The Atomic Shipbuilding Center, the city of shipbuilders, the city with heightened
radiation levels—Severodvinsk always stood out for its environmental conditions. What’s
more, it has two of the largest enterprises right in the center of town. Both are directly
connected with the construction and repair of submarines with onboard nuclear reactors.
And 20 kilometers from the residential neighborhoods is Mironov mountain: a cemetery
of low-level nuclear waste. In these circumstances, a population of approximately 164
thousand people is holding out. Every day children are born and their health is at risk.
Video clip (00:13): IRINA OVSYANNIKOVA
“They say that every second child is born with some kind of abnormality. Well, it’s not
that it’s exactly a deformity, but some kind of small pathology. Maybe it doesn’t just
happen in our region. Perhaps, it happens in many places.”
Video clip (00:08)
—“Well, if children aren’t being born healthy, that’s already something we need to talk
—“And are children really not being born healthy here?”
—“Even the pediatricians will tell you that!”
The year 2008 provided a clear example of this when, on October 24, a leak of nuclear
waste occurred in a factory with the innocuous name “Little Star.” Against all
expectations of the city administration, the leak was not quickly fixed, and the toxic
emissions had an immediate effect on the health of city residents.
Video clip: (00:30) ELENA
“I got my medical test results back, and they said: ‘cause undetermined.’ But then, in the
maternity hospital, they discovered—I don’t even remember who…doctor or nurse—that
it was connected with the emissions. At that time there was a military exercise going on
in the city, and the whole city was covered with this smoke. And it was said that they
were also unloading fuel from some kind of ship and there was a leak. But no one told us
about this. If others simply saw the smoke, I was in the epicenter of all this. And that’s
the cause they [i.e. the doctors] named.”
At that moment, Elena lost her unborn child. The diagnosis was “premature termination
of the pregnancy in the first trimester.” At the present moment, doctors cannot say how
many women may have suffered because this burst of radiation. Regardless, according to
doctors, the statistics on illnesses discovered among newborns have not been determined.
However, Elena is convinced: she was not the only victim of the emissions.
Video clip (00:21): ELENA
“At that moment, they told me that, during the week when this all happened, there was a
massive “purge” of pregnancies. It was early on in my pregnancy but there were
premature terminations among people later on in their term: 7 and 8 months. At that
moment it seemed to me that it was my grief alone, so I didn’t talk with anyone. Maybe,
someone with similar circumstances was lying in one of the neighboring beds. I just
didn’t talk with anyone.”
In a few years, Elena gave birth to a health child. In order to carry the pregnancy to term,
the young woman was forced to put forth a lot of effort and spend a good deal of money.
Vitamins are necessary for the fetus to develop, but these were sometimes not available
in the city. Drugs that a pregnant woman in Severodvinsk needs were prescribed in the
maternity hospital. And Elena was forced to pay for every package of medicine on her
Video clip (00:24): ELENA
“I never received free vitamins. Additionally, it took certain pills that, as a certain
moment, would not be available in our city, and so I ordered them from St. Petersburg.
They brought me 5 packages and I paid 3000 rubles. And these were special pills for
Since then, problems with the health of newborns have not decreased, and free
medications have not appeared in maternity hospitals. Pediatricians have noticed a
frightening trend: for the past few years, pathologies and illnesses of newborns are
spreading in waves. Thus, until 2008 a large number of children were born with an open
foramen ovale, which refers to a small abnormality in the development of the heart. After
the spike in premature terminations of pregnancy four years ago, the city was hit with a
wave of cases of spastic dysarthria. This pathology causes disruptions of diction and
salivation. Last year, doctors were astonished by the large number of cases of functional
heart murmurs. And, in 2012, along with a spike in allergies among infants, doctors
already had encountered a several instances of the extremely rare sudden infant death
Video clip (00:28): VLADIMIR
“This is a condition when there is a cessation of breathing or heartbeat in children up to
one year of age, and no causes of death are discovered during the postmortem autopsy.
And, if there no pathologies are discovered—for example, congenital malformations,
intrauterine disease—then a diagnosis of this syndrome is made. Sudden infant death
syndrome frequently occurs during sleep. “
Ecologists have long recognized that Severodvinsk a very unusual city. Truly, the basic
problem of morbidity is seen as a result of the geographical location of the city and the
nearby industries. Aleksey Klimov has been studying the ecology of the northern territory
for more than ten years. The scientist is certain: the climate of Severodvinsk shortens the
life of its population, and local industry only aggravates the situation.
Video clip (00:32): ALEKSEY KLIMOV
“We have a city located in a zone of geomagnetic abnormality, and we must be serious
about this. Here there are faults, cracks in the Earth’s crust, and even a nuclear power
plant project in Rikasikhi region was removed from the agenda because nuclear power
plants are not built in regions with cracks in the Earth’s crush. These magnetic
abnormalities affect the people’s health, and for this reason most of the residents suffer
from high blood pressure at fifty years of age.”
Additionally, scientists are astonished the measures that are taken literally every month in
the nearby industries. Any operation with the nuclear fuel cannot occur without leaving a
trace. Work is carried out just a few kilometers from residential neighborhoods. Here
they load the payloads for rockets in nuclear submarines.
Video clip (00:24): ALEKSEY KLIMOV
“According to projections and all recommendations, you can’t carry out operation
number 1 on the unloading of spent nuclear fuel within the boundaries of the city.
Because this operation is complex and potentially very dangerous. But we have already
processed all recycled nuclear submarines, and, by the way, how quickly was it done?”
Ecologists have declared Severodvinsk a city with unfavorable climatic conditions and an
ambiguous environmental situation. That means the residents need special protections. In
the past few decades the city has, in this respect, lost its unique system for improving the
health of the population.
Video clip (00:22): ALEKSEY KLIMOV
“First, the city lost the Soviet system of iodine prophylaxis. In the past, it was simple: a
centralized system in which all stores sold salt, and iodine was added to the salt. In other
words, iodized salt. And everyone knew clearly: the residents get enough iodine to avoid
thyroid disease, and this is very important in fighting radioactivity or any increase in
background radiation or doses.”
The Soviet citywide system was replaced by the local, factory system. A significant
number of large-scale measures were taken to protect workers from the radiation they
encounter practically every day: free liters of milk, vitamins once every two months,
coupons for foods with intensified nutrition. Plus, constant monitoring of health.
Video clip (00:18): ALEKSEY MIRONOV
“This is the usage of individual dosimeters for work, it’s using means of defense, it’s
additional special vitamin-enriched food for the workers, it’s periodic medical
examinations of the workers. The company workers themselves know about this. There
are signs warning them about this in the factory cafeteria and in every shop.”
But the factory workers themselves relate skeptically to management’s words. They are
thankful for the vitamins, but warn that not everything in the company runs so smoothly.
According to rumors, the company is intentionally underestimating the level of
radioactive radiation in one of the industrial centers of the city in order to make a good
impression on local residents and, simultaneously, not worry the workers.
Video clip (00:23): SERGEY
“It’s said that they tighten up the readings so as not to scare people and other
organizations, because if they were to show everyone the real level of rations, naturally it
would cause a big commotion. They just insert a certain value that varies in the minimum
units, because even when research is carried out in the city, people in the factory are very
afraid of it.”
Residents of Severodvinsk can only guess about the situation in factories. Residents
avoid the so-called company park that was specially built as a sanitary zone. Local
poplars serve as a barrier from radiation. Also, the local population recognizes certain
“signs.” For example, if the roads near the factory management office are washed not
with water, but with a solution with a specific smell, it means there were emissions.
Video clip (00:10): ILYA & NADEZHDA ANDREEV
“A few years ago the leaves here turned orange, seemingly because of the factory, but
then they said that everything was normal, and that it was just a natural occurrence.”
Video clip (00:09): ANNA LEBEDEVA
“Well, I heard…well, on the internet…people write that allegedly there were emissions
and they didn’t inform the public.
Video clip (00:08): ILYA & NADEZHDA ANDREEV
“Of course, here you can’t say that because of A, there’s also B. But, in this town we
have radioactive atomic shipbuilding factories. Therefore, naturally, I think that there is
some kind of background radiation.”
Video clip (00:05): IRINA OVSYANNIKOVA
“I think the radiation level is probably high, but we simply don’t feel it and are already
used to it.”
Video clip (00:08): ALEXANDER PILIKIN
“Radiation? This city is full of it, especially the factory. There it’s off the scale. People
come here and are surprised: ‘How do you live here?’”
But, in the Severodvinsk Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology, they had not even heard
about the danger of radiation for residents. They say that the situation in the city is calm,
and there have not been any flare-ups. Laboratory research related to our claim is also
clean: the ground in several parts of the city and the water from the river Solza show
practically ideal indicators: the general background radiation is 11-13 micro-reontgens
per hour. The norm is up to 30 such units.
Video clip (00:19): MAKSIM PETROV
“As for the city of Severodvinsk, the density of caesium-137 fallout is minimal. At the
present day it consists of 0.01 curies per square kilometer. This is truly a very small
figure, and it does not pose a serious threat to residents.”
The only way to verify the words of the experts is to carry out one’s own experiment. We
took to the streets of Severodvinsk with a pocket dosimeter. The average figure in several
places in the city was 17 micro-reontgens per hour, which is not beyond the limit of safe
exposure. However, ecologists are certain that the most dangerous sources of radiation
cannot be measured with a simply dosimeter.
Video clip (00:30): ALEKSEY KLIMOV
“Isotopes are transferred along the seafloor, they concentrate in the soil, and we also have
problematic spots in the city—I’m not going to name them—and there is a risk in these
places that the isotopes will appear, because at some point they buried nuclear material
deep in the group in the city. But this is all in the future. But at the present moment, I
asked and researchers said that in Severodvinsk there are areas with increased levels of
The problem is also that the specialists analyze only elements that take a long time to
break down. The isotopes that decay quickly disappear eight days after appearing, but
still manage to deliver a blow to the environment. This is the result of the radioactive
emissions. They also have an affect on the population, foremost on its smallest and most
defenseless members. That is why pregnant women and newborns need special protection
in Severodvinsk.
Video clip (00:15): ELENA ARASLANOVA
“These are vitamin groups B, C, and P. They are necessary for all kids and all pregnant
moms. Vitamin D1 is aimed precisely at protecting the child from the environment.”
However, pregnant women in Severodvinsk seldom hear about these vitamins. A
program for receiving prescriptions exists in the city maternity hospital, but the patients
near uniformly say that only a few people get free vitamins. And these people receive
them only at the beginning of the year, when they are in stock. The rest of the time
pregnant women are forced to spend their own money on prescriptions and vitamins. In
general, they are given prescriptions for expensive medicines.
Video clip (00:20): NATALYA
—“I’m spending more than 1000 rubles a month on these prescriptions. A few women
are even paying 2000.”
—“And do you receive vitamin enriched food?”
—“ Are you serious? If they gave me oatmeal with mold in it, then I highly doubt there
were any vitamins there. Then, however, they apologized and brought me sausages.”
However, the administration of the maternity hospital claims that it does not even know
about the lack of medicine in its own institution and the patients don’t pay a cent for their
medications: each regularly receives free prescriptions in the network of social
Video clip (00:20): ELENA ARASLANOVA
“Not at all! For six years there has been a program in our hospital through which all
pregnant women receive vitamins. You have just simply baffled me! No one has ever
complained, they all go and receive their prescriptions, and we don’t event write out
prescriptions for medicines you must pay for, unless there are some special
circumstances. Maybe in some other hospitals they do this, but we don’t.”
But this is the only maternity hospital in Severodvinsk, and that means that all pregnant
women pass through its physicians. All therapists at the women’s prenatal dispensary
declined to comment on camera. But behind the scenes they explain: there really are not
enough vitamins for everyone. And it is necessary to support pregnancy with
medications. Thus, it is necessary to write prescriptions for non-subsidized medications.
“Well, we don’t make them buy these medications. If they don’t want to, they don’t have
to buy them.”
In these documents it is shown that every year the Severodvinsk Maternity Hospital
should spend 500 thousand rubles on vitamins for pregnant women, plus 300 thousand on
special food. This includes vitamin-enriched juice for improving the quality of breast
milk. But the pregnant patients do not always find out about this. Because in order to
receive this product, they themselves need to ask the doctor and then order it at the
women’s prenatal dispensary. The physicians themselves will not offer the juice.
Video clip (00:15): ELENA
“I didn’t ask about it because I was busy with other things. But then some girls from the
ward went and specially asked for this juice and received a prescription. That is to say,
they waited for it, then they went to the women’s prenatal dispensary on certain days.
Well, in short, it’s hard to get this juice.
While young residents of Severodvinsk and their newborn children wait for vitamin
reinforcement from the doctors, the wave of illness isn’t slowing. In 2012, premature
terminations of pregnancies in the city resumed.
Video clip (00:26): EKATERINA
“The most interesting thing is that there was another spike. It turns out that the same
thing happened around four years ago and today it’s very widespread. Maybe, it’s the
ecological conditions. Because this develops, and it wasn’t just a wave: in one month,
there are one or two mothers. Then, after some time, it happens again, and all in a certain
time frame—between the 12th and 14th weeks of the pregnancy, when everything is going
very well.”
Video clip (00:28): VLADIMIR
“Absolutely healthy parents come to our city from other regions, whose genetics are not
burdened, and their children are born with signs of some birth defects, fetal diseases.
Many things might account for it: the external atmosphere, our climatic conditions, the
lack of sunshine, the heightened level of radiation, well, and other external factors.
Even without listing radiation as the first cause, one thing is clear: the environmental
situation in Severodvisnk remains unfavorable. Namely for this reason, more young
families are trying to leave the city, if only during pregnancy. Indeed, in their native
Severodvinsk, the guarantee of a healthy birth decreases with each year.

English translation