Muscovites check radishes for radiation

A $50 personal Geiger counter gives Russians a sense of confidence atthe market.

Svetlana Batinova never leaves home without it. Her Geiger counter, that is.

"You cannot trust anything the government says, and you certainly can't believe what vendors in the market tell you," says the accountant. "If you want to know, you'd better have the means to find out for yourself."

Her Geiger counter is a battery driven palm-size device that looks like a calculator and, when switched on and held up to an object, purportedly measures its level of radioactivity. She paid about $50 for it last year in a Moscow electronics shop.

Batinova routinely uses it to inspect fruits and vegetables, clothing, and other products before she buys them. Once she even went to a playground used by her nine-year-old son and carefully checked every inch of it.

"Just last week a woman tried to sell me cranberries she said were from Vladimir region," just east of Moscow, she says. "But when I checked them, the thing started beeping like crazy and giving all kinds of numbers. Probably the berries were really from Chernobyl or someplace like that."

Thousands of Muscovites like Batinova have already equipped themselves with radiation detectors. The brisk - and rising - sales of these gadgets is indicative of a consumer-beware society and reflects a deep public distrust of the ability of govenment institutions to protect citizens.

"Geiger counters for individual use are among the most popular items these days," says Nadezhda Ivanova, a salesperson at Helion, a Moscow electronics shop that sells several different models of the devices at prices ranging from $20 to $200.

"Since the Chernobyl accident [in 1986] people have been very concerned about the danger of radiation, but only recently have Geiger counters become cheap and available," she says.

Officials at RADON, the Moscow government department charged with monitoring radiation hazards in the city say the personal Geiger counter fad is out of all proportion to the threat. But they admit there is a problem.

"Moscow was always the main scientific center of the country, and a lot of nuclear-related research facilities and industries were concentrated here," says Tatiana Minina, a RADON spokeswoman. "In the first decades of atomic power, standards were very lax.

Radioactive wastes were buried without any precautions, and sometimes housing projects were built over them," she says.

The Soviet atomic bomb project in the 1940s was headquartered at the Kurchatov Institute, in what was then a secluded area just outside Moscow but today is surrounded by a forest of high-rise apartment blocs.

The Institute still operates several research reactors, and environmentalists say its grounds are littered with old nuclear waste dumps and radioactive trash from the early years.

"There are nine working reactors within Moscow's city limits, most of them at the Kurchatov," says Alexei Yablokov, a former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin who is now an independent environmental consultant. "The possibility of an uncontrolled reaction in one of these presents an appalling and unacceptable danger to the population around them," he says.

The Moscow government long ago resolved to shut down all reactors and move waste dumps to distant locations. It hasn't been done. "It costs millions of dollars to safely shut down a reactor," says Yablokov. "That's money Moscow doesn't have. So they keep operating."

Every year approximately 50 radioactive "hotspots" are uncovered around Moscow. "In Soviet times radioactive wastes were sometimes mixed with concrete and used in building projects, or as filler in roads," says Minina. "They were buried in unmarked sites or regular garbage tips. We keep finding radioactive wastes in the strangest places."

But the threat also comes from outside. The Chernobyl disaster contaminated huge areas of farmland in Ukraine, Belarus, and southwest Russia. The Soviet military-industrial complex, with its vast nuclear research and weapons production arms, may have left its radioactive legacy in many places.

Ironically, one of the biggest domestic producers of personal Geiger counters is SNIIP, a Moscow military factory that still makes equipment for the Russian nuclear weapons program. "Russian-made Geiger counters are as good as foreign ones, and half the price," says a SNIIP manager, who declined to give his name. He says the factory makes and markets the gizmos to earn cash - because its military customers are far behind in paying their bills.

Public concerns have promp-ted the Moscow government to beef up its monitoring capabilities. The RADON agency operates a large fleet of cars and several helicopters equipped with radiation detectors.

When nuclear contaminants are discovered, RADON specialists dig them up and ship them to a special dump near the town of Pavlov Pasad, about 100 kilometers (67 miles) from Moscow. "They are actually doing a fairly good job. Moscow is far from the worst situation in Russia, speaking of radioactive threats," says Yablokov.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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