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|Seven years after Chernobyl, there was another Russian nuke screw up that you never heard about. An explosion at the Tomsk-7 chemical separation plant sent a radioactive cloud up over an area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers. The city of half a million people is a Cold War remnant of sorts. It is believed that a steel tank containing a mixture of uranium and plutonium blew up after nitric acid was added to extract the plutonium.
Once a nuclear “secret city” (like Oak Ridge, TN, Tomsk continues to process nuclear materials. Sometimes they blow up. The full story of this mishap is unlikely to be told anytime soon. However, when wildfires raged in the area during 2011, there was major concern that
Reports from the area near Tomsk said workers were clearing away contaminated snow and earth. But a full picture was hard to piece together as the area is closed to foreign correspondents.
It is believed that a steel tank containing a mixture of uranium and plutonium blew up after nitric acid was added to extract the plutonium. The blast started a fire which was put out by 25 firefighters; one received a dose of 0.6 REM (Rontgen-Equivalent- Man), which officials said was not high for someone in the nuclear industry. According to international norms, it is dangerous for a person to receive more than five REM in a year.
The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry classed the accident as a ‘serious incident’ and gave it a three-point rating on the seven-point international scale. It said it was nothing like as bad as Chernobyl, which notched up a full seven points. ‘I will not call it a catastrophe because I know it is not a catastrophe,’ its spokesman, Georgy Kaurov, said.
‘It is practically an accident without danger, but an accident all the same. You simply cannot compare it to Chernobyl. About 80 million curies of radioactivity were released at Chernobyl. Here we do not have a single curie so it is 80 million times less.’
The extent of contamination near Tomsk remains unclear, but Mr Kaurov spoke of an area of 1,000 square metres ajoining the plant where radioactivity was registering 0.4 milliroentgen per hour, and of two ‘dirty spots’ about 10 kilometres away where radiation was 10 times higher than normal. Tomsk-7, whose existence was once top-secret, was built in the 1950s to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons , but officials say it has stopped military work..