A NUCLEAR accident at a Russian weapons plant is spreading radiation across the Siberian wilderness and sending shudders down the spines of ecologists, who say the incident may only be a preview of disasters to come.
Russian officials say the radiation leak at the plant near Tomsk, almost 2,000 miles east of Moscow, is not serious and does not endanger local residents. But with Russia facing the twin squeeze of an energy crisis and a budget crunch, environmentalists worry that the Tomsk accident is a harbinger of more serious environmental disasters.
"Over the past year there have been lots of [nuclear] incidents in Russia," said Eduard Gismatullin, a Moscow-based activist for the Greenpeace environmental organization.
"This [Tomsk] is one of the more serious ones," he added, complaining about what he called lax safety standards at Russian nuclear facilities. "Maybe - probably - there will be more incidents, and they could be more serious." To make matters worse, Russia's political and economic crisis is making it harder for government agencies to formulate response and cleanup strategies.
Despite the Tomsk accident, Atomic Energy Ministry officials say they have no plans to cut back on the program to expand nuclear power capacity.
Georgy Kaurov, a Russian Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman, told reporters the accident at the Tomsk-7 plant was the worst nuclear incident since the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine. But Tomsk was a distant second to Chernobyl, he said.
"You simply can't compare it to Chernobyl," Mr. Kaurov said of the Tomsk incident. The disaster at Chernobyl involved a nuclear reactor, while at Tomsk it involved equipment in processing nuclear fuels, he said.
"About 80 million curies of radioactivity were released at Chernobyl," Kaurov said. "[At Tomsk] we don't have a single curie, so it's 80 million times less [radiation]." The accident occurred April 6, when a chemical reaction caused an explosion in a tank containing uranium, which then sparked a fire. The blast blew a reinforced concrete containment lid through the plant's roof, officials say.
A radioactive cloud, made up of leaked nuclear fuels, was moving in a northwesterly direction across the vast Siberian forest, away from inhabited areas, Russian television reported.
Kaurov classified the Tomsk-7 accident as a "three" on the International Atomic Energy Authority's seven-point scale for nuclear accidents. Chernobyl, which killed hundreds, was a seven. The full extent of the danger caused by Tomsk-7 will not be known for some time, Mr. Gismatullin said.
Workers for the State Committee for Emergencies, which is monitoring the incident, were removing contaminated snow and ground from a half-square-mile area a few miles from the plant, the Tass news agency reported.
The Tomsk incident comes at a time when Ecology Ministry officials are struggling to formulate more effective accident-response capabilities. In addition to a severe shortage of funds, the government's capabilities are hampered by disorganization and lack of communication among ministries and state agencies, Ecology Minister Viktor Danilov-Danilyan said at a news conference April 7.
An April 7 Cabinet meeting adopted an Ecology Ministry proposal to draw up guidelines for cooperation among state environmental agencies at all levels. The guidelines are to be completed within three months. But the idea faces resistance from local authorities, who worry that Moscow officials will use the guidelines to reassert centralized control, Mr. Danilov-Danilyan said.
The Ecology Ministry also wants to introduce incentives, such as tax breaks, to get businesses to stop polluting. But this is opposed by the Finance Ministry, which fears a loss of revenue, Danilov-Danilyan said.
Meanwhile, industrialized nations, including the United States and Japan, say they are ready to offer aid to help Russian ecology authorities deal with Tomsk-7 and potential incidents elsewhere.
There are numerous potential accidents just waiting to happen in Russia beyond Tomsk-7, said Alexei Yablokov, ecological adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, at a recent news conference.
Mr. Yablokov said that as much as 14 percent of Russia's territory, with a population of 4 million, is polluted and environmentally unsound.
Perhaps the most serious threat is posed by dumping of radioactive waste in both the Arctic Sea and the Sea of Japan, a government commission said in a recent finding. For example, 20,600 curies of liquid radioactive waste have been dumped in northern seas since 1959, the commission said. Solid radioactive waste dumped in the same seas amounted to 2.3 million curies. The dumping, which is ongoing, violates Russian law.
There are also non-nuclear threats. For example, environmentalists say pollution is threatening the water supply of St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city. Industrial dumping of sewage and heavy metals into the Neva River, the main water supply, has made the water undrinkable by Western standards.