September 29 marked the 60th anniversary of the world’s third most deadly— and least known — nuclear accident. It took place at the Mayak plutonium production facility, in a closed Soviet city in the Urals. The huge explosion was kept secret for decades. It spread hot particles over an area of more than 20,000 square miles, exposing a population of at least 270,000 and indefinitely contaminating land and rivers. Entire villages had to be bulldozed. Residents there have lived for decades with high rates of radiologically induced illnesses and birth defects.
Now, evidence is emerging of a potentially new nuclear accident and indications point once again to Mayak as one of the likely culprits. Ironically, if there was indeed an accident there, it happened on or around the precise anniversary of the 1957 disaster. The Research Institute of Atomic Reactors in Dimitrovgrad in the region is another possible suspect.
The presence of the man-made radioactive isotope, ruthenium 106, was detected in the atmosphere in early October by a French nuclear safety institute and by a Danish monitoring station, but only recently confirmed by Russia’s meteorological agency. However, the Russian authorities continue to deny that the releases came from one of their nuclear facilities and the source of the release is yet to be identified.
And the release of ruthenium 106 is a massive one, indicating a major accident, not a minor leak. The French radiological institute for nuclear safety IRSN) calculated the release at 300 Terrabequerels. To put this in perspective, it is an amount equivalent to 375,000 times the annual release of ruthenium 106 authorized for a French nuclear power plant.
IRSN has consistently downplayed the potential harm of the plume’s fallout across Europe, a position all too eerily familiar to the French, who were falsely told at the time of the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine that the radioactive plume would not cross into France.
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