(December 23, 2005) The ECOMET-S smelting plant reprocessing radioactive scrap metal and situated within the grounds of Leningrad nuclear power plant experienced another accident at 3 a.m. on December 15, this time resulting in the loss of a young man's life.
(640.5739) WISE Amsterdam - An explosion in the plant's electrically heated furnace caused molten metal, at temperatures as high as 1200°C, to be expelled hitting three workers, one of whom, 33 year old Vitaly Lanbrozo, subsequently died from his injuries. The other two men, 22 and 32 years of age, received burns covering up to 90% of their bodies and remain in extremely serious condition at nearby hospitals.
A spokesperson at the plant near the town of Sosnovy Bor, west of the city of St. Petersburg, said that the explosion had been caused when production rules were violated. But the fact is that ECOMET-S has never abided by any rules and that, sadly, this accident was the inevitable result of the reckless operations that have been allowed to continue unchecked by state and national authorities despite appeals by environmental groups and local residents for activities at the plant to be suspended.
As yet, the cause of the blast has not been confirmed but as speculation grows, the Norwegian Bellona Foundation has reported that Sosnovy Bor's chief ecologist, Nataly Malevannaya, explained that a violation of the technical process guiding the operation of equipment is thought to be responsible. Before the radioactive metal is loaded into the kiln, it must be cut to remove air cavities that, when heated, can cause explosion. A special commission is to be established to determine the cause.
A privately owned company, ECOMET-S has been allowed to operate without the necessary state environmental impact assessment (SEIA) on the design or construction of the plant and although this was reported to state prosecutors by Green World and Greenpeace, among others, on several occasions, no action was ever taken by authorities. In fact, following the horrific accident, deputy state prosecutor Miklina commented that there had been no grounds on which to initiate legal proceedings against the company while admitting that it had been allowed to operate without having conducted the required SEIA. One would have thought that not having completed the mandatory requirements prior to construction would be sufficient grounds but apparently not.
The plant was built with the aid of a US$50 million investment from Gazprom-bank, part of the Russia's oil and gas monopoly Gazprom. In February 2002 Valery Lebedev, Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy, signed the act that allowed ECOMET-S to begin operating with full knowledge of the fact that no SEIA had been approved or even carried out. When interviewed by Bellona Web in October 2003, then-director of ECOMET-S, Mikail Voronkov, said that the company's lawyers were working on obtaining the necessary approvals. The documents still have not been received - perhaps because the plant does not conform to requirements?
Had the plant been regulated, the license issued would have stipulated that it have emergency plans in place and provided guidelines on appropriate levels of emissions among other things. Documents seen by Bellona and Greenpeace indicate that no such plan existed and since the authorities showed no interest, it is not surprising that the company did not initiate one of its own accord.
Russia's nuclear agency Rosenergoatom or Rosatom (formerly Minatom) was quick to report that no radiation had been released. According to the agency, the nuclear reactor (of which there are four) closest to the smelting plant (officially said to be 1km away) was undergoing repairs so was not in operation at the time of the blast. Local environmental activist, Oleg Bodrov of Green World said that the plant was actually built 700 metres from the reactor and just 50 metres from a radioactive waste pond.
The claims that no radiation was released was initially questioned because no independent confirmation was available and the local population, lacking complete trust in their authorities, was showing signs of panic. In 2002 the regional ecological laboratory permanently monitoring radiation levels within 30km of the nuclear power plant was effectively closed down by the nuclear agency, then Minatom, when its financing was stopped. The lab had been operating for thirty years. ECOMET-S' pubic relations officer said that no damage had been done to the vent filters, which collect radioactive particles, of the electric furnace and that meant that no radiation had been released, adding that in any case, at the time of the accident, the kiln contained only non-radioactive metal. Green World has since been able to measure the gamma background and confirmed that levels correspond with background level, reading 15-18 microentgen per hour. Bodrov also reports that the building housing the furnace was not visibly damaged.
Vladimir Slivyak of Ecodefense (WISE Russia) has revealed that although the news of the explosion was covered by much of the international media, a Russian official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and part of official delegation at UN forum on energy for sustainable development (Geneva, December15-16), denied that there had been an accident during a plenary discussion on a paper proposing nuclear power as option for sustainable development. In fact when questioned by Ecodefense, the official told the plenary at the UN meeting that no accident had occurred and that NGOs could not be trusted. Interesting how similar this response was to that of authorities in 1986 - nearly 20 years later, the first instinct of some Russian officials remains steadfast.
The ECOMET-S plant reprocesses metallic radioactive waste, said mostly to originate from the Leningrad nuclear plant itself, although it is known that metal from elsewhere is also processed there allowing the company to make money from reprocessing as well as from selling on the re-smelted metal. There are no controls over what products can be made from this metal; ECOMET-S can sell it on as clean metal to be used in the manufacture of any number of household products.
This is not the first serious accident to have occurred at the plant. In August 2002, a similar incident left 2 workers injured after they too were burnt when molten metal spilled from a kiln. There have also been other incidents at the plant and in 2003, an incident was caused by defective measuring equipment.
An anonymous worker told Green World that workers had to risk their lives on a regular basis as they were forced to violate safety regulations by using faulty tools and equipment that were 'repaired' by the workers themselves. The whistleblower added that a lack of air funnels (to remove pollutants) meant that gases and particles containing radionuclides were ingested by staff and after an hour working under such conditions, workers would complain of nausea and headaches as their eyes watered profusely. 'Protective' clothing was said to be so deteriorated that any stray spark would lead to such items catching fire, vehicles transporting radioactive metal were allowed access to the unit without radiological treatment or controls, meal breaks had to be taken in the production building with the contaminated metal and at times, sanitary checkpoints were at times closed leaving cold showers as the only resort after work so workers were left to traipse radioactive dirt to their homes and families.
The death of a worker should not have been required for state nuclear regulatory authorities in Russia to ensure that the company follow the rule of law instead of openly floating regulations and fostering an appalling safety culture - if such a thing can be said to exist at all at ECOMET-S. A man has perished and we would hope that some action will now be taken to ensure that no more will follow. Unfortunately, given the attitude of authorities to date, the worst is feared - that nothing whatsoever will change.
Sources: Baltic Newsletter of the Green World, No. 89, December 20, 2005; Ecodefense by email, Greenpeace Russia press release, Bellona, Aljazeera and CBS News, December 16, 2005