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Russia: explosion in plutonium factory sends a small radioactive cloud across western Siberia; description of facilities in the region

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: There's confusion in Russia, today, following an explosion in a plutonium factory which has sent a small radioactive cloud across western Siberia. The blast blew the top off a tank containing liquid uranium and shockwaves set off a fire in the plant. Russia's Ministry of Nuclear Energy has described the accident as serious and has shut down the complex.

But Greenpeace in Russia says contamination in the region is higher than official estimates. Eduard Gizmatullim, from the Greenpeace office in Moscow, told Rebecca Gorman that while there's still very little known about the blast, people living in the area say it's worse than first thought.

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: The level of radiation is very high now. It is about 1,000 microentgens (?) per hour, and even more, up to a million.

REBECCA GORMAN: And how can you compare that to, say, Chernobyl?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: Yes. We can't compare it with Chernobyl because it's too early now and we're still waiting for more information and we want to get more information from official departments, from our people.

REBECCA GORMAN: But from the extent of the explosion, are you able to say what the potential damage or danger could be?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: As we know, for example, there is an area which is contaminated by radionuclides (?) with different radioactive materials around this nuclear industrial complex. For example, the cloud of radiation is moving toward the town of Isininall (?), so it's much closer than Tomsk to this nuclear plant.

REBECCA GORMAN: What does Greenpeace know about the actual activity of the chemical plant, where the explosion occurred?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: Yes, they were producing military plutonium. It was a reprocessing plant, as we call it. It was production for warheads and producing plutonium, and it was a secret town, and still, I think, a secret town. It's called Tomsk-7.

REBECCA GORMAN: So is very little known about the actual activities of that chemical plant and of the region because of the secrecy?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: Yes, sure. But now we know that - we knew some information about this but we're still waiting for more information but, as I told you, they were producing military plutonium. If they stop their production they stop their reactors and, as we know, there was fire after that incident because of the blastwave. There were some short-circuits in the electricity systems and a lot of fire workers were in the explosion site and they were trying to extinguish the fire, and they got a lot of radiation. Now, the government, I think, the special authorities are looking for reasons for the explosion.

As we know, the explosion occurred when they were filling nitric acid into their uranium tank, so there was a sharp increasing of temperature and then the explosion.

REBECCA GORMAN: Our reports here say that there were no workers at the plant, at the time. Is that your understanding?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: Yes, that's right. There were no workers at the plant, as we know according to official information again.

REBECCA GORMAN: And how forthcoming have the authorities in Moscow been in giving you information about the explosion?

EDUARD GIZMATULLIM: We called the Minister of Nuclear Energy and he gave us all the information which we asked. Viktor Mikhaylov, the Minister of Nuclear Energy, he told us that he did not know the exact information about this explosion and he didn't know the exact levels of radiation and the exact area of contamination.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Eduard Gizmatullim from Greenpeace in Moscow.

As a nuclear production site, the region of Tomsk-7 where the explosion took place is sealed off because of security measures. But in December last year, a team of American scientists visited the region as part of plans to scale back production of nuclear weapons. Dr Tom Cochrane, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington, was part of that team. Rebecca Gorman this morning asked Dr Cochrane to describe the facilities in the region.

TOM COCHRANE: Well, the explosion occurred at Tomsk-7 which is one of three sites for plutonium production as part of the Russian or former Soviet nuclear weapons complex. At Tomsk-7, there are five plutonium production reactors, two still operating; a chemical separation facility where the plutonium is separated from the spent reactor fuel elements; an enrichment plant and facilities for manufacturing the plutonium components.

REBECCA GORMAN: I understand that you actually visited the region, or at least Russia, in December last year, to discuss the continuing use of these kind of factories and, indeed, this weapon-grade material. What were the results of your talks at that point?

TOM COCHRANE: We had a meeting in Moscow in mid-December with people from the Ministry of Atomic Energy, and at that meeting, I presented a paper arguing why they should stop the operation of the chemical separation plants at Tomsk and the other two sites - Chelyabinsk 65 and Krasnoyarsk 26. They have, as I said earlier, five reactors, production reactors, at Tomsk. They no longer need the plutonium for weapons. They argue that they are operating those reactors because they co-produce electricity for the local site and we argued that even if they wanted to operate those reactors, they could operate them leaving the fuel in the reactors for a longer period and not reprocess the fuel. In other words, they would operate the reactor similar to the way they operate the Chernobyl-type reactors.

REBECCA GORMAN: And why did you argue against continuing this process?

TOM COCHRANE: Well, it's a dangerous process and the chemical separation plants are the major source of routine radioactive pollution in the nuclear fuel cycle. They've had accidents - a series of accidents - at Chelyabinsk 65 associated with the chemical separation and waste disposal operations.

REBECCA GORMAN: So you weren't surprised when you heard about this explosion today?

TOM COCHRANE: Given the sloppiness that pervades the Russian nuclear weapons program, it does not surprise me.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Dr Tom Cochrane from the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington.