published by WISE News Communique on September 16, 1994
(418.4146) WISE Amsterdam - The Mayak plant was built in the 1940's for the production of weapon-grade Plutonium, but is now used to disassemble and reprocess nuclear fuel rods. It is seated in the once secret city of Chelyabinsk-65, now called Ozyorsk4 in the Ural Mountains, 930 miles east of Moscow. Plant officials said a fuel rod's protective coating caught fire during reprocessing. The fire released radioactive gasses into the atmosphere of which the graveness is subject of the dispute.
"It was a very unpleasant and grave incident, which, according to the preliminary reports, can be qualified as level three" on a seven-step international scale, said Yuri Rogozhin, a spokesman for the regulatory agency Gosatomnadzor. Nuclear Power Ministry spokesman Vitaly Nasonov reacted "The incident was a minor one, and it's totally wrong to qualify it as level three". According to the seven-level International Nuclear Events Scale, a level-three accident has major contamination and overexposure of workers at the site, which was not the case here, according to the officials. Radioactive gases equal to 4.36 percent of what the plant is allowed to release each year escaped into the atmosphere through plant filters, said a Mayak document quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
"It was at least level three," said Lika Galkina of Greenpeace. The release had been evaluated only on the amount of cesium-137 it contained. She said it was still not clear whether far more dangerous plutonium also was released, or if anyone was exposed to plutonium.
Mayak sits in one of the most polluted areas of Russia. It is surrounded by reservoirs, lakes and rivers storing huge amounts of liquid nuclear waste that now threaten the Ural Mountains water system. The worst accidents at Mayak were in 1957, when an explosion at a nuclear waste tank contaminated large areas of southern Ural Mountains, and in 1967, when winds carried radioactive particles from a drying-up and polluted lake across villages and farmlands. Hundreds of people have suffered radiation illness as a result of these accidents, kept secret by the Soviet authorities, and thousands have been evacuated. More recently, a July 1993 chemical explosion at Mayak spewed radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Less than a month later, a leaky pipe spilled radioactive waste, contaminating about 120 square yards of plant grounds.
On the background of the recent incidents, one finds the social unrest as a result of the restructuring of Russians economic and political systems. In a recent report, Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mlkhaylov, together with the Chairman of the Trade Union of Atomic Engineering and Industry Workers Central Committee and heads of Russia's AESs (nuclear power stations) have pointed out to the President and Premier of the Russian Federation that owing to "chronic nonpayments", the viability of the nuclear-fuel complex, plants and research organizations has sunk to 'dangerous levels'. All money credited to AESs is instantly seized by the tax services. Meanwhile centralized stocks of equipment and spares are virtually not being replenished while wages have not been paid to the AES collectives for five months now....
The Mayak plant was one of three named by Greenpeace in august as the possible origin of a small quantity of weapons-grade plutonium seized in Germany.