The Secret And Dangerous Life In Russia's Forbidden Cities

THERE may have been far more Chernobyls in the former Soviet Union than ever known, and the threat to local and even foreign populations may still be significant.

Last April 6 an accident occurred at the East Siberian city of Tomsk-7, resulting in the release of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. The amount released near this city of 100,000 is uncertain; Russian and international-agency inspectors and non-governmental organizations (Greens, in particular) are provisionally giving different numbers.

What is certain is this: Tomsk-7 is one of 10 formerly closed, or "secret," nuclear cities of the former Soviet Union - or perhaps (if you include chemical and biological warfare activities) one of the 16 secret cities; or perhaps one of as many as 87 - all numbers propounded by sources in the former empire.

There and elsewhere, the problem of radioactive contamination is long-lasting, and the danger may be much higher than ever admitted. It is only thanks to the latest round of glasnost that the existence of these many secret cities is now being admitted.

The word "secret" is used in the sense that the cities were closed, were not shown on any Soviet map, were not counted in the population or the labor force, and their activities not discussed seriously by the Soviet authorities until last year.

Then, at a May 1992 meeting in Stavanger, Norway, Viktor Mikhaylov, the minister of Atomic Industry of Russia, indicated that

these secret cities were part of the military-nuclear industry.

Chelyabinsk city is on a map of Russia, but Chelyabinsk-40, Chelyabinsk-65, Chelyabinsk-70, Chelyabinsk-95 and Chelyabinsk-115 (all in the Urals) are not. Krasnoyarsk city is shown in east Siberia, but there is no indication of Krasnoyarsk-25, Krasnoyarsk-26 and Krasnoyarsk-45 (and perhaps also a Krasnoyarsk-35 and a Krasnoyarsk-95), which are referred to in the literature.

The range of cities indicated here does not include secret laboratories, secret plants, secret islands (e.g., secret laboratories on Vozrozhdeniya and Komsomolsk islands in the Aral Sea) etc., as the list would be too long.

Until several months ago, the standard figure for the Chernobyl accident in 1986 was 50 million curies; the Ministry of Atomic Industry of Russia and others are now citing a figure 60 percent higher - 80 million curies. By way of comparison, a total of 15 curies was released outside the containment structure on Three Mile Island.

Concern over a nuclear brain drain and the control of nuclear materials is in part the underlying rationale for much of the foreign aid going to the former Soviet Union. But much of the old network is not controlled, as witnessed by the growing number of attempts to smuggle out and sell nuclear materials. Moreover, we are just beginning to learn about the stockpiles of hazardous nuclear and chemical materials at these secret cities and facilities. As a consequence, they spark concern about global and regional environmental threats.

Among the worst hazardous materials we know about is dimethylhydrazine, also called heptyl, a liquid rocket fuel used for Russian missiles. It is classified as super-toxic, carcinogenic, nerve paralyzing and volatile. What is not known is how all this material is safeguarded. There may be 150,000 tons of heptyl in these closed cities, in missiles stationed elsewhere, in production, etc., but no known technology exists for dealing with it.

In this matter in particular, technical assistance should be given only with great caution, with special attention paid to the recipients. Too many examples in the former Soviet Union exist of individuals such as the former director of the South Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, who turned off the safety valves three times in the past year despite all the stringent, post-Chernobyl regulations. He was fired - finally - but only after the third such incident.

We are learning more now about the dumping of radioactive waste and seeing more evidence of its presence: nuclear subs with live reactors and control rods; three ships in Murmansk harbor with radioactive waste; radioactivity coursing through the Ob and Yenisey rivers of Siberia toward the Arctic Ocean (and possibly Japan and the Koreas, as well as Alaska and Canada).

In addition, there are about 160 nuclear submarines awaiting dismantling - and with a bad track record of accidents, including the release of radioactivity in the Sea of Japan area and in the north near Severodvinsk, the nuclear submarine-producing port. Severodvinsk has recently been reclassified as a closed city.

One should note, in addition, the 115 so-called "civilian" nuclear explosions - with residual, largely subsurface radioactivity in Kazakhstan, Yakutia (now known as Sakha Republic) - since the mid-1960s.

The tasks involved in cleaning up, of disarmament and dismantling, of defusing and detoxifying, are enormous. We need bilateral and multilateral approaches. Failure to do so leaves at risk much of the earth: Europe, Japan, the U.S., Canada, the Middle East.

The U.S. does not have sufficient money for all of these requirements, but it does have the technical capabilities, management and environmental leadership to help the new members of the international community with their staggering problems.

All the aid packages in the world will not help Russia and the rest of the former U.S.S.R. in resolving their economic and political dilemmas if they are undergoing environmental and health disasters at the same time.

Murray Feshbach is research professor of demography at Georgetown University and co-author of "Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege" (with Alfred Friendly Jr.).