USSR nuclear accident 'confirmed'

The more experts study the available evidence, the more a consensus is building that exiled Soviet geneticist Z. A. Medvedev is right -- there was a major radioactive accident in Chelyanbinsk Province 22 years ago.

This is the conclusion of an extensive independent analysis of Soviet technical literature by John R. Trabalka and Stanley I. Auerbach of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Dean Eyman, a former Oak Ridge staff member. Reporting their study in Science they say:

". . . we have concluded that a major airborne release involving moderate- to long-lived fission products . . . occurred near the city of Kasli (50-kilometer radius) in Chelyabinsk Province of the USSR in the winter of 1957 to 1958. Our analysis indicates that an extensive area (at least 25 to 100 square kilometers) was contaminated with high levels of radioactivity. . . . The total area contaminated at levels significantly above fallout background [from weapons tests] could exceed 1,000 km."

They add that "the most likely cause of the airborne contamination was the chemical explosion of high-level radioactive wastes associated with a Soviet military plutonium production site."

This independent concurrence in Medvedev's analysis of available information moves the subject beyond the stage of speculating about the event to wondering how well the USSR has tightened up its safety procedures and how adequate its waste disposal standards apparently left a great deal to be desired.

At one time, the scientists note, the So" viets seriously considered storing high-level wastes in open earthen reservoirs as an economy measure. It's unknown whether or not they actually carried out such a project. However they did conduct a field test in which, the Oak Ridge scientists say, "a gully 3 km long was simply dammed and wastes were directly discharged into it for years before leaks were discovered."

Then there's the question of what the Soviets have learned. Have they found long-term hazards of this kind of large-area contamination which conventional nuclear safety studies have not foreseen? Have they developed novel decontamination techniques and other methods of rehabilitating such an area? What have they learned about dangers to people, plants, and animals? How soon can such an area be used again if parts of it had to be evacuated?

As Auerbach, Stanley, and Trabalka point out, "Soviet experience gained during the application of remedial measures on an unparalleled scale following this accident is clearly unique and would be invaluable to the world nuclear community." They appeal to "the Soviet scientific community . . . to share all pertinent information. . . ."

Of course, Soviet scientists couldn't do this without official approval. It is too much to be hope that, in a world where nuclear wastes are proliferating, the Soviet government will one day realize it has more to gain in sharing information that might make that world safer than it would lose in owning up to an accident that happened decades ago?

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