Radiation Leak at Russian Reactor

A burst of radiation has seriously injured a physicist in one of Russia's restricted research cities, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow. The accident took place Tuesday in an underground nuclear laboratory, and officials are still trying to figure out how to shut down the reactor.

Researchers at the Federal Nuclear Center in the town of Sarov conduct a variety of basic and military research. For decades, the area was code-named Arzamas-16 and its weapons facilities kept secret. In a current set of experiments at a research reactor 8 kilometers from the main compound, physicists slowly nudge radioactive materials together, edging toward a critical mass--the point at which a chain reaction begins. "The rule was that researchers worked in pairs due to the danger of the experiment," Leonid Timonin, deputy head of the center, told NTV, an independent Russian television network.

Nevertheless, Alexandr Zakharov, as a well-qualified senior researcher, was allowed to work alone. During an experiment this week, Zakharov mistakenly added too much of a radioactive substance, exceeding the critical mass. He was hit with a 1000-rem dose of neutrons, more than twice the maximum safe dose, and was taken to the intensive care unit of the city hospital. According to Timonin, no radiation was released into the atmosphere.

On Wednesday, a special state commission arrived to investigate the accident. But first engineers must somehow shut down the reactor. "The level of neutrons is so high in the laboratory that no one dares enter," Timonin told the network. The most promising solution, he said, is to send a remotely controlled robot into the lab to turn off the reactor.