Struggling to Cut the Half-Life Of Moscow's Nuclear Mess

OF the welter of difficulties confronting post-communist Russia, few will be more persistent than the legacy of nuclear pollution caused by careless past practices. Emblematic of the challenge is Chelyabinsk, which may well be the most radioactive region on earth. Located in Russia's southern Ural Mountains just a few miles from a city of 1 million people, it was the Soviet Union's principal site for building nuclear weapons. Over a span of 43 years, the facility produced huge quantities of plutonium and

other highly radioactive wastes. The plant's managers practiced a style of nuclear hygiene that was unimaginably lax by Western standards.

From 1949 to 1951, the MAYAK chemical weapons facility dumped its untreated nuclear wastes directly into the Techa River, from which people and livestock routinely drank water with no knowledge of the contamination. Then the toxic flow was diverted to nearby Lake Karachay, where during a 1967 drought, wind-blown radioactive dust from the dry lake bed blanketed the region. The contamination of Chelyabinsk is now said to be 20 times that of Chernobyl.

This legacy of radioactivity troubles many regions in the nuclear labyrinth of the former Soviet Union. It is the outcome of an industrial policy that consistently chose power and production over human safety and well-being. Nor have these past abuses been altogether abandoned. Several months ago, two explosions occurred in uranium-filled waste tanks at Tomsk-7.

Struggling to stay afloat in a vortex of difficulties, the Yeltsin government can spare few resources to repair its deteriorating nuclear complex. If there is to be any accountability for past lapses or improvement of the state's still negligent policies, the impetus must come largely from the nongovernmental sector, the citizens' groups that have sprouted in communities where major nuclear activities have been under way.

Gathered into a loose network of some 300 local volunteer groups across Russia, the Socio-Ecological Union (SEU) lobbies for more conscientious practices with a naive fervor and marginal effectiveness that remind Western nuclear activists of their own struggles a decade ago. As the extent of the poisoning has gradually come to light, citizens' groups have organized to monitor and resist the continuing pollution of their environments and to inform the public of the perils. They are being assisted by US sc ientists, foundations, and citizen activists, who bring with them substantial experience in wrestling with recalcitrant nuclear bureaucracies.

In cooperation with the San Francisco-based Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI), the SEU has held a networking conference in Chelyabinsk and plans another in the fall of 1994 in Krasnoyarsk. In June of this year, CCI brought 11 Russian citizen activists to the US to tour the Hanford, Wash., nuclear complex, the Lawrence Livermore weapons lab, and other formerly secret sites.

Lydia Popova, a Russian physicist who heads SEU's "nuclear ecology" program, reports that while "radiophobia" is widespread in the Russian population. As a result of Chernobyl and other disasters, the Yeltsin administration recently decreed that those nuclear plants currently under construction be completed and that 30 new reactors be built. The Russian government plans to establish facilities for dismantling nuclear warheads and storing plutonium in Tomsk, where a petition expressing concern about the m ove garnered 100,000 signatures. Recalling the recent explosion at the site, residents fear that a fire at nearby oil refineries could spread to the nuclear installation and ignite a holocaust.

The obstacles to a wiser energy policy are daunting: political instability and inertia, a lack of democratic structures for governance, the arrogance and unaccountability of a bureaucracy still staffed largely by communist-era functionaries, the absence of a legal system with procedures for appeal, and severe economic constraints. Even when citizens' groups win their campaigns, the means of enforcing the outcome do not exist. "People don't feel they can change the situation," Ms. Popova says. And with go od reason, for even with these democratic structures in place and a venerable tradition of citizen action, American activists have found it difficult to move an obdurate bureaucracy and motivate a public inured to apathy.

But the Russian economy is so prostrate that questions about where electrical power is coming from and what is being damaged in producing it are almost beside the point to bureaucrats besieged by a collapsing infrastructure. As in the United States, huge state subsidies for nuclear weapons and energy prop up what would otherwise be an economic liability, employing highly skilled professionals who lobby effectively on their own behalf. They will be among the last to see their budgets cut.

With so many forces arrayed against change, little improvement is likely in the near term. But citizen activism is never very impressive in the moment; its effects are cumulative. Ironically, Russia's economic collapse may ultimately aid those who oppose building more nuclear power plants, for the nation can no longer afford them. With many state-run industries closing, the demand for power is dropping and air quality in many cities is improving. But a longer-term solution awaits development of alternati ve sources of energy, a project so large and uncertain that even the wealthy West balks at committing the necessary investment in its own infrastructure.

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