Russia’s nuclear nightmare flows down radioactive river

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In this photo taken on Thursday, April 7, 2016, an old man fishes in a lake that connects to the nearby Techa River, near the village of Muslyumovo, Chelyabinsk region, Russia, which is polluted with radioactive waste from Mayak nuclear plant. Mayak has been responsible for at least two of the country’s biggest radioactive accidents. Worse, environmentalists say, is the facility’s decades-old record of using the Arctic-bound waters of the Techa River to dump waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, hundreds of tons of which is imported annually from neighboring nations. (AP Photo/Katherine Jacobsen)

 

MUSLYUMOVO, Russia (AP) — At first glance, Gilani Dambaev looks like a healthy 60-year-old man and the river flowing past his rural family home appears pristine. But Dambaev is riddled with diseases that his doctors link to a lifetime’s exposure to excessive radiation, and the Geiger counter beeps loudly as a reporter strolls down to the muddy riverbank.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) upstream from Dambaev’s crumbling village lies Mayak, a nuclear complex that has been responsible for at least two of the country’s biggest radioactive accidents. Worse, environmentalists say, is the facility’s decades-old record of using the Arctic-bound waters of the Techa River to dump waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, hundreds of tons of which is imported annually from neighboring nations.

The results can be felt in every aching household along the Techa, where doctors record rates of chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects and cancers vastly higher than the Russian average – and citizens such as Dambaev are left to rue the government’s failure over four decades to admit the danger.

“Sometimes they would put up signs warning us not to swim in the river, but they never said why,” said Dambaev, a retired construction worker who like his wife, brother, children and grandchildren have government-issued cards identifying them as residents of radiation-tainted territory. “After work, we would go swimming in the river. The kids would too.”

Thousands already have been resettled by Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corp. to new homes two kilometers (a mile) inland from the river, leaving Dambaev’s village of Muslyumovo in a state of steady decay as shops close and abandoned homes are bulldozed. The evacuations began in 2008, two decades after Russia started to admit disasters past and present stretching from Mayak’s earliest days in the late 1940s as the maker of plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bombs.

The question, 30 years after the former Soviet Union’s greatest nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, is whether Mayak is truly cleaning up its act or remains primed to inflict more invisible damage on Russians. Nuclear regulators say waste no longer reaches the river following the last confirmed dumping scandal in 2004, but anti-nuclear activists say it’s impossible to tell given the level of state secrecy.

“My opinion is they’re still dumping radioactive waste,” he said, “but proving that is impossible unless Mayak says: ‘Yes, we’re dumping radioactive waste.'”

Rosatom spokesman Vladislav Bochkov, in response to several Associated Press requests seeking an interview to discuss Mayak’s safety standards and operations, sent an email Thursday denying Mayak dumps nuclear waste in the river. Bochkov said the complex “follows all the environmental protection guidelines and has all the approvals it needs for operation.”

“The level of pollution in the Techa River today completely complies with the sanitary standards of the Russian Federation,” he wrote. He said the river water is clean: “You can drink it endlessly.”

One of her neighbors in New Muslyumovo, with its rows of pastel yellow homes with red roofs, blames the new location for her family’s health problems. Alfia Batirshina, 28, says a radon deposit beneath the topsoil of the new settlement gives her chronic headaches and her 8-year-old daughter recurring nosebleeds.

She is loath to discuss her daughter’s own birth defect, a deformed leg, and keeps her out of view of journalists. Her 62-year-old father, Vakil Batirshin, struggles to say anything at all. His neck is painfully swollen from lymph nodes that have grown triple their normal size, leaving his words nearly unintelligible.

The homemaker says she and neighbors are resigned to their medical fate living in Mayak’s nuclear shadow.

“I don’t hope for anything anymore,” she said. “If we get sick, we get sick.”

Full article: Russia’s nuclear nightmare flows down radioactive river (Reuters)

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