Pylons carry electricity power lines past cooling towers at the Novovoronezh NPP-2 nuclear power station, operated by OAO Rosenergoatom, a unit of Rosatom, in Novovoronezh, Russia. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Pylons carry electricity power lines past cooling towers at the Novovoronezh NPP-2 nuclear power station, operated by OAO Rosenergoatom, a unit of Rosatom, in Novovoronezh, Russia. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Argayash is a cynical, mistrustful town. Decades of being lied to by the government about being down the road from a leaking nuclear plant does that to a place. So too does watching generations of people dying of radiation-related ailments while officials assure them nothing is amiss.

A small, two-road settlement where homes roofed with corrugated iron and Soviet-era Lada cars nod to its poverty, Argayash is one of a handful of towns surrounding the Mayak Production Facility in southern Russia, one of the world’s biggest radiation emitters where a litany of tragic accidents has made it a byword for the dangers of the atomic industry.

This week, 76 years after radiation first began seeping from Mayak into the surrounding rivers, lakes and atmosphere, Russian authorities admitted Argayash was at the centre of a radiation cloud containing "exceptionally high" levels of radioactive isotope ruthenium-106, which spread so far west that it reached France.

The radiation was detected by Russia’s meteorological agency in late September, but revealed only on Monday, after local politicians had spent weeks denying rumours of a leak and rubbishing reports from EU agencies that had tracked the cloud’s movement.

The levels of the isotope in Argayash were almost 1,000 times the normal level. Officials say it is not harmful to public health.

"Nobody tells us anything. They keep it secret," says Lilia Galimzhanova, a cook at a café in the town. "We are afraid. We are afraid for our children and grandchildren.

"But we know that the air, the environment is very bad here," she says. Her 80-year-old mother suffers from radiation poisoning from Mayak. "We are not protected by anyone here…. We are survivors."

The source of the leaked isotope, which does not occur naturally and is produced during the processing of nuclear fuel, has not been confirmed. Rosatom, which operates the Mayak facility, has repeatedly denied it is to blame.

"[Mayak] is not a source of increased content of ruthenium-106 in the atmosphere," Rosatom said in a statement.

On Thursday, the company published a message poking fun at journalists on its Facebook page, inviting them to tour the plant, which it sarcastically dubbed "the cradle of ruthenium".

The local region’s chief oncology specialist has told concerned residents to stop worrying, advising them to instead "watch football and drink beer".

But local residents see little to laugh about. Many scoff at official denials, having heard similar for decades, even as they watched family and friends die from radiation-related ailments.

"We are not told anything about Mayak," says Nadia, an 18-year-old medical student living in the town, 1,700km east of Moscow. "The government should not keep things secret when people suffer."

"People in the west know more about this than we do here," she adds.

Galimzhanova heard of the radiation that had enveloped her town only when a friend in Germany read about it in a western newspaper. Before the authorities admitted its existence, text messages had been sent to residents saying high levels of pollution from nearby industrial factories meant people should stay indoors.

Regardless of the potential health risks, many here say the government’s initial silence, denial and obfuscation have dredged up painful memories of a past that refuses to stay buried.

Secretly constructed in the 1940s, Mayak was at the forefront of the USSR’s scramble to catch up with the US nuclear programme. As it raced to produce weapons-grade plutonium, a vast amount of nuclear waste was discharged into nearby lakes and the Techa river.

Then, in 1957, nuclear waste storage tanks at the site exploded, raining fallout over hundreds of towns — and releasing more radiation than any other nuclear accident except Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Ten years later, an adjacent reservoir used for waste disposal dried out, and powdered radioactive dust was blown over the area.

Not that local people were evacuated, or even warned: Mayak’s very existence was only acknowledged in the late 1980s, as information began to circulate about the long-term contamination.

An estimated 450,000 were exposed to radiation from the accidents and the discharging of waste into the water supply, Russian authorities said in 1993, making Mayak one of the world’s biggest sources of harmful radiation.

But antinuclear campaigners say safety breaches continued: a 2005 court case revealed nuclear waste was still being dumped into rivers as late as 2004, while Rosatom only sealed off the radioactive lake that caused the 1967 disaster in 2015.

"Previous experience has taught us that they lie and suppress information," said Andrey Talevlin, co-chairman of the Russian Social-Ecological Union NGO. "We can’t trust what they say, whether they mislead the population on purpose or not."

Talevlin, an academic and environmental activist who this week was branded a "foreign agent" by Russian state TV after he called for an investigation into the ruthenium leak, says suppression of anti-nuclear groups in Russia has rapidly increased over the past two decades. A fellow activist, Nadezhda Kutepova, fled to France in 2015 seeking political asylum after a similar media campaign accused her of "industrial espionage".

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said this week that the Kremlin had "no information" regarding any possible causes of the radiation. And some in Argayash say it is little more than an occupational hazard of living in one of Russia’s most industrialised regions.

"The authorities say they do not know anything about it. And we must trust them," says Jamshed, who runs a greengrocer on the town’s main Lenin Street.

"Nobody has proven anything. And even if something is proved, I am sure our government will immediately take measures," he says, looking over his locally grown vegetables.

© The Financial Times Limited 2017

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