Tomsk-7: Russia’s Big Nuclear Secret

Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island… These are the places that come to mind whenever the topic of nuclear meltdowns come up in conversation. But what if I told you there are more? A lot more. Nuclear accidents that went under the radar with little to no media coverage. Most of these incidents have essentially been swept under the rug while locals were displaced from their homes, ecosystems destroyed and making a large area of developed land essentially un-inhabitable. Today I will be diving into one of the largest nuclear accidents in the history of Russia that most of you probably have never heard of: until now that is!

We live in a day and age where there are a lot of questions when it comes to Russia and what kind of secrets, if any, they are hiding. Seversk (formally known as Tomsk-7) at one point was one of these well kept secrets. Until 1992 Seversk, Russia technically did not exist on any maps as it was a town created in order to run nuclear energy operations within the city-limits. Up until 2007 the city was essentially off-limits to non-residents without special permissions granted by Seversk. Once you acquire these elusive documents you still are required to go through six security checkpoints and could be subjected to a very thorough search process. People who lived within the city-limits had to follow strict procedures to travel outside of Seversk and were forbidden to talk to anyone about where they lived, what they did for work and other detail about their day to day lives in Russia’s “Secret City.” In 2007 there was a law passed that allowed visitors to get their hands on entry documents a little bit easier than in the past in which you can apply for and obtain right at the first security checkpoint. Sounds like a pretty stellar place to live, right? Nothing sketchy or secretive going on around here!

The plant itself was built in 1949 in order to satisfy the needs of Russia’s post-war nuclear energy fascination. originally there were two main reactors on site which pumped out around a ton of plutonium every year. Also within the city there is an uranium enrichment site, a reprocessing facility due to the waste from operations being to dangerous to store, and the world’s largest underground storage for the processed nuclear waste. There also is a chemical processing plant that used to be where nuclear weapons were developed back in the day. Out of the three nuclear processing sites within Russia that we know about, Seversk is the largest by far accounting for most of the production, as well as most of the problems surrounding nuclear power.

There are three main issues when it comes to the operations at the Tomsk-7 facilities, one of the main issues surrounding production is the disposal of nuclear waste itself. Seversk is known to be the home of the largest quantity of highly active nuclear waste on the planet mainly due to the city’s reprocessing activities. Most of the waste is measure in curies which is a way to measure the potency of the waste, Don Bradley of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory states that Russia has “released into the environment” 1.7 billion curies of waste of which Seversk is responsible for 1 billion curies. In comparison, the United States in the same amount of time has released 3 million curies into the environment. Most of those 1 billion curies have been stored 1,500-1,600 feet below ground, Russian officials claim that this is safe due to those layers of the Earth’s crust being made up of impermeable clay and the preliminary results of a joint Russian-American safety review seem to be confirming these accusations.  Locals fear that due to these storage sites being so close to their underwater drinking supply, they are one miscalculation away from having nuclear waste seep into their water supply. Not only do Russian’s think that putting nuclear reactive waste right below their water supply is a good idea, but they are actually putting nuclear waste into the water supply; kind of.

125 million curies of waste has been placed into ponds, no we are not talking about a few barrels here. We are talking about a disposal process that would cost billions of tax dollars to clean up if this was taking place within U.S. borders. Not only does this method of disposal directly threaten the water supply and surrounding ecosystems, but if the ponds happen to dry up at any point in time and those vapours are released into our environment, tainting our food and water supplies and leading to a multitude of health issues within the surrounding populations. This actually happened in the 1960’s near the Mayak plant (another much smaller nuclear plant in Russia) where the pond dried up and released toxins into the air and blew away in the wind, making it nearly impossible to track down and clean up. These are all potential issues that the nuclear waste may cause in the near future, what about actual problems that have come up in years past?

On April 6th, 1993 a few workers in Seversk were cleaning out a steel containment tank by pouring nitric acid into it to seperate the plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel within the tanker. It is unclear to experts as to wether to chalk the incident up to human error rather than technological errors but regardless, an error was made. Believed to be due to a lack of compressed air within the tanker, the mixture of uranium, plutonium and nitric acid began to overheat and was rapidly approaching critical temperature levels. All happening way to fast for any cautionary measures to be conducted, the lethal mixture exploded resulting in massive structural damages as well as igniting a fire within the plant as the initial explosion knocked out walls on the two floors above. Fire mixed with nuclear energy… sounds like a very dangerous cocktail. This chain of events resulted in the release of 250 cubic meters of radioactive gas, 8.7 kilograms of uranium and 500 grams of plutonium into the surrounding environment. Now for some serious technical terminology so, bare with me for a second.

  • This release of nuclear elements resulted in 30 Tera-Becquerel (Tera = Trillion; Tera-Becquerel = derived measurement unit of radioactivity) of beta/gamma-emitters and about 6 Giga-Becquerel (Giga = billion) of Plutonium-239 being released into the atmosphere.

Okay, hopefully that made sense but if it didn’t basically bad news. Lots of bad things were released instantly into the ecosystem. Estimates of an area around 1,500 square meters around the plant was contaminated while a radioactive cloud of gas covered an area of 120 square kilometres north of Seversk. Thankfully the wind was blowing north on this particular day as most of the dangerous were not an issue for the residents of Tomsk and those south of the blast. Being named as one of Time’s Magazine’s Top Ten Nuclear Accidents, the incident that happened at Tomsk-7 on April 6th, 1993  goes down in history as Russia’s largest nuclear mistake that has yet to happen as it ranks at a level 4 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Compare this number to Chernobyl or Fukushima which received a 7 on the INES scale, the highest ever recorded.

Tomsk, Russia is a city located a few miles south of Seversk and the nuclear operations that go on within the gated city with a population of over 500,000 residents. Tomsk is a bustling modern day city in Russia that is known for its unique culture renowned Universities, thankfully the city was not affected directly by this incident. Although having a nuclear plant a few miles north of your city poses a threat to the health and wellbeing of the citizens, no one that lives in Tomsk really wants to fight the plant due to the fact that it powers most of Tomsk and without it, there could potentially be a shortage of energy for heat. Also, may locals are employed at the power plant after it expanded in the 1990’s due to being one of the few plants in Russia that were producing a product. Basically the two cities are interdependent on one another, Tomsk uses Seversk for power, Seversk uses Tomsk for resources such as food and entertainment and a training ground for future employees within the towns Universities.

Official reports started coming out shortly after the incident occurred and reported no immediate deaths and that a cloud of radiation was heading north, away from Seversk as well as Tomsk which is home to over 500,000 people. No worries right? No worries for the residents of Tomsk that is, but for the people who live north of the plant? Big, big trouble. Although no major cities have been directly affected by the incident, many small villages north of Seversk have and continue to suffer from the events that took place in 1993. The two locations that took on most of the damages are the villages of Georgievka and Nadezhda. Days after the incident, the villages began experiencing radioactive snowfall which created radioactive hotspots in which radiation levels reached levels of up to 30 µGy/h, which is nearly 100 times that of a normal, habitable landscape. After the locals began to experience larger numbers in the cases of cancer, respiratory issues and deformations in offspring they decided to test the soil of the surrounding area and the results where horrific.

The radioactive fallout resulted in the increase of a few very dangerous isotopes, two being Cesium-137 and Stronium-90. Cesium-137 is known to cause solid tumors and genetic defects within offspring when inhaled or consumed while Stronium-90 is a well-known cause of Leukemia. Initial clean up efforts were able to rid the ecosystem of a small percentage of the original radioactive isotopes that were introduced into the surrounding areas but there is still an on-going problem. Months after the initial explosion, snow samples were showing increased levels of radiation while the clean up efforts were taking place.

An interesting discovery was made while cleaning up after the explosion, around 450 grams of plutonium was found within a basin which could potentially mean that Tomsk-7 was dumping nuclear waste illegally for years before the incident took place, or more accidents happened on a smaller scale that was never released to the general population. According to the Bellona Foundation of Norway,  about 30 accidents have occurred during the lifetime of the Tomsk-7 nuclear facilities, only one being documented, his has accounted for over 10 grams of plutonium to be released into the atmosphere every year. Along with these findings came the discovery of over 50 years of nuclear waste being illegally disposed of in hidden underground depots that could be leaking into the ground as well as pools of waste, also hidden underground, that are not up to standard.

The plant is over 70 years old now to date, most of the structures that are still in use today are at least 40 years old and the material that it is made out of is starting to fail. Some experts think that Seversk is essentially a ticking time-bomb that is bound to fail and cause a possible Chernobyl or Fukushima like meltdown… affecting more than just a few local villages in the wilderness of Russia. When is it time? When is it time to shut down operation at this Russian Nuclear City. Only time will tell, but until then we can only pray that we don’t experience a modern version of the Chernobyl Disaster.

Reference:

http://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/07/world/russia-reports-radiation-release-in-blast-at-plant.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seversk#Secret_city

http://www.economist.com/node/285498

https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/390/tomsk-plutonium-plant-accident-releases-deadly-contamination

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/russia-plays-down-effect-of-nuclear-accident-cloud-of-uranium-and-plutonium-over-siberia-1453949.html

http://www.nuclear-risks.org/en/hibakusha-worldwide/tomsk-7seversk.html

Photo: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/images/RU_Tomsk_001.jpg

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