See also: From a Distance,
THE LONG RUSSIAN NIGHT
Ghastly environmental woes have the former communist giant in the
struggle of its (neglected) life.
by Frank Stephenson
Could it have been a communist plot all along? Now that the Cold War is
history, it's clear that at least in one sobering measure the USSR beat the West
Despite all the mischief in its military might, in 40-odd years of dancing toe-
to-nuclear-toe with the Soviet bear, the U.S. was completely outmatched in its
contribution of radioactive waste to the environment. So much for nuclear
A joint study by U.S. and Russian officials, published in Physics Today last
April, revealed that between 1949 and 1991 the former USSR's far-flung
nuclear weapons complex released more than 560 times the amount of
radioactivity into the planet's air, soil and water than did its chief Western
When it comes to spilling toxic byproducts that naturally come from building
nuclear arsenals, neither side could win any points for tidiness. But of the 1.7
billion curies-a standard measure of radioactivity-estimated to have been
leaked into the world's ecoystems by the twin superpowers during the Cold
War, the study holds the U.S. responsible for only a small fraction-about
three million curies all told. Stacked against natural radioactivity found
mostly in the world's oceans, the spill represents less than half a percent of
what's already out there, scientists say. But such manmade contamination
poses far greater health risks by being confined to comparatively smaller areas
where people live.
The world knows about Chernobyl and about the Soviet Navy's well-
publicized dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan and elsewhere, but
these incidents pale compared to what's gone on in relative obscurity for
nearly five decades in the Russian hinterland.
The vast flatlands east of the Ural Mountains is where the Soviet
government set up the heart of its nuclear weapons manufacturing
apparatus, with its requisite production reactors and large centers for
reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The findings show that three huge centers,
known as Mayak, Tomsk-7 and Kranoyarsk -26, are responsible for 99 percent
of Russia's historic radioactive pollution, easily making the region the largest
nuclear waste dump on Earth.
For decades, site operators pumped untold millions of cubic yards of
wastewater laced with lethal levels of radioactive isotopes directly into rivers,
lakes, deepwater wells and subterranean caverns. Discharges to the rivers and
lakes around Tomsk-7, which came on line in the 1950s, have turned those
bodies of water into highly radioactive cesspools, still brimming with
radioisotopes of cesium and strontium, systemic poisons that can remain
deadly for up to 10,000 years. Nearby Lake Karachai, called "the most polluted
place on earth" by one writer, is believed to hold nearly one-and-a-half times
as much radioactive, subatomic debris as was expelled by Chernobyl in 1986.
The chilling statistics, compiled and analyzed by DOE's Clyde Frank- Florida
State's principle agency contact for Central and Eastern Europe-Don J.
Bradley of DOE's Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Yevgeny
Mikerin, head of science and technology in Moscow's Ministry of Atomic
Energy (Minatom), suggest ample reasons why the Cold War's worst legacy is
now everybody's problem. Not only is Russia's radioactive waste migrating
via air, surface and subsurface waters, the country is still reprocessing spent
fuel and running three Cold War production reactors, despite a continuing
lack of adequate waste controls. In contrast, the last reprocessing plant and
production reactor in the U.S. went cold in 1988.
Ten years after Chernobyl, only now is the world learning the human cost of
history's worst nuclear accident. A report issued last year by the World
Health Organization (WHO) showed that five years before the accident, the
annual incidence of thyroid cancer among children living near Chernobyl
was one per million. Since 1991, the figure has hovered near 100 per million
per year, with no sign of let-up. WHO suspects the chief culprit is iodine-131,
one of the radioactive agents created by Chernobyl's meltdown, and one of the
most dangerous to enter the food chain.
Russia's radioactive headache, severe as it is, simply adds to a numbing dose
of environmental pain that staggers the nation. Fact is, had the atomic genie
never left the bottle, Mother Russia, along with a number of her former
possessions, could still lay dubious claim to some of the most defiled water,
soil and air to be found on the globe.
In their 1993 book, Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege
(Harper Collins, NY), authors Murray Feshback and Alfred Friendly, Jr.
document an overwhelming array of environmental horrors that
increasingly put millions of Russian lives at peril. Just as one example, the
authors cite findings by Russian scientists that show air pollution in 68 cities
around the country to be 10 times above government standards. In 1992,
almost one seventh of the Russian population-about 40 million residents,
including nearly a fifth of all city dwellers-were suffering a rate of sickness
up to twice the national average. The upper class was hardly immune: Eight
out of every 10 children born between late 1990 and mid-1991 in a Moscow
clinic reserved for the elite arrived either prematurely, with birth defects or
both-a phenomenon now strongly suspected by WHO to be linked to fouled
water, food and air.
In Nizhny Tagil, an old mill town in the Ural Mountains, mothers play with
their children in soot and grime which the town's huge steelworks deposits
daily on playgrounds built right up to the factory gates. The scene is
symptomatic of decades of flagrant disregard for the environmental and
health impacts of Soviet-style industry, built and largely still run with only
production in mind. Research published in 1988 showed that 16 percent of
the USSR's territory (nearly 4 million square miles) was in one of three states
of ecological stress: catastrophe, crisis or conflict.
Since the communist empire's crash, widespread economic strife has
virtually impoverished the entire Russian Federation, dashing hopes that the
Cold War's polluting legacy is finally at an end. In 1992, The Washington
Post reported that for the first time since World War II, the number of deaths
in Russia exceeded the number of births. The latest figures compiled by WHO
show that the overall life expectancy of Russians has declined steadily since
1991 and stands at around 59 today, well below the average of most developed
countries. In some highly polluted industrial centers, such as Nishny Tagil,
life expectancies can run nearly six years shorter still.
Perhaps suspicious of motives, governments throughout the former USSR
have been cautious about accepting Western help in tackling their now-
notorious environmental problems. In Russia proper, reluctance there can be
largely attributed, some observers say, to a political and economic system still
in turmoil over restructuring. Others simply believe that Russia is
stubbornly clinging to ways of the past, unable to wrest itself from a mind-set
molded by 70 years of dominating world power.
"I believe the main problem is that Russia still wants to keep something of
the superpower status it once had, and this creates problems with every
(would-be) partner," says Dr. Peter Richter of Budapest's Technical University
(TUB). Richter helps coordinate Florida State's environmental cooperative
efforts in Central and Eastern Europe, which spring from a biennial
symposium series begun in 1992 in Budapest.
"If the partner is a small country, they're afraid of being influenced again by
Russia, and if it's a big country, then it's a power game. While this dilemma
is being resolved, of course, the environmental misery continues."
To date, participation by Russian scientists in the Florida State's symposia has
been marginal, partly because they lack travel funds, says Florida State's Dr.
Roy Herndon, Richter's stateside counterpart. Whenever possible, Herndon
waives registration fees and other costs for scientists squeezed by financial
hardships in their native countries.
Encouragingly, he notes, Russian interest in Florida State's initiatives is
steadily increasing. Last year, Herndon hired Dr. Mikhail Khank-hasayev, a
Russian-born nuclear physicist and visiting scientist at Florida State, to help
get things moving among his countrymen. The relationship quickly led to a
cooperative agreement linking scientists at Moscow State University with
other institutes within Russia, culminating in a workshop on nuclear waste
management in Dubna, Russia, held last fall
"We've so much to learn from the Russians and they from us," Herndon
said. "Considering the complexity and scale of their environmental
problems, our program is hardly complete without a Russian voice."