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Vol. 81/No. 46      December 11, 2017


Release exposes Moscow’s ongoing cover-up of 1957 nuclear disaster

Weeks after Russian authorities denied French nuclear agency reports of high levels of radiation coming from the Urals, Russia’s weather service finally admitted that radioactive contamination — 986 times the norm — was registered at Argayash, near the Mayak nuclear waste processing plant in September. And it spread “exceptionally high” levels of radiation over Ukraine and other parts of Europe.

“Nobody tells us anything. They keep it secret,” Lilia Galimzhanova, a cook from Argayash, told the Financial Times. She learned about the reports of high radiation levels from a friend in Germany. For decades after its construction in the 1940s the nuclear plant at Mayak was not even supposed to exist.

Prior to admitting the radiation levels, Russian authorities had urged residents to stay indoors to avoid what they claimed was “local factory pollution.” Rosatom, the state-owned company operating the Mayak facility, continued to denounce reports of radiation leaks coming from Russia as “baseless” in October.

The radioactive material that leaked is ruthenium-106, which doesn’t occur naturally. It’s produced in processing nuclear fuel.

The Russian authorities indifference to the lives of people near the plant goes back decades and is marked by a series of cover-ups. An explosion occurred at the Mayak plant in 1957 that released more radiation than any other nuclear disaster except Chernobyl and Fukushima. It was not acknowledged until the late 1980s.

Doctors in the area around Mayak were not allowed to report cancer as a cause of death on death certificates there and were prevented from mentioning radiation sickness in their diagnosis of patients, instead referring to it as the “special disease.”

In 1993 Russian authorities conceded that some 450,000 people were exposed to harmful levels of radiation from the 1957 explosion, other leaks at the plant and the dumping of nuclear waste into water supplies. Officials at the plant have admitted that they were still dumping nuclear waste into local rivers in 2004.

Rising birth defects and cancers
In 2016 doctors recorded rates of birth defects and cancers vastly higher than Russian averages in villages along the Techa River where plant bosses had dumped the waste. It took state officials until 2008 — two decades after admitting that authorities at the Mayak site had been responsible for radioactive poisoning — to evacuate people living in the area.

Moscow’s efforts to block questions about what occurred at Mayak are an eerie reminder of their contempt for working people shown during the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. There the authorities of the former Soviet Union refused to admit the extent of the disaster, evacuate people living in the area or prevent residents from consuming contaminated local produce.

Relief for working people affected by the deadly radiation at Chernobyl came when the revolutionary government of Cuba offered to provide treatment in Cuba for all those who wanted it. For over 20 years, more than 25,000 Ukrainian youth received free medical care at Tarará, a special facility for treating illnesses and cancers from the Chernobyl disaster.  
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