‘We’ll stay here until they smoke us out’ As road construction begins over a radioactive waste dump in Moscow, police start forcing local activists off the site
A conflict broiling around the construction site for Moscow’s Southeast Bypass Road has come to a head in recent days as police have attempted to remove activists from the area. The road is meant to pass through a radioactive waste site adjacent to the property that houses the Moscow Complex Ore Plant. Activists opposed to the construction have regularly staffed a guard post at the site, but on the night between March 17 and 18, police officers began to dismantle that ad-hoc station. On March 19, they began building a barrier around it. The activists have expressed concerns that the government’s actions might cause radioactive isotopes to be released into the air. Moscow City Hall, however, has promised that construction will begin only after the nuclear waste site’s land is reclaimed.
Update: On the evening of March 19, police began arresting protesters at the planned construction site. As of 9:50 PM local time, about 40 arrests had been made, Mediazona reported.
In the summer of 2019, Russian ecologists and activists from Moscow’s Tsaritsyno neighborhood discovered that construction for the new Southeast Bypass Road was intended to pass through an area used to store nuclear waste from the Moscow Complex Ore Plant. The plant itself is owned by the state corporation Rosatom. When the activists and scientists performed radioactivity measurements on the waste site’s land, they found heightened background radiation levels. In January of 2020, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin wrote on his website that his own administration would take responsibility for restoring the area. “Unfortunately, the Moscow Complex Ore Plant itself is not making any efforts to eliminate ecological damage because that territory no longer officially belongs to it. Therefore, we have taken that task upon ourselves. In the very near future, the Government of Moscow will reach an agreement with the Radon Federal State Unitary Enterprise to undertake a full-scale reclamation program for the hill and remove the contaminated soil outside of Moscow’s borders. Obviously, this work will require enormous outlays,” the mayor wrote. Sobyanin nonetheless called the stores of contamination “insignificant” and said they would not interfere with construction.
Sergey Vlasov, a legislator from Moscow’s Pechatniki neighborhood who opposes the construction project, told Meduza that the situation surrounding the nuclear waste site began to escalate a month ago when officials opened a criminal case without naming any specific defendants. The case claimed that someone had damaged a radiation sensor at the construction site “even though nobody damaged it, and it’s fixed now. The day before yesterday, the police drove in and wanted to evacuate the Sobol minibus where we’ve had our headquarters — they wanted to use the minibus as evidence in the case, same with our guard post, but people came together quickly and didn’t let it happen. The police conducted a search of the minibus on the spot; they didn’t find anything. Yesterday, they broke down the fence around the [complex ore] plant to make a gate, and they dug up a pit with an excavator and poured concrete in it. We recorded a spike in the radiation background,” the legislator said when asked to relay the sequence of events at the site to Meduza.
According to Vlasov, five activists who have spoken out against building the road through the nuclear waste site have been called in to a police station for questioning in the damaged sensor case, and the owner of the minibus “headquarters” has had their apartment searched. “Today, they’re building a barrier made of concrete blocks around it. They want to take us out of there,” the local deputy said. He added in frustration, “They [the government] promised us that they would measure [the radiation levels around] every scoop of land while they’re building, but yesterday, nobody measured anything, as though it was all clean.”
Politician Roman Yuneman, who has paid regular visits to the activists’ guard post since their conflict with the government began to escalate, told Meduza in an interview that most of the people monitoring the planned construction site live in the Tsaritsyno neighborhood, where the site is located. “I personally live in Chertanovo, and the road is supposed to go through our neighborhood as well. The danger is that the soil [over the nuclear waste dump], when they start digging it up, will turn into radioactive dust that can drift around the city. In a few years, people might start getting lung cancers,” Yuneman predicted. He calls the watch post by the waste site “Moscow’s Shiyes.”
Yuneman suggested that local officials are hoping to speed up the initial stages of construction, and that urgency has led them to surround the activists’ post. Sergey Vlasov assured Meduza that the activists have nonetheless continued to stand guard and have no intention of retreating. “We’ll stay here until the end, until they smoke us out or boot us out,” he vowed.
A representative from the press service of Moscow’s Construction Department told Interfax that workers have begun preparing to survey and remove contaminated soil at the waste site. “A sanitary checkpoint has currently begun operations, and enclosures are being erected around the future construction area near the Moskvorechye train station. Following [the completion of that process], specialists from Radon will survey the soil and remove it,” the representative told the news agency. He added that construction of the overpass itself will begin only after the contaminated soil has been removed and documents have been submitted that show the area is clear. “The preparation of the area for construction should be complete within three months,” he said. At that point, Radon will “withdraw, sort, pack, and certify the containers and transport the contaminated soil to another storage location.”
The press service for Moscow City Hall did not respond to a request for comment about escalating tensions at the construction site by the time this article was published.