MOSCOW: Armed with a selfie stick holding a dosimeter-equipped smartphone, nuclear physicist Andrei Ozharovsky is on the hunt for gamma radiation.
Waving the device over a shallow dip in the thawing ground, the contraption crackles as the reading climbs, turning first yellow then red. The dosimeter is picking up spots of elevated gamma radiation on the tree-lined hill close to a busy commuter train station and blocks of flats. But what concerns Ozharovsky and local residents most is the plan to build an eight-lane motorway over the slope, which contains radioactive waste buried in the pre-Chernobyl Soviet era. Nearby, work is already in full swing for the new road.
“The real horror is that we are standing on the exact spot where the highway is planned,” says Ozharovsky, who has examined the site over the past year. “As soon as you remove the surface layer, it registers elevated levels. That means we are standing on top of radioactive waste,” he says, as the figure on the dosimeter increases to over one microsieverts per hour, meaning that if you stood there for an hour you would be exposed to one microsieverts of radiation.
That is more than three times higher than background radiation, and, while still not dangerous to be around, indicates higher levels underground that would be spread as dust and end up in people’s lungs, Ozharovsky says. Russian building regulations require additional inspections of sites with radiation of over 0.6 microsieverts per hour to determine if a cleanup is possible before a decision on construction can be taken. But documentation for the highway project — part of a plan by powerful mayor Sergei Sobyanin for four such roads — says that “no radioactive contamination has been found at the site.
The new road, named the South-East Expressway, will connect ten outlying neighbourhoods bypassing the congested city centre. It will skirt the radioactive site next to the Moscow Polymetals Plant, formerly a top-secret facility that produced the radioactive element thorium for nuclear reactors until the 1970s.