Beginning in 1976, Mayak began to diversify its work by taking in and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from eastern bloc countries. The long-term contracts were carried over after the dissolution of the USSR, and today Mayak produces 140 tons of waste per year from reprocessing SNF from Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, and others, including Germany. The amount of waste from reprocessing now dwarfs the handful of tons created a year by the plant's rump weapons complex.
Only Russia, France and the UK have reprocessing programs, which puts SNF through a complex process that extracts plutonium. According to Greenpeace Russia, as much as half of the Strontium-90 found along the Techa is likely the result post-'76 leakage from Mayak's canal system for storing SNF waste.
"The canals are susceptible to overflow during heavy rains, which further contaminates the river," says Vladimir Chouprov, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace. "Because of the regular overflows, the Techa is still taking in fresh radiation that shows for miles."
Many, many miles. Mayak radiation is detectable as far north as the mouth of the Arctic ocean, where the waters of the Techa, then part of the larger Ob' river system, meet the sea. Disturbed by the radiation showing up in its Arctic backyard, the government of Norway in 1997 sponsored a study of Mayak's nuclear activities. As summed up by William Langewiesche in his book The Atomic Bazaar, the report concluded that the contamination "is even worse than imagined, that the Mayak facilities have spewed at least twice as much dangerous radiation into the environment as have Chernobyl and all the world's atmospheric bomb tests combined, and that underground lobes of radiation are currently migrating from Mayak's waste-storage reservoirs."
This year marks yet another Mayak anniversary that illustrates the dangers of open air liquid waste storage. In the spring of 1967, the area northeast of Ozersk was blanketed by radiation when heavy winds blew radioactive dust from a drying Lake Karachay, at the time a reservoir for liquid waste. Among the worst effected villages was Tatarskaya Korabolka
As worrying as the leakage problem is for locals and the government of Norway, the plant presents another, potentially far greater danger, one that could affect more than the southern Urals or the cold water ecosystems at the mouth of the Arctic sea. Mayak facilities currently store 50 tons of weapons-grade-plutonium in light-security ground-level warehouses. Another 38 tons of energy plutonium is stored in other parts of the plant, although this is scheduled for transfer to Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26), another closed city further east, next year.
Some of those familiar with the safeguards at Mayak, including planned upgrades being heavily financed by the U.S. government, worry that the sites are susceptible to sabotage, theft, or accident.
German Lukashin explaining why the storage facilities at Mayak are inadequate — and invite the ultimate Doomsday terror attack
"This is a very dangerous situation," says German Lukashin, a former director of nuclear testing and storage at the Institute of Technical Physics at Snezhinsk, aka "The Russian Los Alamos." Lukashin was forced out of the Institute in 1999 for writing repeated letters to his bosses at the Atomic Energy Agency about the dangers and inadequacies of the storage and waste disposal systems at Mayak. Currently a deputy in the Chelyabinsk municipal council, his biggest worry is the mother of all possible Mayak disasters: a terrorist attack on the above-ground weapons-grade plutonium stocks.
"It's not a safe place, like Yucca Mountain," says Lukashin, referring to the proposed American repository for radioactive waste in Nevada. "You can even find detailed pictures of the [Mayak aboveground storage] buildings on Google Imaging."