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Thinking the Unthinkable: Fires in Russia Fan Nuclear Fears

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Judy Pasternak

(Aug. 11) — The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and years of effort to help Russia secure its nuclear stockpiles from what is euphemistically referred to as “diversion.” But the 600 wildfires raging across the Russian countryside spotlight another risk to the nuclear-industrial complex: natural disaster.

Add to the flaming peat and forest infernos, the acrid city smog and the scorched village dwellings the specter of an atomic explosion or plumes of unseen radiation. “It demonstrates that terrorists are not the only threat against Russian nuclear weapons,” Hans Kristensen, a nuclear researcher with the Federation of American Scientists, told AOL News.

Russia’s frantic maneuvers to protect radioactive material and weapons labs suggest that the government was caught unprepared. With a state of emergency declared in the Chelyabinsk region Tuesday, vegetation was hastily stripped from around the Mayak uranium reprocessing complex. About 700 miles away, at a major lab in Sarov, troops rushed to dig a five-mile moat. Both of these sites played major roles in the development of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949.
Sarov, about 220 miles east of Moscow, is one of Russia’s “secret cities” closed to outsiders. A former monastery, it was the site of Design Bureau No. 11, which carried out the production and assembly of the first Soviet bomb. The complex, then known as Arzamas-16, grew into a design center for thermonuclear weapons and is still Russia’s main nuclear research laboratory. The southern part of the grounds is thickly wooded.

Russia’s nuclear director, Sergei Kiriyenko, has assured President Dmitry Medvedev that all radioactive materials had been spirited away from the installation, just in case. “I can guarantee that even in an extreme situation with squalling winds, there is no danger to nuclear security, no threat of radiation, explosions or environmental consequences,” he said last week.

Over the weekend, a blazing wall of fire
in the area was broken down into smaller patches that could be more easily contained.

Yet the transport of that material — experts say probably by rail — exposes it to the possibility of accident or even theft, the traditional fear among security researchers. Highly enriched uranium is frequently shipped to Siberia; the Russians burn it down to a depleted state for use by U.S. nuclear power plants to produce electricity.

“But it’s not usually in a hurry, and they probably didn’t have quite the same preparation that they normally would,” Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University nuclear researcher, told AOL News. “I would certainly have concerns while it was on the road.”

Nobody has mentioned moving the fissile material at Mayak, where the plutonium for the first bomb was refined and a huge processing center for plutonium and tritium developed. “There are thousands and thousands of canisters of plutonium oxide,” Bunn said.

Several American nuclear analysts said they also worry about fire protection at the temporary storage sites where tactical nuclear weapons are often kept while in transit. These are warheads for smaller missiles and submarines, as opposed to the long-range intercontinental missiles that make up the vast majority of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “It’s hard to say if they are threatened, because we don’t know where all of them are,” Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council told AOL News.

The long-range missiles, which make up the bulk of the country’s 12,000 nuclear weapons, should be safe, Kristensen said, despite the fact that they are stored deep in Russia’s dark pine forests, with the treeline in many cases just 35 feet away. The storage site Irkutsk-45, for instance, consists of five vaults near Zalari in the Transbaikal, where fires have been severe. But they lie in state at the center of underground bunkers made of concrete and steel, with perimeter chambers around them. The protection is designed to withstand a direct nuclear hit.

Still, Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, who served as deputy commander in chief and chief of staff of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a statement that because the New START pact has not been ratified, the U.S. has “no on-site inspectors or other verification measures to monitor the risks to the security of Russian weapons or nuclear material” during the fires. “These risks could pose serious security implications not just for Russia but for the U.S. and for the world … that our current intelligence is unable to watch closely.”

Yet arms inspectors would not be able to examine the tactical weapons that pose the most concern; these are not covered by treaties anyway. Russia keeps very quiet about the number. But estimates peg the inventory at about 5,400 with slightly more than 2,000 operational. The U.S., by comparison, keeps approximately 500 active tactical weapons, including 200 in Europe, and an additional 700 in storage.

As if all that weren’t enough, at Mayak, where the plutonium for the first bomb was refined, another problem looms. This is a heavily contaminated area. Between 1949 and 1956, the plant directly released radionuclides into a reservoir. In 1957, there was an explosion in a tank that held high-level radioactive waste. In 1967, the wind blew radioactive material out of the dried-up bed of Lake Karachav and dispersed the particles around the community.

2008 study by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority found increased incidences of leukemia, solid cancers and birth defects among Mayak residents, which scientists linked to radiation exposure. If fire unleashes radioactive material deposited in the Mayak forests, “I would argue that the dangers to human health from fires and particulates are far higher than that from the radiation that would be stirred up,” Harvard’s Bunn said.

Experts said the same is true for the contaminated zones around Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant where a series of explosions rocked the No. 4 reactor on April 26, 1986, sending radioactive dust across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Europe.

Greenpeace Russia issued a statement today that three fires had been registered in the Bryanskregion, which includes Chernobyl, in forests highly polluted with the nuclear isotope cesium-137.

Andrew Sowder, a health physicist who monitored Chernobyl safety issues for the U.S. State Department, told AOL News that much of the radioactive material from the accident has decayed or become so tightly bound to the soil that it should not be easily dispersed by fire. Though he expects the health risks to be low, Sowder recommended monitoring and added that it will be important to reseed the area to keep the radioactive soil from blowing away later. “You don’t want erosion,” he said.

According to Reuters, radiation levels in Moscow today were within normal limits, said Yelena Popova, who heads the region’s monitoring center.

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