In Tomsk, the Forbidden City

26 Jun 2012

In April 2012, a delegation from the High Commission for Transparency and Information on Nuclear Security accepted the Russian authorities invitation to the forbidden city of Seversk. In fact, Seversk (the northern city) has only had this name for a few years. Its real name is Tomsk-7, the city and atomic complex of architects, scientists, and Stalin’s military. In this high place of the Cold War, the French delegation received a warm and scrutinizing welcome. Thanks to the exceptional efforts for transparency from the Russian government and from Rosatom, aka the state corporation which groups together all civil and military nuclear activities, the French delegation was about to assemble concrete elements for the Siberian future of radioactive materials sent from France by Areva and EDF. NGO Robin Des Bois nuclear expert Jacky Bonnemains relates and completes the High Commission’s view and report on “transparency and management of nuclear materials and waste at the different stages and cycles of combustion” (July 2010). The delegation was composed of:

Mr. Revol, President of the High Commission; Mr. Lauchaume, Assistant Director General of the ASN (Nuclear Security Authority); Mr. Lallier, representative from the college of professional organizations; Mr Pays, EDF Director of nuclear strategy and risks; Mr Chantrenne, General Secretary for the High Commission; Mr Gatignol, ex-deputy of the Manche department and member of the High Commission; and Jacky Bonnemains, representative of the NGOs’ college. The delegation was attended by Mr Bernard, Mallet-Perrier, and Ozeretzkovsky, nuclear advisors to the French Embassy in Moscow, and by Mrs Sikatcheva, interpreter.




The Tomsk oblast (“Region” in Russia) is bigger than half of France. It is an ideal region for nuclear activities and hiking. It only has a million inhabitants.

The wait was long at 5am in the agricultural hangar next to the Tomsk landing strip, where the luggage would arrive. Families chat, embraces drag on. For some people, coming from Moscow is like coming from another world and for others, it is like coming from next door. At the exit, Porches and Audis mix together at the fleet of low-cost attendants. We would not be surprised to see horse-drawn carriages waiting as well, for are all mixed up – in the patience and cordiality around an immobile turning mat with the size of a horseshoe – state of the art technologies, hand-knitted red sweaters, pierced jeans made in Tunisia, tired faces of peasants and the urban patina of arriving people. Everyone is happy, just a bit anxious, as they’re waiting for luggage and gifts but the flower bouquets have already arrived. A brand new airport is currently in the finishing stages of its construction next door.

The day begins with the High Commission delegates’ finding themselves in a special bus to visit Tomsk-7, aka the closed city, and to receive, at the same time a history lesson and a warning. There are 43 closed cities in Russia. 10 of them are under the protection of Rosatom, 27 are under the supervision of the ministry of defense, 5 under the supervision of the ministry of industry, and 1 under the supervision of Roskosmos. Behind the windows hide disused buildings, phantom warehouses, and television antennae atop chimneys. Tomsk-7 is 17 km from the historic city of Tomsk. All closed cities are under the 1992 federal law regulations. Since 1996, a governmental decree has placed the 119,000 Tomsk inhabitants under the supervision of Rosatom. The surface of the closed city is 192 square kilometers. It is guarded by the army. The Tomsk Polytechnic School, founded in 1881, has produced engineers and technicians for decades with a combination of studies in chemistry and nuclear sciences. Access to Tomsk-7 is prohibited to foreign citizens. Outside the town hide marshes, forests, log cabins with green and blue shutters covered with melting snow. It will be forbidden to take “non-authorized notes”. During our foray within the forbidden city we may be checked, out of routine check-points, by a special instrument which detects semi-conductors. Cameras, cell phones, and flash drives are forbidden. The Russian Federation criminal code, and notably on articles 20-17 and 20-19, states criminal sanctions and retains full liability for all foreign citizens who do not abide by the closed-cities access protocol. Outside, there are white churches with zinc-made bell towers.

Stern-faced people get onto the bus. Passports are examined and seized by the international relationships manager for the radiochemical combine. The airlock has several landings. We do not return to Tomsk-7, we dive in. In the opposite direction, a long line of cars passes slowly across four of the exit airlocks. It is 8 am. Unemployment rules over Tomsk-7. During the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the chemical and radioactive facility employed 25,000 people; today it employs only 7,000 people, and in the future, around 4,000. At Tomsk-7, the termination of the nuclear arms production was felt like a social explosion and in 1993, the Megatons-Megawatts program, a new version of the 1953 “Atoms for Peace” campaign, disoriented workers. It consisted on converting the Russian military uranium made and stocked in Tomsk into uranium suitable for civil use in American nuclear centers. The M-M program will end in 2013. Today, Tomsk-7 works in Tomsk or stays in place. 40,000 inhabitants are either retired or widows of the atom. Buildings made of brick or concrete, are surrounded by merry-go-rounds, swings, and iron slides so that the spoiled children of atomic families can play outside once the Siberian snow melts. The Golden Age is over; the swings no longer have seats, the slides rust, and the air of nostalgia passes by the windows of a bus. A babushka returns with her old dog and basket. She passes in front of a dilapidated building covered in green lichen. The iron balconies are consolidated by waves of sheet metal. On the wall, graffiti reads, “I will die someday but not today.”

The head office of the chemical complex is monumental. After passing through the hallway and a string of silent offices where women handle piles of black registers, the door of room 133 is open. There was a fern, a chair in the middle, a counter on the right with 4 tomskiens and a tripod with a camera. All the delegates were obliged to sit, clear the entrance, fix the objective in front of them and restart three times if the jury thought it necessary. Doubt settled in. As if the whole ritual was nothing but a comedy. Laughter broke out.

Nine am. Communism Avenue (5.5 km long) runs through the heart of the town and to the statue of Lenin. Lenin is huge. 20 meters tall, he points a finger to the west. He is prepared to cross the canter, to step over the frozen river, to march in the taiga dragging the calm and conquered people of Tomsk-7 with him. The entire delegation of the High Commission has been photographed under Lenin’s supervising. The photos were seized by the secret services.

The split pipes run into the forest to the black, chilled concrete towers. The concrete-embedded iron parts rust. Long ago, the cooling towers would spit out vapor out of its reactors made to produce military-quality nuclear materials. The main road to the factories is lined with small uncontrolled landfills and a huge opencast one: those merely are the common “archives” of this 1949-founded nuclear city. Tomsk-7 does not export its domestic or nuclear waste anymore. It is injected in liquid or muddy form of liquid into 300-400 meters-deep wells, several kilometers from the Tom River, which flows into the Ob, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. The waste contains radioactive elements with very long half-lives. The entire Russian nuclear industry defends this 1960-dating-back method of waste elimination, although it’s rejected by the entire international scientific community. Here, high-pressure geological injection is considered as sound. It is also displayed as a competitiveness factor, for its supplanting surface or geological storage installations. Most of the radioactivity is said to be trapped in the sand for 1000 years, which would be enough to guarantee decline and harmlessness. In this waste, there are radioactive poisons whose half-life reaches thousands or billions of years. At the bottom of the wells, a small French flag is planted: the French radioactive and chemical waste from the Reprocessed Uranium (URT) purification are there, bathing in cretaceous sands and endangering, on the long term, the waters of the Ob, and the fish and marine mammals of the Arctic Ocean.

Ten kilometers from the town, at the core of the forbidden perimeter, the atomic factories slowly function. A warehouse is dedicated to the stockpiling of natural uranium. It is almost empty, 200 to 300 barrels at the most, most of them having come from Kazakhstan the year before. The European Reprocessed Uranium platform is empty. Every convoy ends up here, in the customs-clearance and weighing zone. It is more overrun by wild weeds than by customs officials. Forty-five empty containers are stacked up. They all carry the material number code 2912 (radioactive materials of weak activity, specifically non-fissionable or excluding fissiles), and most display Areva’s logo. The trip between the Havre and Tomsk-7 for the Reprocessed Uranium under the U3O8 stable, insoluble, incombustible, and non-corrosive powder shape, takes a month, with ten days by train between St Petersburg and Tomsk-7. Next to empty trailers there are pipelines, bench grinders, a burnout, a deserted gypsy camp, and dilapidated fences. One or two solitary employees, shy and haunted by the ghost of unemployment and the slow invasion of nettles and elder trees, hold this magnificent film set and lead roles.

The four EDF reactors in Cruas, in the Rhone valley, were planned to receive Reprocessed-Uranium-based fuel. This uranium is extracted from the irradiated-fuel reprocessing factory near Cherbourg. It is then transported to Tomsk-7 to be cleaned off its waste and undesired radioactive pollutants, then re-enriched in fissile uranium-235 and forwarded to France. But on Tomsk-7 landing platform, it is noted that the 600-tons-of-URT annual traffic is suspended for several months. In the EDF jargon, the Cruas reactors are “désURTés” (off-URT) until new order, otherwise said not to take in anymore URT. This is an important information that, of which spreading would weaken Areva’s positions on the reprocessing plant in the La Hague peninsula.

We wear white smocks with chef’s hats. The delegation looks like a group escaping from an asylum and visiting a concrete-made labyrinth. Behind the clear windows of the domestic shuttle, deserted buildings follow one another. Here and there steam mushrooms break out. The secret town was never evacuated. Upstream from the main winds, it was protected from major consequences after all the accidents that marked out the history of this Taiga-anchored nuclear platform. Twenty-three accidents have been referenced. Some ten charred electrical transformers lie on yellow grass and we pass quickly in front of a 200 meter-long building with broken windows and a fallow roof. Birches and willows take hold at the threshold of open doorways. It’s here, in the Unit 15, that the worst accident of Tomsk-7 took place. April 6, 1993, a solution of tributylphosphate and irradiated combustible increased in pressure in an airtight tank. The security valve remained closed. The suppression of the gasses set off an instant explosion. No one saw it coming. The second and third floors of the building were destroyed and the roof caught on fire. April was the cursed month for the Russian nuclear sector. Since Chernobyl, it is the most serious accident to be ever faced by the Russian industry. 310 grams of plutonium were ejected. Fish, cranberries, mushrooms, hares, and peat were polluted by the artificial radioactivity. Following the 2007 study undertaken by French and Swiss universities, the Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute, and the Tomsk Polytechnic School, the radioactive contamination of the environment is to the north of the secret city and beyond its forbidden perimeter. The pollution was comparable to that observed not only near Chernobyl, but also near Mayak in the Urals, and Windscale in the UK – two historically atomic sites hit in the 50s and 60s by major nuclear accidents, though they have been documented little.

Not far from Unit 15, we must climb torturous stairs. All the steps and risers have been sealed with radioactive-dust-blocking resins. On the sealed doors remain ancient security advice and discolored pictograms. The control room does not have a direct view nor a screen to see what happens underground, beneath the 1961-opened studio which was dedicated to digging up military-quality irradiated plutonium combustibles. Four or five computers and four smocks-dressed operators are there. On the wall, there’s a 1965 electric bell. Every step in the purification process for URT or of its pretense has been approved by Areva, the EDF, and by a certifying body from Thuringe, in Germany. Paradoxically, the heads of the Tomsk radiochemical complex, of the Russian Federation counsel, of the Rosatam State Corporation and the highest heads of Rostechnadzor – the Russian Safety Authority – unanimously say without beating around the bush that this unit is dilapidated, presents defects and should be dismantled and replaced with a new unit by 2015. The darkened entries are blocked by chains and signs with a radioactive trefoil applied with the words, “Unsecured Zone, No Entrance.”

Appearing twice across the window panes was the momentary sight of a mountain of thousands of empty barrels that are said, by a technician, “To be washed and chopped up”.

A strip of red and white markings surrounds about a hundred small blue barrels set opencast. They look like barrels from the French anti-nuclear demonstrations. “An operational dump for small-sized used devices” they say.

A part of the Areva-originating depleted uranium is there, in an opencast enclosure, bordering the forest. It is in the form of hexafluoride. That is to say in the shape of unstable and corrosive crystals that are reactive when in contact with air or water. It is likely to change into its gas state during a heat wave. Suppression effects are possible. The Russian stockpiling wardens are cautious. The main risk is chemical. The gas cylinders are vertical, always stationary, in times of snow or heat waves. Forest fires are mean in Siberia. Some of the cylinders are more affected by rust than others. They have neither the material code nor the orange sign that states their identity or risk. They have high on their neck a steel bracelet indicating their origins and dates of arrival. They’re there for 50 years, 80 years, 100 years, pending to be used in hypothetical future-generation nuclear reactors and they are finally cleared out of the depressing designation of waste, in pure gamble on the uncertain future to which Areva is subscribing. In France, the debased uranium is stocked in solid form and under buildings, its status as reusable radioactive material is reexamined every three years with a view to further research.


Robin des Bois’ opinion is that the expeditions of debased uranium coming from Areva should be forbidden due to precarious storage conditions and its ambiguous status as a reusable waste in an uncertain and distant time.

Considering the Reprocessed Uranium exports to Tomsk-7 for the account of EDF in view to re-import to URE –Enriched Reprocessed Uranium – they should strictly be avoided so long as the new Rosatom-ordered facilities and are not operational and as the purification-process wastes are injected in geological depths.

On the other hand, an intensive cooperation should be established between Russia and France in conducting the cleaning-up operations of polluted sites and in perpetually managing radioactive waste. At last, the city of Tomsk-7, the green city of Stalin, is a monument and a capital moment of mankind’s history. In France, the Havre saw itself being grated the title of World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. Tomsk-7 was build by the “August Perrets” of communism. It has much to witness and safeguard. Robin de Bois wishes to see Tomsk-7 transformed into an opened and honored city.






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