Foundry Daily News

Clawing Metals in Siberia’s Frozen Land

Norilsk Nickel’s company anthem praises its smelters as “the light in Russia’s window,” but even in summer the Arctic city sits wreathed in a gray cloud of pollution.

<font face="Arial" size="2">This city of 200,000 started life in 1935 as one of Stalin’s gulag slave labor camps, which exploited </font><font face="Arial" size="2">tens of thousands of supposed enemies of the state.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s original work force was shipped here by prison barge. The unlucky zeks, as they were called, </font><font face="Arial" size="2">found themselves 300 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, where temperatures can drop to nearly minus 50 </font><font face="Arial" size="2">degrees Celsius.</font> 

<font face="Arial" size="2">The city is home today to the biggest source of nickel and palladium in the world. A closed city in </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Soviet days, Norilsk still does not welcome casual visitors: Foreigners who show up uninvited are put </font><font face="Arial" size="2">on the next plane out.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk is also one of the most polluted cities on earth. The towering smokestacks of its three nickel </font><font face="Arial" size="2">and copper smelters pumped 1.8 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air over the city last year. </font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">That is three times the total emissions from Britain for the same period. Dust from the plants is laden </font><font face="Arial" size="2">with cancer-causing metal particles.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">It’s hard to tell where the factories end and the city begins, as the smoking pools of industrial </font><font face="Arial" size="2">water, pylons and steaming pipes that snake around the smelters give way to streets lined with shabby </font><font face="Arial" size="2">apartment blocks. Buildings sit 1.5 meters off the ground on steel beams because foundations would </font><font face="Arial" size="2">conduct heat and melt the permafrost, causing them to sink.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk has a hard time holding on to its youth. Sergei Romashkin, 21, will soon finish his university </font><font face="Arial" size="2">studies and dreams of working in computer design in Moscow, half a continent away.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">“I don’t want to spend my whole life here,” he said. “There’s no greenery in the town, the trees don’t </font><font face="Arial" size="2">grow properly. There aren’t trees, just sticks.”</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s chief product is nickel, a key ingredient in stainless steel. To extract it, workers at the </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Taimyr mine, one of seven belonging to Norilsk Nickel, descend over a kilometer underground into 150 </font><font face="Arial" size="2">kilometers of tunnels.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Deep beneath the Talnakh mountains, they drill and blast out the ores. Amid the thundering roar of </font><font face="Arial" size="2">machinery, the rocks are crushed and milled into a powder. The powder is mixed in giant vats, where </font><font face="Arial" size="2">chemicals are added to bring a gray foam of nickel concentrate to the top, which is then shipped to </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s three nickel and copper smelters.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">Workers are dwarfed by the converter furnaces. Ninety-ton cauldrons of molten nickel and copper matte </font><font face="Arial" size="2">swing overhead. Liquid copper and nickel is poured into panel-shaped molds, then dipped in acid baths </font><font face="Arial" size="2">and further refined using electrolysis. The rich slime that forms at the bottom of the electrolysis </font><font face="Arial" size="2">baths is gathered up, and from these dregs, Norilsk reclaims palladium and platinum as well as zinc, </font><font face="Arial" size="2">cobalt and lead.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Workers get nearly three months off each year due to the harsh conditions, and salaries are good. Wages </font><font face="Arial" size="2">rose 40 percent in April; now the average salary is $1,500 per month — three times the national </font><font face="Arial" size="2">average.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Vladimir Bekker, chief engineer at the Nickel Plant, the oldest of the three factories, says Norilsk is </font><font face="Arial" size="2">very different now than in the 1930s.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">“Every age has its tasks,” he said. “Back then it was the gulag, it wasn’t about keeping people alive. </font><font face="Arial" size="2">... The goal was to produce metal, to win the war, then to rebuild the country after the destruction. </font><font face="Arial" size="2">It wasn’t about people.”</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Now, he said, the company is trying to address the environmental challenges and the health and safety </font><font face="Arial" size="2">of its workers.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">“Of course we know what still needs to be done. And there isn’t enough money for some things despite </font><font face="Arial" size="2">the factory’s riches,” he said. “We are taking small steps, but we’re not standing still.”</font>

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