Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal | MediaPart

English translation by Dennis Riches

As the head of the NGO Planet of Hope, Nadejda Koutepova has fought for fifteen years for the victims of radioactive contamination in the Urals, near the Maiak factory which, in 1957, gave the world its first nuclear catastrophe. In July, she was forced by circumstances to dissolve the NGO and leave Russia. This Friday, October 2nd, as Francois Hollande receives Vladimir Putin in Paris, she is asking for asylum in France.

Nadejda Koutepova’s story goes from the Soviet past to the Russia of today. She has been fighting unrelentingly for the last fifteen years to get recognition of the nuclear disaster which began in the Urals in 1949. She found herself under attack in 2012 when the Kremlin began clamping down on NGOs, in particular ones concerned with the military and the environment. Threatened with prosecution, she finally left her country in July.

With her departure, one of the most polluted regions of the world is losing its strongest advocate. The Ozersk region (south of Ekaterinburg in the Urals) was widely irradiated, since the post-war period, and the contamination is still going on thanks to the continuing operations at Maiak. The name is less well-known than Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the gravity of the disaster is comparable, especially if one considers that it has been ongoing for close to sixty years and nothing has been done to resolve the contamination.

It was in 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War, that construction began on the nuclear complex. It was to produce the plutonium necessary for a Soviet atom bomb. It was built by forced labor under Stalin, close to the closed city of Ozersk, between Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk in the Soviet period). Such closed cities near military-industrial complexes were fairly common in the Soviet Union. They didn’t appear on maps, and permits were required to enter them. In total, there were ten closed cities devoted to nuclear weapons. The first uranium-graphite reactor was opened in Maiak in 1948, and the first bomb was detonated in 1949.

Between 1949 and 1957, very large quantities of highly radioactive liquid waste were dumped into the Techa, a 240 kilometer-long river that flowed past dozens of villages. Today, the Techa is the most radioactively contaminated body of water in the world, and nearby Lake Karachai is considered one of the most polluted places on the planet.

In 1957, an explosion in a container of highly radioactive waste caused a new massive contamination along a plume that was 300 kilometers long and 30-50 kilometers wide. In Russian it is referred to as VOURS–Vostochono-Ouralski Radioactivni Sled, the Eastern Ural Radioactive Plume. This explosion was covered up for twenty years before it was revealed by the biologist Jaurès Medvedev (twin brother of the dissident historian Roy Medvedev). Medvedev, in exile in the UK, published the first article in 1976, followed by the book Nuclear Disaster in the Urals in 1988. Taking a name from the closest town on the map (Maiak still didn’t officially exist), the disaster was then designated as the Kychtym nuclear disaster.

Lake Karachai was close to Maiak and was used as a dump for masses of radioactive liquids. In the spring of 1967 it ran dry and the wind carried off radioactive sediment as far as 75 kilometers, causing large-scale contamination, notably of Cesium 137.

In addition to these three massive emissions, the Maiak complex released radioactive wastes continuously in lesser quantities. Meanwhile, the contamination problems were never resolved. According to the relevant estimates given by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the wastes dumped into the Techa in the early period, essentially between 1949 and 1951, amounted to 100 PBq (10E15 becquerels). According to Patrick Boyer of the IRSN (France’s Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire ), that is about four times as much as what Fukushima has released into the Pacific Ocean.

The releases of Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 during the 1949-51 period also contaminated the Techa floodplain, an area of 240 square kilometers where 80 square kilometers were above the Chernobyl zone limit of 3.7x10E10 Bq/km km2.

Starting in 1956, while Maiak continued to grow, storage areas were built out of natural ponds or by building dams on the Techa. Military production of plutonium ended in 1987. At the time there were seven military reactors on the site. Afterwards, Maiak was put to use for both military and civilian purposes, for producing radioactive materials, and for reprocessing of nuclear fuel.

In spite of the waste reservoirs, liquid contamination never stopped. The main dam leaked, as did creeks flowing out of the canals built to channel the water, and contaminants leached out of the soil. “These are long-term mechanisms, very long,” explains Patrick Boyer to Mediapart. “The situation is stabilized in the sense that the releases are much less than they were in the 1950s, but the leaks continue, and the Techa is going to remain very contaminated for decades.  Additionally, the lakes used as reservoirs of nuclear waste contain a considerable level of radioactivity, which constitutes a risk.”

Contamination in the Maiak complex and the surrounding area has had effects on workers and the rural population. According to a Norwegian report, in 1949, workers received a dose corresponding to 1,000 times the maximum allowed dose for nuclear workers today. The villagers along the Techa were also exposed to high levels of radiation which led to high mortality rates and chromosomal abnormalities. Even though the practices of the Cold War no longer occur, radioactive effluents still flow out. The IAEA document mentioned above notes that releases of strontium in the Techa doubled in the 2001-2004 period.

In fact, the population of the region remains exposed to a level of radioactivity which should, according to a 2011 report by CRIIRAD (Comité de recherche et d’information indépendantes sur la radioactivité), require evacuation. This was precisely one of the struggles that Nadejda Koutepova fought, but Russian authorities paid no attention. The pressures that led to her departure from Russia are symptomatic of the opacity that surrounds the Maiak site. Since 2011, scientific data on the site is no longer available.

The following is an interview with Nadejda Koutepova that was conducted on October 2, 2015 just as Vladimir Putin was welcomed at the Élysée by Francois Hollande to discuss the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

The revelation, decades later

Mediapart (italics):

Fifteen years ago you established the NGO “Planet of Hope” in order to aid the victims of radioactive contamination from Maiak. What led you to this cause?

Nadejda Koutepova (regular text):

My grandmother was a chemical engineer and she worked at the complex from the time it opened in 1948. The Soviet state wanted, like the Americans, to develop nuclear weapons, so they built a secret factory in the Siberian forest next to the closed city of Ozersk. People who worked there were forbidden from talking about their work. In 1965, my grandmother died of lymphatic cancer. I never knew her. At the time of the accident in 1957, when a container of highly radioactive waste exploded, my father was a student in Ekaterinbourg. He belonged to the Komsomols (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) so he was immediately mobilized as a liquidator. He worked there for nearly five years. In 1985, he died of intestinal cancer. I was a teenager at the end of his life, and it was horrific. He lived with a colostomy bag and was consumed by alcoholism.

But it was only later that I understood what could have caused him and my grandmother to die. One fine day in 1999, I was invited to a conference on the environment organized in Chelyabinsk, the big regional city. It was there that I discovered that the whole Ozersk region is contaminated yet the local population ignores the situation completely. Officially, the region is not polluted. The inhabitants eat mushrooms and fish in the rivers without asking any questions. This conference was a revelation. At that moment I decided to establish an NGO. I had studied law, sociology and political science at university. I wanted the inhabitants who were still there to have the means to leave and I wanted the unrecognized victims to be able to defend themselves.

In the first years of operation of the factory, 1949-52, all the highly radioactive wastes were dumped into the Techa. Cases of leukemia and premature death multiplied in the villages along the river, so the factory started managing the wastes in metal tanks. During the next decade, 34 out of 39 villages along the river were evacuated. At the same time, radioactive wastes were dumped in Lake Karachai. It was only in 1962 that the authorities announced that they would stop these practices.

In reality, the contamination of the surrounding waters never ended. In 2005, the director of the factory at Maiak, Vitali Sadovnikov, was prosecuted for having let the factory release, starting in the year 2000, tens of thousands of cubic meters of radioactive water into the Techa. Sadovnikov was given amnesty by the Duma (Russian parliament) in 2006. Nonetheless, the files on the court decision on Sadovnikov show that 30 to 40 cubic meters of radioactive water were dumped between 2001 and 2004! Since then, we haven’t even had access to the file, and the Maiak factory denies all responsibility for the contamination of the river.

Do the Russian authorities today recognize the victims of radioactive contamination?

A law was enacted in 1993, inspired by the 1991 law on victims of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. This law provides social assistance to the victims of the 1957 accident and to people affected by the contamination of the river—but not to their spouses or children. It specifies the typology of illnesses: if the patient could prove a direct link to her work at Maiak or to a place where she lived with radiation from Maiak, then she had a right to compensation.

In total, 19,000 people have been classified as eligible. The figure is always declining because of deaths. Five years ago there were 23,000. But this only represents a small part of the population affected by the consequences of contamination in the region. Our NGO estimates that the number has grown now to about 100,000.

The typology is very restrictive. It was reduced a lot by scientists after Chernobyl. There are only four categories: cancers, blood diseases, genetic instability, and chronic cellular dysfunction. Mental health and psychosomatic problems, for example, are not on the list. Furthermore, when a patient applies for compensation, a “council of experts” gets together at the center for radiation research in the Urals. Made up of eleven persons, they vote by a show of hands on whether the patient should be compensated. These men are not independent. They raise their hands under pressure from their supervisors. And who are we to question their decisions? They respond that they are the scientists. It is they who have the knowledge. We have tried to set up procedures to appeal their decisions. It is impossible.

Another problem is that many people lived and worked in the city at various jobs, but their occupations were not considered to have put them at risk. These were such people as the teachers at the technical college in Maiak, or workers at the train station in the neighboring town. They couldn’t claim compensation. Others didn’t live within the officially recognized zone of contamination. There is also the story of the children of the village of Karabolka who worked regularly in the fields. They were mobilized after the accident to bury carrots and potatoes. For weeks they handled irradiated produce. But unlike the liquidators, they never received certificates proving their participation. Fifty years later they have finally been recognized.

European Court of Human Rights

Still now local people don’t have the chance to get proper medical tests. When they are done, they are often very cursory. I know a woman who had a chromosome test done, but they looked at only one hundred cells. In order to do it properly, they need at least 500 to 1,000. As a result, no pathology was proven.

Compensation is not large. It depends on the occupation and the place the applicant lived. A former liquidator, for example, receives a food supplement of 600 rubles a month (which is worth about 8 euros at present rates), as well a small payment annually for health care. The recipient has access to free medicine and can, in theory, go once a year to a sanatorium. In some cases, a housing benefit is available.

What did your NGO accomplish?

Our NGO, based in Ozersk, had three programs. We educated citizens about their rights, in particular those who were victims of radioactive contamination. We did sociological research on the inhabitants. And we gave training to representatives of other NGOs in the Ozersk region.

We brought some sixty cases before Russian courts or administrative bodies. In most cases, they concerned proving that the person resided in the contaminated zone. For others, it was a matter of making them aware of their right to be relocated by the state, or to obtain the correct level of compensation.

One example was the case of Akhmadeyeva, a mother and her son who lived in the village of Mouslioumovo, on the Techa river. They requested to be relocated. The child had a mental deficiency linked to the effects of radiation contamination from the river. The municipality finally recognized him as disabled, then the state gave him a housing allowance and they were able to move to Chelyabinsk.

But we also failed many times. Such was the case with a small girl who died in 2011 from liver cancer. Experts had recognized that her illness was linked to a genetic anomaly derived from her grandmother’s exposure to radiation when she worked on cleanup of the site, after the accident in 1957. But the court decided that the accident was too far in the past. The case rested on a claim for pecuniary damage, which wasn’t possible under the laws of the USSR.

We took other cases to the European Court of Human Rights. My mother, Gayeva, was one such case. As a widow of a liquidator, she had not been compensated, and despite the positive appeal decision of the court in Ozersk (a three-year legal battle), her compensation was quickly denied by the regional court in Chelyabinsk. So next she went to Strasbourg. But the delays were very long, and she died in the meantime.

Have you taken on other types of cases?

Yes, we also worked on cases that were linked to the status of the closed city of Ozersk. At that time in the USSR, Ozersk was called Chelyabinsk 65. Like all the closed cities, it couldn’t be identified, so it took the name of the closest major city, followed by a postal code. On my passport, this is still listed as my place of birth. After an eight-year legal battle, a woman succeeded in correcting this incongruity and got her place of birth recognized as Ozersk, not Chelyabinsk.

Still today, even though the Soviet Union hasn’t existed for twenty-eight years, access to the town is limited. No one can enter without official authorization, and there are many restrictions. A resident of Ozersk who went to prison wanted to return when he was released, but he was not allowed to. We helped him in his applications, and he went as far as the European Court of Human Rights. In 2011, the court decided in his favor. He was able to return to his place of origin.

The explosion in 1957 was not revealed until nineteen years later, in 1976, by the exiled biologist Jaurès Medvedev. However, you, in spite of the illnesses you saw in people close to you, didn’t become aware of the severity of the accident until much later, after the collapse of the USSR. Why was this disaster ignored for so long?

The 1957 explosion released 20 million curies (two million went up in the atmosphere, 18 million fell on the nearby environment). An area of 23,000 square kilometers was contaminated at a high level. But all of this happened at a strategically important facility which didn’t exist on any map. It was completely shut off from outside visitors. The catastrophe remained a state secret.

It was 1990 when there was the first official recognition of the accident, with a visit from Boris Yeltsin. As for myself, at that time I still couldn’t admit the truth. We were brought up with such an ideology. We were convinced that at Ozersk we worked for the security of the USSR, we were heroes. My mother, who was a doctor, cared for employees at Maiak, and she lost her husband who was a liquidator. She told me certain things, but I didn’t attach importance to them.

Declared “undesirable”

What is Maiak like today?

The facility that was built at first, to produce the Soviet nuclear bomb, functions today as a nuclear fuel reprocessing center, including for foreign clients (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czeck Republic, Finland, Germany, Iraq and Ukraine, according to Greenpeace). 15,000 people live there and work in the complex. The old military reactors have been shut down.

But abnormal situations continue. The village of Mouslioumovo, one of the last to remain, was finally moved between 2005 and 2008. Most people took compensation and left, but a few chose to relocate only two kilometers from the Techa, which is highly polluted. Some inhabitants were not registered with local authorities. They were not eligible for compensation.

Today, we have no way to be certain that releases into the Techa have been stopped. The factory states that the reservoirs are secure.

A lot of people have been embittered by this history. My mother, who received no compensation as the widow of a liquidator, lost all confidence in justice. She was demented in her final days.

Yet the inhabitants of the region are not completely beat. There is presently a protest movement against Russian Copper Company which mines copper in the region and wants to be the national leader in copper extraction.

You have been in France since July, in Paris, and on October 2nd you are applying for asylum. Why did you leave Russia?

Our NGO came under increasing pressure over the years. In 2004, a law was passed to make it illegal to do sociological research in the Ozersk region, under the pretext that it threatened national security.

Starting in 2008, we were ordered to pay tax on our “profits.” We refused because we are financed by donations and we are non-profit. Next they tried to intimidate us. I was watched and harassed. But we won the game in court.

In 2012, a law enacted by the Duma put controls on NGOs that received donations from abroad. They were considered as “foreign agents.” So we organized a public meeting to explain that we are not foreign agents because in our activities we consult the local population. We work only for Russians.

But in April of this year, the authorities put us on their list of foreign agents. They accused us of two things: receiving financing from the United States, and “political activities.” This latter accusation concerns two interviews that I gave, one to an ecology magazine in which I discussed Article 42 of the constitution that grants the right to compensation when one is the victim of an environmental disaster. I criticized the way the courts were circumventing Article 42. The other interview was with the nuclear information website Bellona. I spoke of the deaths of children of liquidators and I also criticized the Russian courts.

In May, the pressure continued. The court in Ozersk ordered us to pay 900,000 rubles (4,000 euro) for not having registered with the authorities as foreign agents. All of a sudden, Rossia 24, one of the leading national media networks, broadcast an “assassin report” about us. My face was there at the top of the news, my views were misrepresented, and I was accused of industrial espionage. Journalists came and filmed my house. The question is this: how did they get the permits to enter Ozersk, which is still a closed city?

After this, my supporters encouraged me to leave Russia.

Since then, I have been added to a list of persons declared “undesirable” by the Duma. This indicates that I could be imprisoned. At the end of June, a new report was broadcast on television. We decided to dissolve the NGO.

On July 7, with my children I left for Paris as discretely as possible.

How do you explain the reaction by the media and the Russian authorities?

The general policy is that the United States is our enemy. We are surrounded by enemies. Whoever receives aid from enemies is an enemy also. Then there are the local interests. FSB Ozersk is not eager to have people know about the ecological catastrophe of the region. These interests merge with national interests.