As soon as they heard about the plans for a new road in south Moscow, a small group of residents and scientists tried to oppose them, organising in relative obscurity.
The project had been launched in late 2018 by Moscow’s transports and construction departments, and there was little information to the public except that the aim was to build a portion of a new expressway in a populous area of the Moskvorechye district.
But there was one serious problem. The planned road was to pass only 50 metres (164 feet) away from some 60,000 tonnes of radioactive waste, buried in a wooded hill.
Concerns inevitably arose among the few people who discovered more about the plan. Some even dubbed it “Moscow’s Chernobyl”, after the smash TV series.
Through whistle-blowing, they managed to raise awareness and, after a year of silence, authorities started to pay attention.
The multi-lane road would cut through Vlasov’s district and 10 others.
The 30km (19-mile) “Southeast chord” is part of a plan for new ring roads around Moscow, designed to ease up the capital’s notorious traffic by connecting large avenues that go from the city centre to the outskirts.
Authorities appeared to not consider the toxic obstacle, later arguing that 50 meters was a big enough distance for it to be safe.
With high rises and Soviet-style housing projects, the affected area is home to tens of thousands of people and close to the Kolomenskoye Park, a former royal estate and popular attraction.
“I’m afraid of the situation, I’m scared for our health”, said pensioner Lydia Victorovna, a local resident.
To add to the environmental hazard, the hill containing radioactive waste also borders Moscow’s landmark river, the Moskva.
The waste is courtesy of the adjacent Polymetals plant, which was in the 1940s and 50s running tests with thorium and uranium. It has been buried and left there ever since, unattended and essentially forgotten.
“This amount of nuclear waste buried in inner Moscow without anyone caring is already a big problem in itself,” said physicist Andrey Ozharovsky.
An atom specialist and former researcher at Moscow’s top nuclear Kurchatov Institute, Ozharovsky embraced the cause early, tipped off by a resident.
Along with Vlasov, Greenpeace and a number of locals, he started taking tours, Geiger counter in hand, showing visitors the levels of radiation in the forest.
“The counter I have here is very basic and yet, it reads soil radiation levels (10 microsieverts per hour) already 12 times higher than normal. More sensitive counters have read up to 60 microsieverts per hour in some holes.”