Disaster in the making

16 April 2018, 11:42

Over the last four years, mines in ORDiLO (Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) have been ruthlessly destroyed and flooded. According to the OSCE, 36 mines have been destroyed since the beginning of the conflict in the East of Ukraine and can no longer be operated due to flooding or complete inundation. But Yunkom is special. In 1979, nuclear tests were carried out inside it, so flooding could have unpredictable consequences for the ecology of the region. However, the "DPR" believes that flooding the nuclear mine will not put the population in any danger. For obvious reasons, the inhabitants of the territories controlled by the illegal armed formations have no way to dispute this.

Much has already been written about the considerable deterioration of the ecological situation in ORDiLO due to uncontrolled and thoughtless flooding of mines. According to more data from the OSCE, there is currently no functioning drainage at all in some areas uncontrolled by Kyiv – from Yenakiyeve to Horlivka, around Pervomaisk and in parts of Donetsk, Makiyivka and Shakhtarsk. The concentration of pollutants in soils, in particular mercury, vanadium, cadmium and strontium, sometimes exceeds norms by 17 times in areas that have seen combat. According to Deputy Minister for the Temporary Occupied Territories Yuriy Hrymchak, studies published by Russian media outlets in 2017 indicate an eightfold increase in the level of salt in the water of ORDiLO. 80 sources of drinking water in the uncontrolled territory are now unfit for use.

But all this is a mild inconvenience compared to what may happen as a result of flooding Yunkom. After all, its depths are home to radioactive substances that were formed as a result of the nuclear explosion. Although the tests in the mine were carried out 40 years ago, today nobody knows exactly what the consequences would be if groundwater erodes the radioactive rock.

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The sick experiments of the soviet government on its own citizens will long be a reminder of the “good old days”. The idea to arrange nuclear tests in one of the most densely populated regions of the USSR came to officials in the 1970s. According to official information, the nuclear explosion was carried out to degasify the coal seams. Yunkom had a bad reputation as a “gassy” mine in the Donbas and it was characterised by a high frequency of sudden methane and coal dust emissions during mining operations there. From 1959 to 1979, there were 235 gas emissions, 28 of which ended in the death of miners. Therefore, scientists decided to conduct an experiment in the mine to shake up the coal beds in order to free all the methane in them at once, so they would no longer pose a threat to life.

The explosion did in fact somewhat reduce the gas content of the mine. Despite this, the official justification of the experiment seems unconvincing. From the very beginning, it was clear that this was an unrealistic way to combat methane in mines across the whole country. It would be enormously costly and dangerous to arrange nuclear explosions at every potentially dangerous mine – the already unprofitable coal industry would never be able to pay back the expense. Any novice economist would say that it is cheaper to simply close down a dangerous mine than blow it up with an atomic bomb. Therefore, another theory that the nuclear tests were actually conducted for military purposes can be seen as more logical. All documentation related to the experiment was taken to Moscow at the time and is still classified, so today only the Russian intelligence services would be able to say for sure why it was all necessary. Due to the lack of documents, there is still no clear answer to the question of what is happening now deep in the mine and how the consequences of the explosion could continue to manifest themselves.

Not much is known about the details of the experiment. The nuclear device for Yunkom was manufactured in the closed city of Arzamas-16. It was installed in a chamber of a sloping mine opening at a depth of 903m between the coal seams. In order to prevent the release of gaseous products from the explosion, it was blocked off by 6-10m thick reinforced concrete bulkheads. On the day of the experiment, September 16, 1979, the inhabitants of the houses above the epicentre of the explosion were taken outside the village of Yunokomunarivsk, where the mine is located. The rest of the residents said they felt a strong underground shock, like during an earthquake.

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The very next day, Yunkom returned to normal operations and the mining team went underground. The inhabitants of the village and miners were not informed about the details of the experiment and were not told anything about the nuclear explosion in the mine. But the information still got out through unofficial channels. People were only able to find out the details of the nuclear testing with the onset of Glasnost. It became public knowledge that the blast formed an oval chamber in a layer of sandstone that, according to scientists, now contains 95% of the radioactive products. This chamber was named the Klivazh [Rift] Site.

For over 20 years after the blast, the facility operated, but it was recognised to have no future during the restructuring of the mines. In 2002, Yunkom was officially shut down and put into a dry closure regime. Subsequently, the Ministry of Coal Mining adopted a decision to continue pumping out the water in eternity, which nobody dared to reconsider until 2018. But by the end of April, the "eternal pumping" will be stopped by decision of the "DPR" militants. After this, groundwater will flood the Rift.

No Ukrainian government dared to flood the nuclear mine. By contrast, first the soviet authorities set up a new experiment in a region populated by 5 million people and now the "DPR" is going to flood the results of this experiment with groundwater.

The consequences of this step are difficult to predict. Even in 2011, when the author of this article investigated the Yunkom problem and spoke to inhabitants of the mining town, people expressed fears that the mine could be flooded and complained that the consequences of the nuclear tests have negatively affected their health. It is impossible to precisely calculate who in Yenakiyeve has lost years of their life due to the radiation. It is the same as with the Chornobyl victims: some died soon after responding to the incident and others are still alive today. One thing is clear: it is impossible to conduct a complete study in an unrecognised “republic” led by an armed group of former chicken traders and multi-level marketing operatives. It is impossible to believe the conclusions of “DPR scientists” that the flooding of Yunkom will not affect environmental conditions.

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“Groundwater will enter Hapurivka (a pond near the slag dump of the metal factory and mines 1-2), then the third pond, which will be very serious. It is drinkable and is now basically responsible for supplying water to Yenakiyeve. Nearby there is a hydraulic mine that has been flooded for a long time. From all over the Donbas, poisoned waters will leak into Russia,” local residents shocked by the militants' decision to flood Yunkom have written on social media.

In the summer of 2017, the residents of Yunokomunarivsk dared to join a spontaneous “people's meeting” against the flooding of the mine. People were prompted to take this desperate and risky step under occupation by the real danger of radioactive contamination of the groundwater. They hoped that the so-called DPR government would hear them and decide not to turn off the pumps at Yunkom. But the “DPR” did not listen to the opinion of Donbas residents. Which is no surprise. People do not usually capture territories to do good for their inhabitants. Nobody will listen to people that have no rights. And the population of ORDiLO was deprived of all its rights in 2014, when armed gangs controlled by the Russian Federation seized power.

Unfortunately, Russia is the last hope for the inhabitants of Yenakiyeve. Before the mine is flooded, there is still a small chance that curators in Moscow will put a stop to the barbarity of their underlings. After all, the radioactive waters could impact neighbouring Russian regions. In a situation where the population of Donbas is unable to find a solution, all they can do is hold out hope for the Russian Tsar in Moscow. But does he care about the suffering of some small people in the grey zone that the Kremlin officially calls Ukraine? Judging by the latest developments in Russia, this is unlikely.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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