Pollution capital to process Iraqi N-waste: The UN aims to get rid of Saddam's war materials at a Russian city dubbed the earth's most contaminated place, reports Steve Boggan

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The Independent Online
A RUSSIAN nuclear city described by scientists as the most polluted place on earth is to be given a contract to re-process the radioactive waste from Iraq's atomic weapons programme.

Sources within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is negotiating the deal, say the contract will be awarded to Chelyabinsk-65 in the southern Urals - the site of three radiation leaks since 1950.

An Anglo-French bid will be rejected on grounds of cost although no inspectors have examined safety at Chelyabinsk-65. An IAEA official in Vienna said: 'Our hands are tied. UN rules say we have to accept the lowest bid and the Russians' is the lowest. None of our people has ever been to the site but we have heard about the conditions. If it is so bad, 35 - 40kg more waste won't make much difference.'

Under United Nations resolution 687 agreed at the end of the Gulf War, all Iraqi nuclear materials were to be dismantled or removed by a UN inspection team. Professor Maurizio Zifferero, head of the team, signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission last Sunday in which the Iraqis agreed to prepare the irradiated enriched uranium for collection by the winning bidder.

A spokesman for AEA Technology, the commercial arm of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said yesterday that a joint British-French bid to reprocess the material at Dounreay and at a site to be named by the French had not been rejected. 'As far as we are concerned, our offer is still on the table,' he said.

But, privately, IAEA sources say a contact will be signed with the Russians before July. A spokesman said the bidding was confidential but confirmed that the organisation was obliged to accept the lowest bid.

'The main consideration is cost but there are other difficulties,' said an IAEA source in Vienna. 'The initial cost was estimated at about dollars 20m in 1991. That has to be advanced by the United Nations and eventually reclaimed from Iraq. But the value of the rouble against the dollar has since plummeted, so paying the Russians will work out much cheaper than the British and French.

'The British and French are also affected by legislation which says they have to return reprocessed fuel, plus waste, to the country of origin. But there is no question of anything - particularly plutonium - being returned to Iraq. That leaves the British and French with a problem the Russians don't have.'

Once a contract is signed with the Russians, irradiated highly-enriched uranium from the French-built Tammuz-2 and Russian-built IRT-5000 research reactors at Tuwaila will be separated into eight 5kg consignments. Each will be entombed in 20-tonne blocks of lead and stainless steel and flown out of Iraq in Russian military aircraft.

Environmentalists described the deal as disastrous. Chelyabinsk-65 went into operation in December 1948 without any facilities for waste management. According to a report by the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), based on Russian figures, between 1948 and September 1951, 76 million cubic metres of untreated high level nuclear waste were discharged directly into the Techa River without any treatment. The report described Chelyabinsk as the most polluted place on earth.

More than 124,000 people were exposed to radioactivity. Some 28,000 people drew their water from the river but were never told about the contamination. Russian studies have since recorded high levels of cancer in the population.

In 1957, Chelyabinsk suffered a second leak of radiation when a waste cooling system overheated, spewing out 70-80 tonnes of radioactive sludge. More that 270,000 people were exposed to radiation, 217 towns and villages were affected and all pine trees in a 12.5 square mile area died within 18 months. News of the incident was kept from the Russian people and the West until the late 1980s. American intelligence knew of the incident but kept it quiet to prevent opposition to its own nuclear programme.

Discharges into the Techa were stopped in the early 1950s, but highly- radioactive waste was dumped instead into nearby Lake Karachay, a practice that continues today. The NRDC report estimates that 120 million curies of caesuim-137 and strontium-90 have accumulated in the lake - 100 times more than was released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

John Large, an independent nuclear consultant with clients including Greenpeace, has been to Chelyabinsk twice, in 1990 and 1992. He said: 'The place is a total shambles. Near one of the reactors there is a bridge over the Techa River that tells you not to stand still or you will be exposed to high levels of radiation.'