Russia says radiation leak at Urals Mayak plant

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YEKATERINBURG, Russia, Oct 29 (Reuters) Safety breaches have caused a radiation leak at a major nuclear reprocessing plant in the Ural mountains, Russia announced today, but officials said there was no danger to humans.

Local Emergencies Ministry officials said a faulty tap allowed radiation to leak from a tank holding liquid radioactive waste onto 1.5 km of a road at the Mayak plant. The incident happened four days ago.

''No-one was injured,'' the local Emergencies Ministry office said in a statement. ''The radioactive levels at the plant and outside it are normal and absolutely harmless.'' The Mayak plant, dubbed ''Russia's ticking time-bomb'' by environmentalists, suffered a series of accidents in 1949, 1957 and 1967 which were hushed up by Soviet governments.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear waste are reprocessed at the highly secretive plant, which is about 2000 km (1243 miles) east of Moscow.

Foreigners are not usually allowed onto its territory because of its sensitive work with nuclear weapons.

Prosecutors said poorly implemented safety rules at the plant had allowed Thursday's leak to take place.

''After an investigation... it was found that the reason for the leak last Thursday of liquid radioactive waste at the Mayak plant was the result of severe violations of the safety rules,'' the local prosecutor-general's office said in a statement.

Emergency workers said they were notified at 1630 local time 1700 hrs on Thursday and that they worked through the night to clear up the contaminated ground.

''The waste is stored far from populated places,'' the Emergencies Ministry said. ''The situation is harmless for employees of the plant and residents of the nearest villages.'' Greenpeace says the Mayak plant is one of the most radioactive places on the planet and that local residents are still suffering from a 1957 accident at Mayak which exposed hundreds to radiation.

That accident was considered the worst nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union until the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident, exposed the failings of Soviet nuclear management.

Nuclear officials say the Mayak plant has improved safety since the days of the Soviet Union.

Mayak, which means lighthouse in Russia, was started under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as Moscow raced to develop the nuclear bomb.

Reuters GT GC2217

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