Expert fears flooded radioactive dump sites could leak to river system that flows into Arctic Ocean

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - April 15, 2024
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Rising waters in the Tom River with banks flooded in the city of Tomsk. A few kilometers further north in the horizon is the closed nuclear city of Seversk (formerly known as Tomsk-7), home to one of the world’s largest dump-sites for radioactive waste. Photo courtesy of RIA Tomsk

Floodwaters in Tomsk region threatens to submerge the river banks in Seversk where highly radioactive liquid waste from the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program for decades were injected into two unprotected underground reservoirs.

Water level on Monday continues to rise in the Tom River in Western Siberia.

The record floods are among the worst ever in the region and local emergency services help in evacuation of people living near tributaries of the Ob river system, including Tobol, Irtysh and Tom rivers.

Thousands of houses and tens of thousands of people live in the emergency zones, according to Kremlin information platform RIA Novosti. High snow falls in winter combined with swiftly rising spring temperatures and heavy rains are the reasons for the current extreme flood, Reuters reports.

Drone photos by RIA Tomsk shows how the swelling Tom River is inundating villages on the westside river banks. According to NEXTA news channel, water in Tom River has risen by nearly a meter over the day.

On the east side, a short 15 kilometers north of the city of Tomsk, is the closed city of Seversk. Until 1992, the secret city was code-named Tomsk-7 and was home to one of three production facilities for weapons-grade plutonium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program.

“There ain’t one single public message that Rosatom is monitoring the situation, that they have the situation under control,” says Aleksandr Nikitin, an exile nuclear safety expert working for the environmental foundation Bellona.

Nikitin was until the all-out war against Ukraine a member of Rosatom’s Public Council. The Council involved civic organizations and scientists in Russia and was aimed at raising public awareness of Rosatom’s core operations

“It’s surprising that there aren’t even simple statements like we have everything under control,” Nikitin adds.

According to the World Nuclear Association, the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk had five plutonium production reactors, an uranium enrichment plant and a processing plant for plutonium warheads. Although shut down, enormous amount of nuclear waste is on site.

Most challenging are the liquid radioactive waste, both on the surface and pumped down in deep-well injections. The nuclear dump is likely Russia’s largest, by IAEA estimated to be 70 million cubic meters.

 

GAMMA RADIATION: A sign warning of contamination on the river bank tells locals in this village just north of Seversk to be cautious. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

Widespread contamination in an area up to 28 kilometers came after a concrete cover blew off a reaction vessel at the plutonium extraction facility in 1993. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) listed it as a major radiological accident.

In 2000, a joint U.S.-Russian study found dangerous levels of radioactivity flowing into Russia’s Tom River from the Siberian Nuclear Combine.

Critics crumbled

Local environmentalists in Tomsk filed a lawsuit against the company in the late 1990s in an attempt to revoke a dumping permit for highly radioactive liquid waste down under. They feared for the city’s drinking water.

In Putin’s Russia, critical voices are gone. Environmental groups like Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature, and Bellona are all listed as undesirable by law.

TV2 in Tomsk, known for its independent journalism and free debate since the early years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, got its broadcast shut down in 2014. After the start of the full-scale war in 2022, the reporters closed their YouTube producing newsroom and left Russia.

Aleksandr Nikitin is worried radioactivity could leak out to the river system under the current flood, but that information will not come before it is too late.

 

Nuclear safety expert Aleksandr Nikitin . Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

“Putin doesn’t give a fuck about these floods and other shitty lives of people in Russia.., he has a war and geopolitical goals of fighting the damned West,” Nikitin says.

For Rosatom, he adds, the logic is simple: “.. if you say that everything is under control, and then something happens, then you will have to answer for it.”

Aleksandr Nikitin says Rosatom is sure that in any case it will not bear any responsibility, since today it is Putin’s “favorite child.”

It was Lavrenty Beria, director of Soviet’s secret police who headed the purges of Joseph Stalin’s opponents, who lead the establishment of the first plutonium production facilities east of the Ural mountains in the late 1940ties, early 1950ties. KGB and the Soviet nuclear establishment walked hand-in-hand for decades. What nowadays is Ulitsa Pervomayskaya (May 1st Street) in Seversk, was previously named Ulitsa Beria. 

Arctic Ocean 

A major concern for Aleksandr Nikitin and Bellona is that no one can exclude that leakages from a possible overflowed radioactive waste site could reach the Arctic Ocean.

Tom River is a tributary of the Ob which flows out in the Ob Bay and Kara Sea above the Arctic Circle.

During the years 1948-56, liquid radioactive waste from the Mayan reprocessing plant north of Chelyabinsk was discharged directly into the nearby river Techa which is connected to the river system Iset, Tobol, Irtysh and Ob. Especially Strontium-90, but also other isotopes, were carried by the water more than 2,000 kilometers downstream and measured in the Kara Sea, first time in 1951.

A joint Norwegian-Russian expedition to the Kara Sea in 1994 found traces of the same radionuclides, although in lower levels.

“Everything is now possible,” says Aleksandr Nikitin when seeing the photos of the flooded riverbanks of the Tom River.

“It all depends on the scale of leakages.”

“I’m sure the Siberian Chemical Combine sit quietly and wait. Hoping for it all to go over,” Nikitin says to the Barents Observer.

 

In August 2013, the Russian research vessel “Ivan Petrov” sailed to different locations in the Kara Sea monitoring radioactivity in the sea water. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Located in Kirkenes, Norway, just a few kilometres from the borders to Russia and Finland, the Barents Observer is dedicated to cross-border journalism in Scandinavia, Russia and the wider Arctic.

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