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Moscow’s Radioactive Waste Problem

April 18, 1998

MOSCOW (AP) _ Parents were hysterical when radioactive waste was discovered at a kindergarten playground last year in southwest Moscow.

But the school wasn’t shut; the neighborhood wasn’t cordoned off.

Workers just moved in and carted off contaminated dirt and sand over three days while classes continued inside.

``There was no need to panic,″ said Dr. Oleg Polsky, a physician who is deputy director of Radon, Moscow’s radioactive cleanup agency.

The level of radium was relatively low, he said, and ``we managed to calm the parents and keep the school open when we demonstrated there was no contamination in the school building itself.″

It was business as usual for Radon in the city that international experts generally agree has more radioactive waste sites than any other in the world.

Employing helicopters, mobile laboratories and door-to-door searches, Radon has detected and cleaned up more than 1,000 radioactive sites around the Russian capital over the past two decades, including 100 just last year.

New ones turn up almost every week _ at a construction site, in a park, amid a garbage dump. Most involve substances like cesium, radium and tritium, which were casually discarded from science labs decades ago and have been emitting medium- to low-level radiation ever since.

There are no statistics available on the prevalence of radition-related illness in Moscow, but officials insist the risks are relatively low _ unless a person has direct contact with radioactive material.

Still, the invisible threat is real, and cleanup crews continue to make discoveries that baffle them.

Take the case of the radioactive rubles.

More than two dozen times in recent years Radon inspectors have come across Russian bank notes covered with cesium, which is used in cancer research and radiation therapy. The bills turned up throughout the city, and Polsky is still stumped by the cause.

Radon is not aware of anyone being sickened by the bank notes, but officials said that in some cases the level of radioactivity was dangerously high. The cesium levels were high enough to ``burn a hole in your skin if you had the bills in your wallet,″ Polsky said.

Several months ago a retired watch repairman called Radon and said he was upset to learn radium had been used to make the fluorescent hands on Soviet-era clocks. Inspectors dashed to his apartment and found it filled with old glowing clocks and their radioactive components.

``He told us he thought this might be the reason he wasn’t feeling very well,″ said Marina Ginsburg, a spokeswoman for Radon.

The man, 76, is feeling fine now and doesn’t show any signs of radiation-related illnesses, Radon officials said.

Moscow’s radioactive legacy can be traced to the 1940s and ’50s, when dozens of scientific institutes handled the sensitive materials while working on military, medical and energy projects.

Nuclear hazards were generally understood, and there always was a system for dealing with the most dangerous substances, such as enriched uranium and plutonium, which are used in nuclear reactors and warheads.

However, other radioactive elements considered less dangerous _ though still harmful _ used to be tossed out with everyday trash, Radon officials said. As a result, elements like cesium, radium and tritium wound up in dozens of garbage dumps on the city’s outskirts.

Moscow is now roughly twice the size it was 50 years ago and its boundaries have long since overtaken the old dump sites, which are now home to apartments, office buildings and parks.

Radon’s operation is unparalleled because no other major city has so much radioactive material that is unaccounted for. In effect, the inspectors are engaged in an endless Easter egg hunt for long-abandoned waste promiscuously strewn throughout a city of 10 million people.

Last year alone, cleanup crews removed 29 tons of radioactive soil from 12 contaminated building sites, most of them former garbage dumps.

``Those old garbage sites are the most dangerous places in Moscow,″ Polsky said.

How dangerous?

Last year, soldiers rummaging through an old army base in the former Soviet republic of Georgia found shiny metallic capsules and stuffed them in their pockets as souvenirs. The capsules were chunks of cesium 137.

Within hours, 11 soldiers were hospitalized. Several had excruciating radiation burns that left ulcerous wounds all over their arms and legs. Some were hospitalized for weeks, though all survived.

``There are serious risks to people who receive direct exposure at high levels,″ said Otto Raabe, a professor at the University of California-Davis and president of the Health Physics Society, a group that specializes in radiation safety.

However, Raabe said small amounts of exposure, such as simply living near a low-level radioactive site, ``tend not to produce any observable effects.″

Radon believes it has located the most hazardous sites in Moscow and cleaned them up to international standards, and it still has 100 full-time inspectors scouring Moscow.

An Associated Press reporter joined a Radon team recently as one of its baby blue vans, with a yellow light on top and monitoring equipment packed inside, cruised the streets.

Inspector Irina Golubkova, a 20-year Radon veteran, said she still finds sites that confound her. Moscow’s First City Hospital was preparing to re-open its renovated administration building in March when Golubkova detected radioactive radon gas that was five times the permissible level.

``We never could find the source,″ she said, noting the building remains closed.

Opening the windows lowered the gas level, but it quickly rose again when they were shut, she said.

With a wry smile, Golubkova offered a low-tech solution that’s a bit impractical in frigid Moscow: ``I guess they could keep the windows open all the time.″

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