuclear site. The villagers' protest, which has attracted more than two million signatures on a petition, is at a proposal to allow imports of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.
Last month, the European Commission's head of nuclear safety, Derek Taylor, told the BBC that the risk of a serious accident at the Mayak plant is increasing.
"More waste is being stored than they really have safe capacity to store," said Taylor. "I think there's always the potential for another accident. The situation at Mayak is obviously far from satisfactory."
The report claimed that Mayak is dumping intermediate level waste into a nearby lake and that radiation there is equivalent to about 100 times that released by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl. It said radioactivity from Mayak is seeping underground towards nearby rivers, where people get their drinking water.
A 1992 Russian Health Ministry report quoted by environmental group Greenpeace says 28,000 people have been "severely irradiated" by discharges from Mayak. Of those 8,015 have died as a result of radiation exposure and a further 935 are suffering from chronic radiation disease. The report details a 78 percent increase in leukemia.
Commissioner of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Greta Joy Dicus, said in 1998, "As a result of early operational practices and some accidents at Mayak, workers at the plant and populations around the site were exposed to unusually large amounts of radiation and radioactive materials. In many cases, the doses were comparable to those received by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings."
More than 70 percent of Russia's nuclear waste is stored at Mayak, 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) east of Moscow. Russia's Ministry of Atomic Power (Minatom), wants parliament, known as the Duma, to revoke the country's law banning the import of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.
Yesterday, 10 Greenpeace activists unfurled a banner declaring, "Russia doesn't want foreign nuclear waste," as four villagers poured radioactive soil into a barrel on the steps of the parliament building.
A Geiger counter reading of the soil showed it was five MicroSievert or about 30 times background or normal levels.
The villagers are Gosman Kabirov, 43, Yanahetdin Sharafutdinov, 48, Galia Gatiatulina, 46, and Gafia Karimova, 52. They claim to be suffering the effects of radiation.
Kabirov has chronic radiation sickness and leads a public ecological organization called "Techa." His wife, Milya Kabirova leads a group of women who suffer from radiation sickness and who have children with genetic mutations. Her father died from blood cancer at the age of 42, her mother was a supervisor on the Techa river and also died from the blood cancer.
Her elder brother died from stomach cancer, one sister has chronic radiation sickness, her younger sister suffers from chronic asthma and thyroid gland damage, and a younger brother has a radiation sickness.
Gatiatulina receives financial compensation for health problems, including chronic asthma and a thyroid gland injury. She was a supervisor on the Techa river.
Sharafutdinov's wife suffers from chronic asthma. Her parents have chronic radiation sickness, her brother has chronic esophagus disease. Three of their children suffer from polyarthritis.
Karimova suffers thyroid gland damage and was moved from her house last October after radiation was measured on the roof at 650 MicroSievert.
About 12,000 people live along the Techa River in the southern Urals. Enrichment of uranium for the Soviet nuclear weapon industry was performed in the closed city of Ozersk and the highly radioactive waste was dumped into the river, mostly between 1950 and 1953.
Stockholm's Karolinska Institute is currently studying cancer, mortality risks and mental retardation among individuals living along the Techa River, with funding from the European Commission, the executive arm of the 15 member European Union.
"We are already living on a nuclear waste dump which is giving us cancers," said Kabirov, a former resident of Muslyumovo, one of the most radioactively contaminated villages around Mayak. "It's crazy to send even more nuclear waste to Mayak."
Greenpeace is calling for a national referendum on radioactive waste imports and dumping in Russia. Under the Russian Constitution, if an "Initiative Group" collects two million signatures the president must call a national referendum.
Since July 26, eight environmental organizations have collected more than two million signatures. The groups plan to collect 2.5 million signatures by October 25, the deadline for submission to the authorities, allowing for up to 20 percent of the signatures to be discounted on the grounds of minor technicalities.
The groups are Greenpeace Russia, World Wildlife Fund, Social-Ecological Union, Centre for Wildlife Protection, Ecological Guard of Sakhalin, Baikal Wave, Committee for the Rescue of the river Pechora and Ecological Center "Dront".
"The extraordinary feat of collecting over two million signatures sends a clear signal to the parliament to reject the Minatom backed move to change Russia's environment law, said Igor Forofontov, of Greenpeace Russia.
"This is clearly an issue on which the Russian people feel strongly and the parliamentarians would be foolhardy to ignore it," said Forofontov.
According to a Minatom document, released by Greenpeace earlier this year, some $21 billion would be generated by importing 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel for "reprocessing", "storage" or "disposal".
The document identified Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Iran, Thailand, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia as potential customer countries.
Minatom has claimed that part of the revenue would be used for environmental cleanup projects at some of the country's worst contaminated nuclear sites.
Greenpeace says the revenue would almost certainly be used to expand the country's nuclear reprocessing and fast breeder reactor programmes.
"The idea that the deadly radioactive legacy of Russia's disastrous nuclear programme can be cleaned up by bringing even more nuclear waste into the country is clearly ludicrous," said Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International. "The last thing Russia needs is more radioactive waste or an expansion of its nuclear industry."
In August, vice-governor of the Chelyabinsk region Andrey Nickolaevich Kosilov supported environmental groups' calls for no nuclear waste to be imported to Mayak. Kosilov, who is responsible for Chelyabinsk social policy, said nuclear waste imports must not be discussed before a social rehabilitation program for Chelyabinsk region is approved by the government and included in the federal budget for 2001.
In depth information on Mayak can be found at: http://sun00781.dn.net/nuke/guide/russia/facility/nuke/chelyabinsk-65/index.html
A historical look at Mayak from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists can be found at: http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/1999/so99/so99larin.html