Chelyabinsk meteorite less deadly than daily radiation
Broken windows and debris are seen inside a sports hall following sightings of a falling object in the sky in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk February 15, 2013. A powerful blast rocked the Russian region of the Urals early on Friday with bright objects, identified as possible meteorites, falling from the sky, emergency officials said. REUTERS/OOO Spetszakaz
“It’s the end of the world,” shrieked one Chelyabinsk resident, as hundreds dived for cover and dozens more were hospitalized for cuts and blast injuries.
Meteorite crashes, like the one that hit the central Russian town Friday, are undoubtedly scary. They explode space rock fragments for kilometers, can trigger fires and kill people on the ground.
But the up-side is: they’re over when they’re over.
Not so with Chelyabinsk region’s most deadly problem, a permanent ecological catastrophe that began at the end of the 1940s, when Joseph Stalin began to develop bigger and better nuclear weapons in a region bordering remote Kazakhstan.
For decades he and his equally reckless successors pumped spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste into the Techa River system and Lake Karachay – labeled the most radioactively contaminated place on earth. Its gruesome legacy will last some 80 million years.
Chelyabinsk’s fate was sealed as early as 1957, when the world’s first, and worst, “dirty bomb” exploded at the Mayak nuclear complex near the village of Kyshtym. A nuclear waste storage tank blew about 70 tonnes of radioactive waste into the atmosphere, spreading fallout over 20,000 square kilometers.
After the disaster, says the Norwegian ecological watchdog group Bellona Foundation, 217 villages became extinct. Cancer rates in the area soared. But demands for information and compensation were met with Soviet stonewalling that continued through the post-Sov 2000s, when the Russian health minister “annulled the list of those suffering from illnesses connected with radiation.”
A decade after the Mayak explosion, Lake Karachay dried up in a drought and poisonous cesium and strontium joined plutonium particles in the already contaminated region.
It didn’t end there. Mayak continued as Russia’s only operational facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from reactors and nuclear submarines. Documents obtained by the Russian advocacy group Ecodefense showed that between 2001 and 2004 up to 40 million cubic metres of radioactive waste was dumped into the Techa, and the river’s water “qualified as liquid radioactive waste.”
For decades Rosatom, the state body that regulates Russia’s nuclear complex, denied any wrongdoing as handily as any Soviet apparatchik. Only Mayak’s former director, Vitaly Sadovnikov, was prosecuted and removed from his job – though the court proceedings were heavily veiled in secrecy.
Adding insult to injury, the documents obtained by Ecodefense said that $174 million in funds for safety upgrades at Mayak were diverted to “loans and bonuses as well as upkeep expenses for an office in Moscow.” Meanwhile, the contaminated water system spread radioactivity through the food chain, and background levels are almost 80 times higher than normal.
By comparison, the meteorite crash leaves little to fear.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia.She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.