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Mayak's walking wounded

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Mayak's walking wounded


By Vladislav Larin

September/October 1999  pp. 20-27 (vol. 55, no. 05) © 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


f irst visited Mayak, home of the industrial complex where the former Soviet Union pumped out tens of tons of plutonium for nuclear weapons, in 1993. I was working on a book about the human health and environmental effects of the various nuclear disasters that had occurred there. While I was there, I was met with complete openness on the part of various officials and the heads of the nuclear enterprise. I visited most of the plants and the reactors in the Mayak industrial complex, and I was permitted to take photos and videotapes. Arrangements were made for me to interview a number of experts and specialists.

On the other hand, when I tried to meet with retired workers--many of whom still live in Ozersk (formerly called Chelyabinsk-40, then Chelyabinsk-65) or in nearby villages--they avoided me. I wanted to hear what they had to say about their problems--both in the early days, and today. But I understood their reluctance to talk. After five decades of maintaining absolute secrecy about everything to do with the plutonium production process, it had never occurred to them to talk about it. Even people who were employed at the same plant never spoke about their work outside the workplace.

So I was surprised to receive a letter from Mayak after my book, Mayak PPA: Half a Century of Problems, was published. Victor Sladkov, who worked at the plutonium plant from the very beginning, wrote to me at the request of a large group of veteran workers, inviting me to visit Ozersk for a detailed discussion of the various nuclear accidents that had occurred there over the years. By then, the veterans wanted their story told.

Sladkov, who started working at the plutonium production plant in 1947, was employed there for almost 50 years. He wrote:

"Recent publications (and your book is no exception) say there were only three nuclear accidents at the Mayak facilities. In contrast, the administration of the nuclear complex keeps an official list that includes tens of nuclear accidents.

"But does it not seem strange to you that among the veterans of Mayak there are thousands of people with radiological illnesses? Neither number of accidents can explain the number of victims.

"I know that in our plant alone--Number 25, where plutonium was separated--there were hundreds of nuclear accidents that had dire consequences--we even had an uncontrolled chain reaction [criticality accident].

"It is no secret that the difference between the official figures and the real number of accidents can be explained by the regime of absolute secrecy that was maintained. Under that regime, plant inspectors hid most of the accidents from both the heads of the nuclear industry and from the government; it was the only way to avoid certain punishment.

"Another cause was the absence of a definition for the term 'nuclear accident.' The first official Soviet definition appeared only after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. And the modern Russian definition of nuclear accident emerged only in 1996--almost half a century after the first Soviet plutonium production reactor began operating at Mayak. We described nuclear accidents as 'leakages out,' 'spills out,' 'crumbles,' 'disperses,' 'hotbeds,' and 'slaps.' And it was never explained or documented that when we used those terms we were talking about the loss of control of radioactive materials, either in liquid, solid, or gaseous form."

It is still difficult for outsiders to visit Mayak, but I was eventually able to get permission from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), and last May I returned to Ozersk to interview retired workers and to try to discover the real number of nuclear accidents that occurred there. I also wanted to see how things had changed since my last visit six years earlier.

The covering over of Lake Karachay (where wastes were dumped) was almost finished, and there was a great deal of activity at the site where a storage facility for 50 tons of plutonium and uranium from decommissioned nuclear warheads is being built. The construction of the third and fourth melters for the vitrification of highly radioactive wastes is nearly finished. Mayak will also be the site of the storage and reprocessing of spent fuel from almost 250 Russian nuclear submarines. That will put a strain on the facilities, but no one in Russia other than the specialists in Mayak are capable of doing the job.


The workers' stories

In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was rushing to catch up with the U.S. bomb program. Great pressure was put on everyone involved in the Soviet program, which exploded its first bomb on August 29, 1949. The stories these workers told me about the early days of processing plutonium for that bomb are largely unverifiable, but on the whole, they have the ring of truth.

Plutonium production has three main stages. In the first stage, nuclear fuel is irradiated in production reactors. At Mayak these reactors were called "Plant A" or "Group of Reactors A."

In the second stage, the irradiated nuclear fuel is dissolved and the plutonium it contains is extracted. This work was done in "Plant B" or "Group of Apparatus-Dissolves." In the third stage, plutonium is fashioned into metallic form.

In each of these stages, incidents that meet the contemporary definition of nuclear accident were common. Those accidents caused workers to receive high doses of radiation that in most cases were not officially measured or recorded.

The most common accidents in the production reactors resulted in a partial melting of the fuel inside the reactor. When this occurred, the circulation of cooling water in the channel stopped. Such an accident happened on June 19, 1948, the first day that Reactor A was in operation. There was a problem with the nuclear fuel elements, the cooling water was choked off, and there was the possibility of explosion. The reactor was shut down. It took 10 days to clear a blocked channel of uranium and aluminum cladding. Similar accidents happened many times, probably because materials were used that were too weak for such a demanding environment. At last the reactor became too dangerous to run and had to be closed for repair.

* * * *

About that repair, A. Kruglov, head of research at the Central Plant's Laboratory, told me:

"The irradiated fuel elements had to be unloaded from the reactor core. According to the design, they should have been moved down into a special area under the reactor, and from there sent on for dissolving. But the cladding of the elements was damaged. Meanwhile, the next batch of uranium fuel was not ready to be loaded into the reactor, so the heads of the nuclear complex decided to keep the partly irradiated elements.

"A complete repair would have taken at least 12 months, but the schedule was tight, so the leaders of the country and of the nuclear project agreed to give it only two months. Plant personnel were forced to do a 'fast repair.'

"That meant that the irradiated uranium fuel had to be pulled up by hand into the central hall of the reactor and placed in a special storage area. Then, when the repair was finished, the elements had to be loaded back into the reactor. Over time, we unloaded and reloaded 39,000 fuel elements. All of the plant's personnel took part in this work and they received huge doses of radiation. The repairs were finished in two months."

Another issue Kruglov discussed was the movement of containers of irradiated uranium fuel from Reactor A to Plant B, where the fuel was dissolved.

"Theoretically, the elements were to be moved from a safe distance, by remote control. In reality, the trolleys transporting them frequently got stuck, and workers were forced to climb down onto the trolleys to fix them, which required working near the recently downloaded irradiated fuel. When they did this repair work, workers received very high--sometimes lethal--doses of radiation. In the early years, more than 30 percent of the workers received doses of 100-400 rem, and some people received much more." (Although the short-term and long-range health effects of plutonium exposure are unpredictable, doses in the 100-400 range are sufficient to cause a variety of disorders, including lung and bone cancers and damaged immune systems.)

"The irradiated fuel was loaded onto trolleys and sent to Plant 25 [another name for Plant B]. Since all the technologies were new and unknown, all the nuclear-chemical processes were organized in a way that was customary in the chemical industry. No one had experience in nuclear technologies. Many young specialists, mainly from technological, metallurgical, or chemical colleges and universities, were recruited to master these processes. Most of them paid for their knowledge with their health, some with their life."

* * * *

Faina Kuznetsova was employed as the operator of an apparatus, and was later the deputy head of radiological measurement. She served in Department 8 of Plant 25 from the first day of its operations until 1956. This was the plant where plutonium was separated from the uranium that had been irradiated in the reactor.

"After finishing chemical-technological college in Kineshma, I was sent to work at Mayak. This was because the first step in producing plutonium was similar to processes at chemical enterprises, and at the time there were no Soviet colleges with special courses for nuclear industry specialists. We had to learn the details of our jobs in the workplace.

"The design of Plant 25 did not incorporate even the simplest of safety features used in the more dangerous chemical enterprises. For instance, Plant 25 had a vertical arrangement, which meant that any leakage of radioactive liquids in the higher levels of the building simply led to the contamination of all the floors of the plant. In most cases the spills were of highly radioactive, toxic, and corrosive liquids and acids. There were many accidents.

"Later, when a second stage of the reprocessing complex was built--Plant 35--most of the bad design decisions were improved on. Plant 35 had a more horizontal arrangement, which resolved many troubles." [Together, Plants 25 and 35 were called Plant 235; today the complex is known as RT-1.]

"The second reason why we had a huge number of accidents was because we worked in a terrible rush, and the problem was compounded by our being required to work in strict secrecy. The project was under the personal direction of Lavrenti Beria, and all work was under the control of KGB agents. Any delay or mistake was immediately punished. Very often fear pushed people into doing things that caused accidents.

"Meanwhile, the technology required extremely complicated chemical products and very expensive equipment. For example, in the last stages we used equipment made from platinum, gold, and silver. In our poor country those expensive apparatuses were more valuable than the people who operated them.

"The third cause of accidents was that inside the industrial area it was strictly prohibited to take notes or post any warnings. All the details and different stages in the production processes had to be kept in memory to avoid the possible loss of strictly classified information. Workers were always in a state of stress lest they forget to perform some important step in the process. And often people did forget important things--particularly the first time. That also added to the number of localized accidents.

"Despite the rush, Plant B's equipment and its technological arrangements were not ready in time. The first irradiated elements were unloaded from the production reactor, but the apparatus for dissolving them was not yet operational. The representatives of the secret services were very angry. They told the chief of Department 8 that he would be staying at the workplace until processing began. Security took away his identification card/pass which allowed him to leave the industrial area. Everyone who worked for Department 8 spent the next 12 days and nights at the plant.

"Processing began in December, and in January the first big accident occurred. A pipe containing 'product 76' [the solution containing plutonium] developed a hole, and highly radioactive solution leaked directly onto the security guards at the door. Later, the same problem occurred in different places and workers fought the radioactive solution with wash cloths and buckets. Since the enterprise was strictly secret, there were no special cleanup crews, and we had to clean all the spills by ourselves.

"In most cases leakage and spills took place in concrete canyons where the processing equipment was installed. The plant was designed so that all the canyons were to be closed with concrete 'stones' and not opened after radioactive processing began. The function of the stones was to prevent the irradiation of workers. To go inside the canyons was prohibited by the safety rules, but no other way to clean up spills had been anticipated. Immediately after the first leaks occurred, the protective stones were taken off and never put back. When the alarm signaled a leak, the operator would climb down into the canyon to see what happened and what needed to be cleaned up. All the workers climbed into the canyons many times.

"When I worked as an operator of an apparatus in the early years, it was common to clean up spills of radioactive solutions by hand. It seems strange now, but the possibility of spills was not anticipated, and there was no way to collect spilled solution safely. We had only wash cloths, buckets, and sometimes, rubber gloves. We collected the spilled solution and poured it into big glass bottles--it was a very expensive compound and we were expected to recover every drop.

"Later, in Plant 35, all the concrete canyons were lined with stainless steel, which made it easier to clean up spills. The conditions in Plant 25 made it absolutely impossible to clean up the concrete, and the building had many extremely contaminated areas.

"Our department was the last stop in Plant B, and we operated with very small volumes of radioactive products--50 to 100 liters. But in the first stages the volume of material in the apparatuses was as much as six cubic meters, and when leaks happened there they sometimes lost as much as three tons of highly radioactive product. To collect those spills with wash cloths was impossible. Those were real disasters.

"When we were engaged to work at Mayak, nobody knew what the conditions would be at our future jobs. We were not warned about the effects of radioactivity. We did not even know what radioactivity was. That is why we handled the radioactive solutions--we were afraid only of the KGB.

"Once in 1953 a plastic apparatus with a capacity of 200 liters where uranium and plutonium were separated from solution, simply cracked open. Obviously, plastic becomes weak when exposed to harsh compounds and radiation. We collected all the radioactive liquid and washed the floors. Naturally, we received big doses. When we finished, a "black cab" from the KGB was waiting near the plant gate, and that night we had to write an explanation of how the accident happened.

"Accidents caused by the holes that developed in the pipes or leaks from valves were more common. An operator would open a valve to pump solution from one apparatus to another, and the rubber gasket would come out and the solution would spill.

"One corridor with many pipes and valves was 7.7 meters above the lowest level. It was very radioactive because there had been so many different accidents. The corridor was very narrow, and I was forced to lie down and inch along, collecting solution with a wash cloth. I did that many times.

"Sometimes radioactive and acidic solution splashed my eyes. Later, when I received too large a dose to continue working as an operator, I headed the radiological measurement group at Plant 25. There I witnessed another kind of radiological accident.

"After the irradiated elements were unloaded from Reactor A, they were transported by special car to Plant 25. Because the wrong decisions were made about various links in the technological chain, there were always problems. And any problem with highly radioactive uranium immediately became a radiological accident.

"The elements were unloaded from the car through a pipe and into the first apparatus. But the pipe was of the wrong shape, and elements were always getting stuck there. You can imagine what happened when several hundred kilograms of freshly irradiated nuclear fuel got stuck--men from everywhere in the plant were called out, and one after another they used long steel rods to push the elements into the apparatus. The only protection they had was cotton overalls and gloves. Once while they were pushing elements into the apparatus, there was a hydrogen gas explosion, and a man was thrown for several meters. He spent many months in the hospital, but he could not be saved. The reason this happened was the general rush, increased by competition between teams of workers--who could do it faster, who could do more.

"According to the technical protocol, we were not supposed to start dissolving the elements until the load was completely transferred to the apparatus. But downloading and 'pushing' the elements into the apparatus took too much time, so to save valuable minutes, workers sometimes began dissolving the fuel before it was all downloaded. The hydrogen explosion happened at one of these times, and one of the violators of the safety rules paid for it with his life. But he was not really the cause of the accident--just its victim. Similar accidents happened fairly often.

"Another example of a routine radiological accident that was caused by doing work 'by hand': The pipes and apparatuses were plugged with rubber stoppers that were not strong enough to survive in such a harsh environment. Very often small particles of rubber broke off and clogged up the insides of the pipes. When that happened, the processing had to be stopped, which led inevitably to punishment. The only way to remove the clog quickly was to cut the pipe down piece by piece, hoping to find the area of blockage. After it was found, the team pitched in to fix the pipe. But these pipes transported radioactive solutions, and this activity--cutting and repairing--was very dangerous. There were no radiological controls, and nobody knows how much radioactivity we received.

"In the last stage of processing, we poured the final solution into glass bottles that were transported to Plant 20, where the plutonium would be fashioned into metallic form. The last apparatus in our plant pumped the solution into bottles. After that, the bottles were carried by hand. Later, they were transported to Plant 20 by automobile, without any radiological protection.

"In these last stages there was always the risk of a criticality accident if the plutonium solution in the bottle was in a near-spherical form. The first criticality accident happened in our Plant 25 in 1954, and the hands and legs of the director of the department, A. Karatigin, were badly irradiated. His legs and fingers had to be amputated. The same thing happened in 1968 to U. Tatar. His whole body was irradiated, but especially his hands and legs. He lost his right hand and both legs, but he is still alive and lives in Ozersk.

"Anyone who worked at Mayak, regardless of his position or accomplishments, could be punished at any time. If you followed the safety rules, you couldn't meet your work quota. When you worked 'under war-time conditions' (always the case at Mayak), you were under greater pressure than if you were in a labor camp. On the other hand, if you violated the safety rules you risked losing not only your bonus money, but your life.

"For years we worked in these conditions and I do not know who was guilty. Most of the people who worked with me have passed away. I am alive thanks only to my optimism."

* * * *

Inna Razmahova began working in 1948 as an operator in Plant 25. She was later head of the department and deputy director of the plant.

"Most of the accidents my colleagues have been talking about were caused by faulty equipment and technological failures. Only a few were due to mistakes. The people who developed the complex later told me about the conditions under which they worked. Sometimes during rush periods they worked from 8 a.m. to 12 midnight, and as a result of fatigue, they made bad decisions. Moreover, most of the engineers who designed Mayak were young people who had no experience in this kind of work, even at chemical enterprises. That is why the design was faulty.

"The technological scheme was developed at a time when most of the radiological products had been handled only in laboratories and in very small--gram--quantities. Mayak reprocessed tons of products. Large quantities could not always be treated in the same way as small quantities.

"Another cause of accidents was the exposure of poor quality metals and other materials to harsh solvents. There was no practical way to prevent holes from developing in the pipes. Also, some of the personnel were not qualified. I remember cases when operators poured buckets of spilled solution down the toilet.

"The design of the apparatus for mixing feed material with solvents did not take into account the different features of the two materials. A small model worked well in the laboratory, but the same technique--mixing the materials with blasts of air--when applied at Mayak, produced foam and, under pressure, the material erupted and ended up on the roof. The operators opened the apparatus, which was empty. They had to collect about four tons of material from the roof and wash and clean the building.

"It took 45 years before I was notified by mail in 1995 that I had an illness as a result of radiation received during routine radioactive accidents. I began to work at Plant 25 in 1948 and by 1950 I had received enough radiation to become ill. There was a dearth of experienced personnel, however, and I was not informed by the medical department that I should be prohibited from working with fissile materials.

"Instead of ending my employment at Mayak, my employers just put me in a different position and I became deputy head of Plant 25. Officially, my new position was 'clean' from the point of view of radioactivity, but in reality it was even 'muddier' [more radioactive]."

"Many of us had practiced in Moscow on a model of the Mayak equipment. The levels of irradiation among the personnel there were even higher than at Mayak. The doses we received during practice were never measured and were not added to our recognized doses. Far more than half of the people who practiced in Moscow have now passed away, despite being in very good health before 1948--perfect health was one of the main criteria for going to work at Mayak.

"Some practices that were routine back then do not fit the contemporary definition of a radiological accident, but they still led to high levels of irradiation. For example, at one stage we filtered the radioactive solution to separate out the uranium but retain the plutonium. The process went slowly, and we mixed the material by hand, with wooden spoons. The uranium was removed and transferred to another plant. That operation was done by workers called the "special apparatus operators team." They received 300 rubles for removing every filter. At the time, the monthly salary for an apparatus operator was about 1,500 rubles. The particles on the filters were dangerous, and members of the special operators team died at an early age. Every two to three months the people changed and I never met them again. I saw people engaged in that work who were coughing up blood.

"In 1950, when I changed jobs, my new workplace was in the dispatcher's room. It was far from the apparatus, and no radiological measurements were taken. Only occasionally was a measurement taken, but when it was, the scale on the instrument did not go high enough--the dispatcher's room had extremely high levels of contamination. Much later I was told that a pipe transporting radioactive product ran under the floor. How much more radiation I received I do not know.

"One more example of unrecorded doses received by soldiers and prisoners: I was deputy chair of my department, and one night my chief gave me a task overseeing the work of some soldiers. When they had received the maximum allowable dose, I stopped their work. The next morning my chief was angry and he explained to me that the maximum dose applied only to plant personnel. Soldiers could receive more, and prisoners much more--because they would leave Mayak after they had finished serving their time, and nowhere would the doses they received be recorded."

* * * *

Valeri F. Balabanov serviced the control and measurement devices at Plant 25:

"Only one method was used to measure and evaluate the radiation we received. Everyone had a badge with a piece of film that was processed once a week. The film was visually examined to assess the level of irradiation. But there was no way to control how personnel used their badges.

"In my own case, I always had a problem with where to put my badge. There was only one pocket in our cotton overalls. Meanwhile, I needed a place for my ID card for going from one department to another, and for a bunch of keys, my screwdriver, my cigarettes, and so on. There was never enough room for the badge, so I kept it in a box in the locker room.

"Another reason we did not use our badges: Even when it was clear that some member of the team had received too large a dose of radiation, it was impossible to move to safer conditions. If a man was irradiated, he got a vacation--and after a month spent in a sanitorium, he returned to his usual workplace. There was a severe lack of experienced professionals. Only after several years of working in dangerous conditions did it become clear that I had received too much radiation and I was allowed to move into a permanent job as a Komsomol official."

* * * *

Victor Sladkov (my letter writer) began work at Plant 25 in 1947:

"The pipe for loading irradiated fuel elements into the first apparatus at Plant 25 had two bends where the elements always got stuck. Sometimes only a few got stopped, but sometimes we were forced to push more than a ton of freshly irradiated fuel through by hand. To do that, we knocked the pipe with a sledgehammer, pushed with a long steel rod, and poured nitric acid into the pipe. The bends in the pipe were put there to direct some irradiation away from the apparatus.

"All the processing was driven remotely, but technical problems forced us to do many operations by hand. It was impossible to correct the design faults, because the pipes were under many meters of heavy concrete. Moreover, the level of radiation around the pipes was deadly. That is why all the modifications were postponed for 10 years and all the changes were made only after Plant 35 began operating in 1958.

"The upper end of the pipe for downloading the fuel elements was capped with an iron 'cassette' weighing 700 kilograms. Once, when there was a hydrogen explosion in the apparatus, the cassette was blown off and thrown far away. The gasket was made from poor quality rubber, and it tore or was dissolved by nitric acid moving through the pipe. We stopped up the holes with rubbish and other make-do materials. The area around the cap was very radioactive, and a team of mechanics needed more than two hours to make a repair. When making those repairs, the workers received huge doses.

"I believe that the government was mainly to blame for the accidents, because people were forced to work in unbelievably difficult conditions. The government should take responsibility for all the victims."

* * * *

I. Dvoryankin worked at Plant 25 from 1949:

"In August 1949 we fixed measuring devices on apparatuses in Divisions 3, 6, 7, and 8 of Plant 25. The plant should have been stopped, but that was strictly prohibited. To keep the plant working, we were forced to work near apparatuses containing radioactive solutions. We worked under extremely radioactive conditions without any protection other than gas masks. One by one we climbed down to the canyons and changed the measuring devices on the covers. When blood began pouring from our noses, we pulled on the ropes to be brought up. We received extremely high doses of radiation, but thanks to our work the plant was not stopped."


After the fuel was dissolved in Plant B, the solution was transported to chemical-metallurgical Plant V, where metallic plutonium was produced. Plant V was also called Plant 20. It was away from the main area of Mayak, on the shore of Lake Tatysh. Most of Plant V's workers lived in the village of Tatysh rather than in Chelyabinsk-65.

In the early years, the prevailing opinion was that working conditions at Plant V were much better than at other divisions of Mayak. Now it is clear that that view was wrong. Working in rooms with particles of plutonium in the air killed most of the workers. Mikhail Bagenov, a veteran of Plant V, was later head of an analytical laboratory:

"After passing through the entrance gate, you saw the usual barracks. My workplace was a 45-square-meter room with a table, a chair, and a wooden chemical ventilation box with no protection against radiation. The containers of radioactive solution brought in from Plant B were stored nearby."

* * * *

Liya Sochina began working at Plant 20 in 1949:

"All the containers from Plant 25 were brought in unprotected. We also had no protection in the workplace. Supposedly, in previous stages the plutonium had been separated completely and no highly radioactive products of nuclear fission remained--but it was not so.

"At that time our plant did not remove radioactive particles from its emissions. The house of the scientist who headed the plutonium separating process was very near the plant. The leaves of the birches around his house were highly polluted. Professor A. N. Volsky often brought leaves in for radiological measurement--they 'clicked' a lot.

"As for nuclear accidents, I can give several examples. Once an assistant, G. Aleksandrov, was filtering plutonium from solvent when the glass retort exploded. His face was badly cut and plutonium got into his blood. Other assistants helped him wash away the blood and the solvent, but the head of the division didn't like that. He told us that we had to collect all the blood and water so we could recover all the plutonium.

"We were not sure how the plutonium would affect Aleksandrov's health, and we were very interested in how his recovery was going. About a month and a half later, he left the hospital and we calmed down--plutonium was not so dangerous. But several years later he passed away at an early age.

"Another accident happened when workers were manually crushing sediment that included plutonium. Usually we worked on small amounts, but the head of the division told us to take bigger portions to speed up the process. As a result, the material exploded and hot particles of plutonium flew all over the room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered by green dust. And the radioactive powder poured from the ceiling onto our heads. The heads of the plant, A. A. Bochvar and I. P. Martinov, asked us to leave the room, took gas masks, and cleaned the whole room. After only modest repairs, we went back to working in the same room.

"You can imagine how much radioactive dust was in the air of our workrooms. At the time there were no individual measurements taken, but when the contamination in the building was measured, the air in the rooms was a hundred thousand times the permitted level.

"There were a lot of small accidents--the radioactive contents of apparatuses exploded, radiation was spread when opening containers with radioactive waste.

"One container of radioactive waste that was brought into our room had a badly corroded cover. While an assistant was cutting it open, it exploded. The cover flew like a bullet into the wall. After that, the workers refused to bring containers back to storage because they were afraid of explosions. The heads were forced to bring them back by themselves. At first we had intended to reprocess the radioactive wastes, but the risk of explosion was too high, and for many years the containers were kept in primitive storage areas.

"There were several criticality accidents--in 1957, 1958, 1962, and 1968, and workers received thousands of rem. Most of the victims died; only U. Tatar is still alive. In 1968, a glass bottle containing plutonium exploded in his hands. He lost both legs and his right arm.

"Because people did not change clothes at the plant or the laboratories, they took a lot of radioactive 'mud' back home with them. When the first measuring devices were installed in the locker room, most workers were forced to burn their clothes because they were extremely contaminated. They had to go home wearing only new overalls.

"Plant 20 burned radioactive wastes at night in the forest near the plant. The wastes that weren't burned were stored in primitive storage areas. Most members of the teams that handled the wastes did not live long."


During my stay in Ozersk and my visits to Mayak in May, I met with dozens of veterans who remember the first days of the plants and their first years of operation. All of these retired workers had serious illnesses that could be linked to hundreds of radioactive accidents. But none of them regretted having dedicated his or her life to creating the Soviet nuclear deterrent. They are disappointed, however, by the unwillingness of the government and the heads of Minatom to admit to those hundreds of accidents. They still hope they will receive compensation for their lost health.


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