Sillamäe Myths

I try to restrain my “someone is wrong on the internet” impulses, but Sillamäe is one of my favorite cities. I’m also not fond of Soviet-nostalgia tourism. So this article irked me on both counts.

First, it’s Sillamäe, not Sillamae. Estonian has nine vowels, of which a and ä are two.

I’ll correct two false impressions that the article gives, although I think there are more in the embedded assumptions, which I won’t address in this post.

Uranium enrichment was never part of Sillamäe’s mission. Sillamäe was a closed city during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, and many myths grew up around it. From my conversations with the plant manager, I believe that the idea of enrichment grew out of translational misunderstandings. Upgrading defective fuel elements containing enriched uranium became conflated with enrichment itself. There were no facilities at Sillamäe that were suitable for enrichment, although there were two large uncompleted reinforced concrete buildings when I first visited in 1998. Their function was not clear. They were two-storied, but I suspect that centrifuges must be attached to a very stable, ground-story floor. The buildings were rubblized and now are part of the tailings pond remediation.

I appreciate the article’s linking to the book I edited, but the more recent source, based on documents left behind by the Soviets, is here.

Remediation of the giant tailings pond from the yellow-cake, later rare-earth, plant, was completed in 2009, long before Molycorp bought the plant. The Estonian word for the pond was jäätmehoidla, which they translated into English, quite reasonably, waste depository. That confused us for a while, until I saw it. An international group made recommendations, and the European Union and the Estonian government funded the remediation. The area is now a grassy field, over which hawks hover for the rodents that might have taken up residence. Under the grass is an engineered cover designed to keep the waste in and rainwater out. One of its layers is rocks, including those rubblized buildings. Oh, and the plant was reengineered to produce no uncontrolled effluents.

One of the requirements the Estonian government put on the remediation was that a port be developed to provide jobs for local people, most of whom are of Russian descent. That was also done, and the port is prospering.

For some reason, those tours of old Soviet sites are required to be taken in the rain and gloom. Here are some sunny photos of Sillamäe, all taken by me, including the one up top. Two articles (one, two) with more.


Looking west from a city beach, toward the plant and the remediated tailings pond.


Sillamäe town hall, from the park containing the “atomic man” monument.



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