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Radioactive Russian Lake Called Possible "Global Catastrophe"

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(ENS) MOSCOW -- A "global catastrophe" could result from a deposit of radioactive liquid salts that has formed under the surface of Lake Karachai in the Ural Mountains, a top-level Russian nuclear safety official has warned.

In an official Kremlin International news broadcast Monday, chair of the Russian Federal Committee for Nuclear and Radiation Safety Yuri Georgiyevich Vishnevsky, said the "lens" of radioactive salts is about five million cubic meters in volume and of a "medium level of activity."

"What can be the consequences? If the lens of radioactive waste gets into the watershed, the whole region of Western Siberia and the Arctic Ocean will be polluted," said Vishnevsky.

Only about 1 mile from most dangerous zone
Lake Karachai, in the Chelyabinsk region, has served as a dump for liquid radioactive waste formed by the Mayak Production Association. The Mayak facilities, located near the city of Chelyabinsk, was the largest production site for weapongrade plutonium in the Soviet Union during the Soviet era.

"We are sounding the alarm," Vishnevsky said. "This lens is today moving toward the watershed, the river Techa which flows into Tobol and Irtysh. It moves at the rate of some 80 meters a year. At present it is within 1.5 to 2 kilometers of the most dangerous zone."

He referred to a team from the Russian Academy of Sciences that is working on the problem, but said, "honestly, technical decisions that would make us feel secure are not forthcoming."

"We have put it to the Security Council of Russia that this is a global problem, and we have approached the government and the President."

"Today we tell you that within the next ten years, if not five years, it may become a problem the solution of which will require the intervention not only of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but of the international community as well," Vishnevsky warned.

But his warning was brushed off Tuesday by another top-level Russian official. No environmental disaster will occur in the area where radioactive waste has been dumped in Lake Karachai since 1951, said Deputy Director of the Non-Organic Materials Research Institute Anatoly Polyakov.

Responding to Vishnevsky's warning Polyakov said "the situation is under control and the burial in question will be fully closed in a few years."

He told a press conference in Moscow Tuesday that Lake Karachai is already being filled with hollow concrete blocks and the open water surface area of the lake has already been reduced from 35 hectares to 13 hectares.

Some Russian nuclear scientists believe that no nuclear catastrophe could occur in the Karachai area because "the current concentrations of radioactive substances is not sufficient for a chain reaction," Polyakov told reporters.

The only potential threat can come from a storm or a hurricane which occurs in the Chelyabinsk region once every 300 years.

"Such a hurricane can carry part of the radioactive water over a distance of many kilometres," Polyakov said.

Sources in the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass that the lake now contains about 120 million Curie of radio nuclides, which is comparable to the total amount released at the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986.

In addition, the Mayak facility still has a large volume of high-level radioactive waste stored in a system of reservoirs that are in danger of overflowing.

Called most polluted site in the world
In 1991, the World Watch Institute called Lake Karachai the most polluted site in the world. That same year a statement prepared by United Expert Group on Environmental Protection of Expert subcommission of State Expert Commission of Gosplan of the USSR and Regular Expert Group on South Ural Nuclear Plant building project also warned of massive radioactive contamination of the Lake and surrounding waters.

The Russian Federal Committee for Nuclear and Radiation Safety headed by Vishnevsky supervise the work of 10,400 enterprises throughout the Russian Federation with a staff of about 1,500 people.

It handles all questions relating to the use of atomic energy with the exception of nuclear weapons. In oversees the mining and processing of uranium, the use of uranium by atomic energy facilities, its storage and transportation, production of radio isotopes, the use of radioisotope products in medicine, construction and the question of decommissioning nuclear submarines.

© 1998 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor July 20, 1998 (

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