Why Russia is having a meltdown over activists protesting its state nuclear agency
when russia’s fsb security service raided Fyodor Maryasov’s apartment in Siberia last year, the authorities seized his computer and a scathing report he had compiled about Rosatom, the Kremlinowned nuclear corporation. Among other things, the authorities accused him of inciting hatred against nuclear industry employees, an unusual charge that car- ries a maximum sentence of five years behind bars. “They accused me of revealing state secrets in my report,” the 49-year-old environmental activist says. “But every single thing in it was taken from open sources.” The raid came as activists are increasingly criticizing Rosatom over a range of issues, including the way it handles nuclear waste. This fall, critics alleged that one of its
facilities was the source of a mysterious cloud of radioactive pollution that drifted across Europe.
Russian authorities have responded to these critics with tough tactics—including raids and smear campaigns. But Rosatom says it was in no way trying to stifle dissent. “We strongly believe that every voice should be heard,” a spokesman for the nuclear agency tells Newsweek.
Maryasov, however, says the crackdown is a continuation of the routine cover-ups of nuclear accidents and atomic pollution during the Soviet era and beyond—from the 1957 Kyshtym disaster to the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. “Trust in Rosatom and the authorities,” he says, “is at an absolute minimum.”
The activist’s recent troubles began after he spoke out against Rosatom’s plans for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository in his hometown of Zheleznogorsk, in eastern Siberia. If the project goes ahead, Russian authorities would likely begin storing hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste at the site. Zheleznogorsk was built in 1950, under the supervision of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Until 1992, plant employees regularly disposed of nuclear waste in the nearby Yenisey River, causing health problems for tens of thousands of people in the area. Russian authorities stopped the production of plu- tonium for nuclear weapons at the Zheleznogorsk plant in 2010.
But critics say the shadow of nuclear catastrophe still hangs over the region. In the event of a massive natural disaster or terrorist attack, the nuclear waste repository plan poses what Maryasov says is a threat to “every living thing” in the region. Zheleznogorsk is 40 miles downstream from Krasnoyarsk, the regional capital, with a population of just over 1 million. And people in the area are concerned. More than 85,000 so far have signed a petition Maryasov drafted calling for Rosatom to scrap its plans for the repository.
The nuclear agency says it is building an underground lab at the Zheleznogorsk site to study the feasibility of its plans. It says those plans are open to public debate, and it points to similar storage sites currently operated in Finland, Sweden and the United States.
Critics, however, say it’s hard to access reliable information about Rosatom’s plans because many of its nuclear facilities are in so-called closed cities, like Zheleznogorsk. There are around 40 of these towns across Russia, the majority of which are sealed off from the outside world by barbed wire, fences and armed guards. Access is forbidden to foreigners, and even Russians who don’t live there have to receive special permission from the authorities to visit.
Those restrictions mean it’s easier for the authorities to ramp up the pressure against critics. Maryasov says he was the victim of a “vicious psychological campaign,” and he accuses the authorities of distributing fake news claiming he had advocated violence against atomic energy workers. The unre-
lenting pressure, he says, led to the breakup of his marriage. “The constitution stipulates freedom of information and forbids censorship, as well as guaranteeing the right to everyone to information about the state of the environment,” Greenpeace said in a statement. “In order to realize those rights, someone has to seek out and make public this information, which is what Maryasov was engaged in doing.”
In recent months, critics have hammered Russia’s nuclear industry over allegations that Mayak, a notorious nuclear plant in Ozyorsk, a closed city in central Russia, was the source of radioactive pollution observed over Western Europe in late September. Mayak, which was built in 1948, produces components for nuclear weapons and stores and converts spent nuclear fuel. France’s Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said the cloud that passed over Austria, France and other European countries was harmless, but it warned that the estimated level of radiation at the site of the suspected nuclear accident posed a serious threat to human health.
In November, Russian state meteorologists reported that high atmospheric concentrations of the radioactive isotope Ruthenium-106 had been detected around Mayak, triggering accusations that the secretive facility in Ozyorsk was the source of the pollution. However, Rosatom denied an accident had taken place there, said the levels detected by meteorologists were far below the admissible norm and insisted it had not carried out any operations that could have led to the isotope’s release into the atmosphere “for many years.”
Yet on December 13, Yuri Morkov, a senior executive at Mayak, admitted that Ruthenium-106 is routinely released as part of the plant’s processing of spent nuclear fuel. He insisted, however, that levels are insignificant and no cause for concern.
Russian environmentalists are skeptical of his denials, in part because of Mayak’s history. Between 1949 and 1951, the factory dumped radioactive waste from the nuclear facility into the local river, polluting water supplies for tens of thousands of locals. In 1957, a storage tank containing highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste exploded at Mayak, exposing at least 272,000 people to dangerous levels of radiation. The accident was the third most serious nuclear disaster of all time, after far more famous accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Eco-activists say the Soviets sent thousands of people, including some 2,000 pregnant women and hundreds of children, to clean up the disaster site with nothing more than rags and mops.
The atomic catastrophe was shrouded in secrecy: It wasn’t until 1989 that the USSR admitted it had taken place. Cancer rates in the worst-affected areas around Mayak are between 2.5 and 3.5 times the national average, according to Greenpeace. In 2007, Russia’s constitutional court ruled that the unborn children exposed to radiation during the clean-up were not entitled to government benefits as adults, as they were not officially employed by the state.
This fall’s reports of the alleged nuclear leak at Mayak rekindled memories of the 1957 disaster. But Rosatom denies there have been any major incidents at its plants in recent years.
One thing that’s clear: The risks are growing for environmental and human rights activists who take on the powerful nuclear agency. Just ask Nadezhda Kutepova, 45, the head of a human rights organization that helped the victims of radiation pollution in and around Ozyorsk. “At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the reports about the radioactive pollution, but as soon as I heard that Rosatom had said everything was OK and that Mayak officials were denying an accident had taken place, I started to monitor the situation,” she tells Newsweek.
Activists say the Soviets sent some 2,000 pregnant women... to clean up the disaster site with nothing more than rags and mops.
BLAST FROM THE PAST Protection masks deserted near Chernobyl. Activists say the crackdown against them is a continuation of the routine cover-ups of nuclear accidents and atomic pollution during the Soviet era and beyond.
“These are very cynical people.”
Kutepova was born in Ozyorsk in 1974. Her father worked at Mayak for 35 years and took part in the 1957 clean-up. He died of cancer in 1985, but the Soviet authorities never officially admitted the illness was linked to his job. In 2007, after a long legal battle, Kutepova forced the government to recognize her father as a victim of occupational radiation sickness. Neither she nor her mother, however, received compensation.
Kutepova didn’t fight only for her family. She also tried to force Rosatom to pay for medical treatment for locals affected by illnesses related to decades of atomic pollution. In 2013, Kutepova discovered the first known case of third-generation radiation sickness in the region. The case involved a 6-year-old girl named Regina Khasanova, who died of cancer. Medical experts said her death was caused by genetic mutations that resulted from the radiation her grandmother was exposed to during the 1957 clean-up at Mayak.
Two years later, Kutepova was forced to flee Russia after state TV accused her of trying to exploit the nuclear issue to foment revolution. Another report said she was attempting to destroy Russia’s nuclear deterrent on behalf of the United States. The purported evidence? Her human rights group received financing from the U.S. government–funded National Endowment for Democracy, which Russian officials have accused of seeking to topple President Vladimir Putin. (The NED says its aim is to promote worldwide democracy.) “We never covered up this funding,” Kutepova says. “We also received funds from organizations in Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.”
One of the televised reports even showed the door to Kutepova’s apartment, which caused her to fear for her safety. Kutepova and her four children now live in France, where she has political asylum.
There is no evidence suggesting Rosatom is directly responsible for the harassment of regional activists. A source close to the Russian nuclear industry tells Newsweek that the “appalling and totally unacceptable” pressure is more likely coming from regional FSB officials trying to please their superiors in Moscow in the lead-up to Russia’s presidential election, a time when there’s increasingly less tolerance for dissent. Another possibility: lower-level officials who stand to benefit financially from Rosatom’s activities. “Russia is Russia,” the source says, asking for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “They play their own game as always.”
As for Maryasov, the Siberian activist faces an uncertain future as he continues his campaign against the nuclear waste repository. Finding a job has been hard because of his legal troubles, but he has no intention of moving. “Too many people have put their trust in me,” he says, “I can’t let them down.”