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Soviet weapons plant pollution

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 2, 1990) US experts who visited parts of the Soviet nuclear weapons complex last year and looked over formerly secret Soviet publications have issued a report describing "astronomically" high radioactive pollution of towns, farm land, rivers, and lakes from the early years of Soviet nuclear weapons production. The report says the findings were backed up by Soviet scientists.

(341.3409) WISE Amsterdam / WISE Stockholm - The report, "Soviet Nuclear Warhead Production" (NWD 90-3), was published in Washington D.C. in August by the Natural Resources Defense Council and was written by NRDC's senior staff scientist Thomas Cochran, who has also written on the US nuclear weapons production system. According to Cochran and his co-author, Robert Norris, as hazardous as some of the US defense production sites are, none are known to have approached the levels of contamination from Soviet bomb production.

One site the NRDC report looked at was the nuclear weapons complex in Chelyabinsk, a plutonium and tritium product ion complex situated about 900 miles east of Moscow. According to their report, so much radioactive waste from the complex was dumped into the nearby Techa River between 1949 and 1956 (96 million cubic meters of radioactive liquid) that traces of it finally showed up in the Arctic Ocean, 1,000 miles to the north. The area was also in the path of fallout from the recent Kyshtym nuclear waste tank explosion (see WISE News Communique 339.3389). Access to the river has been blocked off by wire fencing. The taking of fish, mushrooms, berries, or hay from the riverside is forbidden.

Chelyabinsk wastes were pumped into Lake Karachay, also near the complex, after the Techa dumping stopped in 1951, until its 100 acre area contained 120 million curies, or 2.5 times the total releases in the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident. The deposits included the long-lived radionuclides cesium-137 and strontium-90, which entered the groundwater. Wind-whipped dispersion of the lake water spread high levels of contamination on nearby land.

In February, the Soviet publication Priroda ("Nature") also began carrying information about the extreme radioactive contamination at Lake Karachay. Now being called "the most polluted spot on the planet", the shoreline of the lake delivers a deadly 600 roentgen/hour dose -a dose according to the NRDC "sufficient to kill a person in an hour". (And according to an article in Nucleonics Week, US officials taken to Karachay this summer were not allowed off their bus and were told readings at the lake surface exceeded 700 B/h.) Remote controlled lead-shielded bulldozers similar to those used at Chernobyl are at work on the site.

The NRDC also found in Soviet documents descriptions of a "sanitary alienation zone" in the heavily contaminated area, in which people are forbidden to live or travel. According to one source, this exclusion zone also encompasses the security zone around the military production complex.

A separate report by Alexander Shlyakter, formerly a scientist at the Leningrad Nuclear Physics Institute and now a researcher at Harvard University in the US, has disclosed high plant worker exposure at Chelyabinsk. The Shlyakter study of radiation exposure among Chelyabinsk workers in the 1940s and 1950s, as reported by the New York Times, described doses to large numbers of workers of more than 100 rem. The cancer mortality rate among the 100 rem-plus group was 8.1%, compared to 4.3% for those exposed to fewer than 100 rem.


  • Nucleonics Week (us), 23 Aug. 1990, p.14
  • Radwaste Report (US), Sept. 1990, p.1
  • The European, 28-30 Sept. 1990.

Contact: The NRDC report is available from the Natural Resources Defense Council, 1350 New York Avenue NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20005. USA.