Lessons from Mayak: The Effects of Environmental Plutonium Exposure

By Adam Wynne | 2018-10-01 12:00:00

For more than seven decades, a nuclear disaster has been unfolding in the Ural Mountains of Russia. In 1945, the Soviet Union launched “the Uranium Project” with the aim of competing with the United Kingdom and United States in the development and subsequent maintenance of state nuclear arsenals. In 1946, a perceived isolated region of Siberia—code-named Chelyabinsk-65—was selected to house the new Soviet atomic industry. The largest atomic plant—which is still active in 2018—was named “Mayak” (Russian for “house of light”). Since 1946, the Mayak Production Association has undergone a number of additions and expansions, not just in territory, but also in duties, roles, and responsibilities within the state. Over the past seven decades, safety and containment standards have been lax or non-existent at Mayak—and a series of leaks, failing infrastructure, and state disinformation have created a horrifying Cold War legacy and a truly terrifying timebomb for future generations.

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing until the 1970s, Soviet solutions for storing significant quantities of liquid radioactive waste involved “burying” it in local water systems. The most frequently used model involved simply dumping the liquid waste into the depths of man-made reservoirs connected to the natural waterways. Mayak implemented the “Techa Cascades of Reservoirs”—a series of “large-scale hydraulic structure[s] including reservoirs, bypass channels, and dams with culverts and by-washes”1 with the intent of containing radioactive particulates and contaminated sediments produced by its radiochemical plants.

Notorious Deficiencies

The assumption was that the depths of the reservoirs alone would contain the waste for eternity. This was a false and ultimately dangerous assumption. The Mayak Site “is located on generally flat terrain which consists of numerous lakes, marshes, and flood plains of several rivers, which are located from north to south along mountain ranges.”2 An increasing volume of annual glacial meltwater coupled with above-average precipitation levels has resulted in the Techa Cascade of Reservoirs overflowing and spilling radioactive water and particulate contaminates across wide swaths of the flood plain and into inhabited regions. Laura Sembritzki in “Radiation Knowledge and Ignorance in the Soviet Union”3 characterizes Mayak as defined by “notorious deficiencies” in equipment, technology, and safety regulations.

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, there were no fewer than 30 separate radiation leaks at Mayak between 1953 and 1998.4 Perhaps the most infamous of these was on 29 September 1957, resulting in the Kyshtym Disaster—where 270 000 people across Central Asia were irradiated by a plume of radioactive steam after a processing plant exploded from an improperly maintained cooling system.5 The disaster saw the introduction of between 70 and 80 tons of radioactive steam into the atmosphere, resulting in the East Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT) and widespread irradiation of the steppes.6 This later condensed in rain and pooled in Lake Karachay —connected to the Techa River system. The Trace is now a widespread scar across the landscape where atmospheric and hydrologic currents have carried radioactive matter across hundreds of kilometres of the Siberian steppes, bogs, and lakes, rendering these environments unsafe for human habitation.

To this day, you will die if you step foot in Lake Karachay and you can only spend minutes on its boggy shores before irreversible radiation damage is done on a cellular level to your genomic code.7 Another infamous consequence of Mayak’s “notorious deficiencies” is the village of Muslyumovo (population: 21,880) where much of the population displays symptoms of chronic radiation poisoning—as the entire region’s water supply is downstream of Mayak and has been contaminated with radionuclides for decades. The contamination zone moves approximately 100 metres downstream per year towards the Arctic Ocean8 and this is predicted to accelerate with climate change. In 2017, another large radiation leak was detected in the East Ural region. A large plume of ruthenium-106 steam irradiated most of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, eventually being traced back to Mayak by French atmospheric scientists9—yet little has been subsequently done to increase safety or security measures at the site.

In response to the early containment failures and radiation leaks, the Soviet Union declared the regions immediately surrounding Mayak a wildlife preserve—known as the East Ural Nature Reserve—aiming to exclude the public from the heavily contaminated environments. In 1958, the wildlife preserve was re-classified as the first “sanitary protection zone” which had a “restrictive regime—residence and economic activities were prohibited”10 with state police allegedly patrolling its boundaries. However, these restrictions were and are not regularly enforced and the local populations continued to use heavily contaminated environments due to a “lack of ‘clean’ pastures and hayfields and a lack of official information about radioactive contamination”.

Admitting failures

It was not until the mid-1990s that the Russian government officially admitted to repeated containment failures and leaks at Mayak and acknowledged the existence of the EURT. Interestingly, the United States was aware of the environmental contamination and containment failures at Mayak since the early 1960s, but chose not to publicly announce the findings out of concern it would negatively impact public perceptions of the United States’ fledgling atomic industry.11

Mayak contains a number of radiochemical production, processing, and decommissioning plants, including large-scale plutonium production and processing facilities. Plutonium is a synthetic element—first produced in 1940. It is an extremely powerful alpha-radiation emitter which produces harmful ionizing radiation that is particularly damaging to cells if introduced to the internal systems of the body. Plutonium is created via uranium which is enriched via an intensive centrifuge process. The production of weapon-grade plutonium involves exposing reactor-quantities of Pu-238 to neutron radiation for specific intervals and frequencies, after ensuring specific percentages of elemental purity are obtained. Plutonium is a particularly toxic element. Whereas the safe exposure level for most radioactive isotopes is 10 Grays, plutonium’s safe exposure limit is 0.5 Grays, after which irreversible damage occurs on a cellular level.12 Mayak workers routinely inhaled aerosolized plutonium particulate matter due to poor safety regulations, especially during the earliest stages of production.13 Approximately 1% of inhaled plutonium will permanently bind to alveolar lung tissue leading to channels of constant radiation exposure even if the individual moves away from the external environmental exposures.14

Exposure to plutonium through environmental channels will result in chronic heavy metal poisoning and chronic radiation syndrome at comparatively low levels (when compared to other isotopes).

The residents of Muslyumovo allow insight into what will happen if a population is exposed to plutonium through their local environments over a prolonged time period.

Muslyumovo is 30 kilometers downstream from Mayak. A video investigation published online by Vice Media and HBO in 2017 (Russia’s Radioactive Past Comes Back to Haunt Its Citizens) interviews several of the town’s residents who have chronic radiation syndrome presenting through a range of symptoms which they believe are linked to Mayak.

Many specific conditions and side-effects faced by Muslyumovo residents cannot be classified beyond “instabilities” and “deletions” in genetic codes. Plutonium in the blood causes mutations at a frequency 10-50 times higher than non-exposed cells,15 which is then passed generationally through the parents’ DNA to each consecutive generation. There is a limitation in reporting these effects in greater detail because of the paucity of research into the exact diversities, frequencies, and mechanisms of these mutations on a population-wide level.

Irreversible blindness

However, other clinical presentations of chronic radiation syndrome and ionizing radiation poisoning are apparent within this population. Irreversible blindness through ocular opacification will occur at levels as low as 0.5 Grays and is worsened by internal exposure (that is, drinking or eating contaminated sources). Mitigating loss of quality of life from this form of blindness is difficult, as each patient displays a unique pattern of opacification and subsequent vision loss based on individual and varying exposure levels. Miscarriages are particularly common due to genomic instabilities, with regional rates “off the charts” and birth defects are extremely common. Cancers—particularly blood, bone, liver, and lung cancers—have an extremely elevated rate across the region. At one point 70% of Muslyumovo residents were diagnosed with at least one form of leukemia.16

Individuals who are chronically exposed to plutonium will also develop massively swollen lymph nodes, as the body will attempt to filter the particulate radioactive matter. This will result in swelling over the entire body, hindering the ability to breathe, talk, or even move without assistance. The effects that these symptoms would have on a population-level should large-scale plutonium exposure occur would be catastrophic, rendering individuals reliant on others for basic life functions and rendering the society non-functional for decades.

Mayak poses a particularly challenging, dangerous, and ongoing threat to global security. More recent reports indicate large-scale, open-air storage of former reactor rods, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, and missile components throughout the site. The interconnectedness of the steppe and river ecosystems must be accounted for and preventive measures enacted to prevent global ecological catastrophe. Additional research into methods to contain and isolate the radioactive waste is desperately needed, as are proposals for methods to limit its future spread. The Techa River eventually drains into the Arctic Ocean and will eventually dump tons of liquid radioactive waste into the Arctic ecosystem as a legacy of the Cold War.

Adam Wynne is a health studies student at the University of Toronto.


1 Kazakov, S. V., and S. S. Utkin. 2009. “Legal Aspects of the Safety of the Techa Cascade of Reservoirs—Liquid Radioactive Waste Storage Facilities.” Water Air Soil Pollution 9: 287-292, p. 287.

2 Mironenko, M. V., M. Yu Spasennykh, V. B. Polyakov, S. Ivanitskii, A. V. Garanin, A. G. Volosov, and I. L. Kodakhovsky. 1994. The Cascade of Reservoirs of the “Mayak” Plant: Case History and the First Version of a Computer Simulator. Berkeley: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, p. 8.

3 Sembritzki, Laura. 2018. “Maiak 1957 and its Aftermath: Radiation Knowledge and Ignorance in the Soviet Union.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 66 (1): 45-64.

4 United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. 2008. Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation (Volume II).

5 Akleyev, A. V., L. Yu. Krestinina, M. O. Degteva, and E. I. Tolstykh. 2009. “Consequences of the radiation accident at the Mayak production association in 1957 (the ‘Kyshtym Accident’).” Journal of Radiological Protection 37 (3): 2017, p. 20.New York: United Nations.

6 UN Scientific Committee, op. cit.

7 Merkushkin, op. cit.

8 Ibid.

9 Radio Free Europe. 2017. Russian Plant Admits It Emits Nuclear Isotope Amid Leak Reports. Berlin: Radio Free Europe. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-mayak-radiation-isotope-ruthenium-chelyabinsk/28914333.html.

10 Akleyev, p.23.

11 Smith, R. Jeffrey. 1989. “Soviets Tell About Nuclear Plant Disaster; 1957 Reactor Mishap May Be Worst Ever.” The Washington Post.

12 Hammer, Gael P., Ulrike Scheidemann-Wesp, Florence Samkange-Zeeb, Henryk Wicke, Kazuo Neriishi, and Maria Blettner. 2013. “Occupational exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation and cataract development: a systematic literature review and perspectives on future studies.” Radiation and Environmental Biophysics 52 (3): 303-319.

13 Azizova, T. V., G. V. Zhuntova, R. G.E. Haylock, M. B. Moseeva, E. S. Grigoryeva, M. D. Bannikova, Z. D. Belyaeva, and E. V. Bragin. 2016. “Chronic bronchitis incidence in the extended cohort of Mayak workers first employed during 1948 – 1982.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 74: 105-113, p. 111.

14 Malakhova, L. V., M. G. Lomaeva, M. L. Zakharova, E. N. Kirillova, S. N. Sokolova, V. N. Antipova, and V. G. Bezlepkin. 2016. “Mitochondrial DNA Deletions in the Peripheral Blood of Workers at the Mayak PA Who Were Exposed to Long-Term Combined Effects of External g- and Internal a-Radiation.” Complex Systems Biophysics 61 (6): 1026-1032, p. 1026.

15 Hammer, p. 306.

16 DiMarco, Damon, and Richard Fuller. 2015. The Brown Agenda: My Mission to Clean Up the World’s Most Life-Threatening Pollution. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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