SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/21/94, “Poison in the Earth: A special report; Nuclear Roulette for Russia: Burying Uncontained Waste”*; Author: William J. Broad
SYNOPSIS: For more than three decades, the Soviet Union and now Russia secretly pumped billions of gallons of atomic waste directly into the earth and, according to Russian scientists, the practice continues today.
The scientists said that Moscow had injected about half of all the nuclear waste it ever produced into the ground at three widely dispersed sites, all thoroughly wet and all near major rivers. The three sites are at Dimitrovgrad near the Volga River, Tomsk near the Ob River, and Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River. The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea and the Ob and Yenisei flow into the Arctic Ocean.
The injections violate the accepted rules of nuclear waste disposal, which require it to be isolated in impermeable containers for thousands of years. The Russian scientists claim the practice is safe because the wastes have been injected under layers of shale and clay, which in theory cut them off from the Earth’s surface.
But the wastes at one site already have leaked beyond the expected range and “spread a great distance,” the Russians said. They did not say whether the distance was meters or kilometers or whether the poisons had reached the surface.
They began injecting the waste as a way to avoid the kind of surface-storage disasters that began to plague them in the 1950s. But by any measure, the injections were one of the Cold War’s darkest secrets.
The amount of radioactivity injected by the Russians is up to three billion curies. By comparison, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released about 50 million curies of radiation, mostly in short-lived isotopes that decayed in a few months. The accident at Three Mile Island discharged about 50 curies. The injected wastes include cesium-137, with a half life of 30 years, and strontium-90, with a half life of 28 years and a bad reputation because it binds readily with human bones.
The Russians are now working with the U.S. Department of Energy to try to better predict how far and fast the radioactive waste is likely to spread through aquifers.
At best, the Russian waste may stay underground long enough to be rendered largely harmless by the process of radioactive decay.
At worst, it might leak to the surface and produce regional calamities in Russia and areas downstream along the rivers. If the radioactivity spreads through the world’s oceans, experts say, it might prompt a global rise in birth defects and cancer deaths.
At the least, the media should be reporting what progress is being made by the Department of Energy to monitor this potentially horrendous disaster.
COMMENTS: Given the potential scope of this radioactive waste disaster, relatively little media attention appeared following the original New York Times story on November 21, 1994, by William J. Broad. The original Times story was picked up by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and the Greenwire on 11/21/95.
On November 22, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorialized, “If there is a silver lining in the horrifying disclosure of irresponsible underground radioactive waste disposal in Russia, it is that the world now knows at least something about what happened. When the Cold War was hot, much information — that Russian nuclear installations pumped billions of gallons of radioactive waste into underground rock formations — remained the deepest state secret.”
Most interestingly, and not covered elsewhere, the Star Tribune revealed that the nuclear engineers at Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, experimented with subsurface disposal also, although on a much smaller scale and at lower concentrations than that of the Russian scientists.
A news database search indicated there were no follow-up stories on these revelations throughout 1995.
However, by the end of the year, there were indications that Russia was making some attempts to deal with its radioactive waste problem. On December 19, 1995, the Greenwire reported that Russia and Norway signed an agreement on nuclear waste disposal, including spent nuclear fuel dumped by Russia; on December 31, Reuters reported a joint venture by Japan and the United States to build a radioactive liquid waste storage and preprocessing plant in Russia.
William J. Broad, author of the original article in The New York Times, declined to respond to our questionnaire attempting to follow-up on his story.