Russia revises scale of Tomsk damage: Estimate of 'insignificant' damage from accident at Siberia nuclear plant fails to satisfy activists

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S Atomic Energy Ministry admitted yesterday that a tract of valuable Siberian forest had been contaminated as a result of last week's blast at the Tomsk-7 nuclear reprocessing plant, but said the amount of deadly plutonium released was negligible, people were safe and the situation 'quite acceptable'.

'The total area contaminated was 120sq km,' the ministry said in a statement, revising its earlier assessment that only 1,000sq m of land immediately around the plant had been affected. 'The plutonium content of samples is at the limit of our measuring equipment's sensitivity and is being checked further.'

The ministry said there were no plans to evacuate people from the once top-secret military settlement of Tomsk-7 - which it claims has gone over to civilian work - let alone the nearby city of Tomsk with its 500,000 inhabitants. Only the village of Georgiyevka, housing 30 families, lay within the contaminated zone, but radiation levels there were 'insignificantly above normal'.

Although Russia was not obliged to invite outside experts in the case of an accident at a military facility, the ministry said it would give access to International Atomic Energy Agency officials as a goodwill gesture.

The ministry's statement failed to satisfy activists of the Russian branch of Greenpeace, which said it had sent its own experts to the area. 'First the ministry denied any plutonium had been released at all. Now it is admitting it. We cannot trust officials who contradict themselves,' said a spokesman, Alexander Knorre.

The accident, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy, has revived fears about nuclear safety in Russia, which is widely regarded as being too occupied with political and economic problems to give the environment due attention. Earlier this month, President Yeltsin's adviser on ecology, Alexei Yablakov, issued a report, called the White Book, which admitted the Soviet Union had for years violated international conventions and dumped nuclear waste into the sea. It is likely this is still going on, as Russia lacks the resources to develop safer means of disposal on land.

The White Book caused particular concern in Japan, both Koreas and Norway, as it revealed that 20 nuclear reactors, plus other radioactive waste, mostly from atomic submarines and ice-breakers, had been tipped into Far Eastern and Arctic waters by the navy and the Murmansk Shipping Line between 1959 and 1992.

The authors of the White Book did say the waste dumped was mostly 'low and medium-active', was usually put in hermetically sealed containers and that there was 'no significant danger of radioactivity or contamination' of the seas concerned. But Greenpeace was angry that it was dumped in the first place and so were neighbouring countries who had been kept in the dark about the possible poisoning of their environment.

TOKYO - North Korea sharply attacked 'high-handed' Russia yesterday over its admission that it had dumped nuclear waste off the Korean peninsula, Reuter reports.

A Foreign Ministry statement said Moscow had no right to lecture Pyongyang on nuclear issues while it was polluting the environment. The ministry took issue with Russia's diplomatic efforts to pressure North Korea into allowing inspection of two secret sites the UN nuclear watchdog believes are linked to a covert nuclear- weapons programme.

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