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Friday, August 28, 2009

Fallout over Kazakhstan: 60 years of suffering

(Kazakhstan , August 27, 2009-issue 579)

By Jack Losh
TCA correspondent

ASTANA (TCA) — This Saturday sees the 60th anniversary of the former USSR's first nuclear bomb test at Semipalatinsk, north-east Kazakhstan. Carried out deep in the vast, desolate steppes of Soviet Central Asia, as it then was, the detonation at 7am, August 29th 1949 ushered in a new and terrifying era.

The figures are incredible. Over the next forty years, the 18,000 sq km site would be home to practically 75% of all Soviet nuclear tests: 456 in total, both below and above ground, unleashing energy equivalent to 2,500 Hiroshima bombs.

Thanks to the powerful, grassroots anti-nuclear movement, 'Nevada-Semipalatinsk', nuclear explosions here are a thing of the past, but although the testing of nuclear weapons may have ceased, the fallout's devastating legacy endures. Tests inside the 'Polygon', as the site was known, have affected peripheral land over 16 times its size (approximately 304,000 sq km) and account for an unprecedented amount of health problems in the region.

"The UN and I encouraged the Government of Kazakhstan to take its case to the UN General Assembly," said Herbert Behrstock, who served as Resident Coordinator of the UN in Kazakhstan from 1996-1999. "Three successive years in the late 1990s, the UN/GA adopted resolutions unanimously acknowledging Kazakhstan's virtually unique position in the world, the suffering and the tests' serious consequences."

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself has described it as "the drama of the Kazakh land". For years, the Soviets endeavoured to keep their experiment's after-effects under wraps. Even today, the Russian government is still withholding information, thwarting attempts at making the conclusive link between population's high levels of cancer and radiation exposure.

"Officially, national and regional authorities acknowledged that much of the information about nuclear tests, contamination, et cetera was retained in Soviet military archives and was not likely to become available to the Government of Kazakhstan," Mr. Behrstock added. "It is significant to note that none of the three resolutions introduced by the Kazakh Government specifically mentioned the USSR or Russia – seeking neither an apology nor special consideration for assistance."

The population of and around Semipalatinsk (or Semey, as it is now known) is prone to abnormal levels of illness. Cancers run at five times the national average, birth defects three times. Psychological disorders are widespread, especially amongst young men, and the suicide rate noticeably exceeds that outside the Polygon. Increased rates of heart and thyroid disease, digestive system complaints and fertility problems plague the area.

"I don't think there is any doubt that there were individuals who suffered from the testing program, especially in the early years and the atmospheric tests," said Professor Weinberg of the Baylor College of Medicine, who helped establish a healthcare partnership in the medical services in the region during the 1990s. "The problem is that the exposure data and medical data from that time period are not easy to evaluate."

The region's struggling local economy, inadequate diet and poor sanitation does not help matters: "During the early visits my impression was of the general harshness of life due to both the climate and the decline of the Soviet structure," said Randall Wright, who was responsible for introducing healthcare management principles to the region in the late 1990s, a time when newly-independent Kazakhstan was struggling to find its feet. "The healthcare system was a paradox.  There was a generally well-educated team of medical professionals but a significant scarcity of basic resources."

For Dr Larry Laufman (who from 1995-2000 conducted master classes at the Semipalatinsk Medical School on new methods of teaching and student evaluation), the local doctors he worked with were extraordinarily committed professionals: "In those days, we were told that physicians were earning about $100 a month and many had not been paid for 3 months, yet they continued to go to work.

"Here, even during the Soviet era, the standard operating procedure was to sterilize and re-use needles and other items that would simply be disposables in the West."

The Polygon was selected in 1947 by Lavrentiy Beria, political head of the Soviet atomic bomb project and chief of Stalin's notorious NKVD (secret police). With 3,000 people spread across the territory in remote villages, 150,000 in the city of Semipalatinsk itself (150km from the Polygon) and 20,000 in Kurchatov (just a few km away), assurances that the region was uninhabited were bogus.

The authorities' total indifference to the wellbeing of the local Kazakh population was complemented by their morbid fascination in the side-effects of the explosions' residual radioactivity. A battalion of scientists was stationed at the Polygon to record the after-effects that the nuclear blasts would wreak upon the people, animals and surrounding land. Tests would even be determined by weather conditions, the days with wind blowing in the direction of residential areas being the most favored. It was not until 1953 that locals were given (an hour's) prior warning of the next explosion.

Evacuation procedures were eventually introduced. Residents would be moved to safe zones during tests, returning to their farms nine days later. However, with radiation levels as high as 250 roentgens per hour after detonation in this nuclear no-man's-land (a dose of about 500 R in 5 hours is lethal for humans), this was hardly a humanitarian gesture.

"Certainly some would probably like an apology," said Professor Weinberg who was also instrumental, along with his colleague Sara Rozin, in coordinating large shipments of medical supplies to the region. "However, most people that we worked with would probably benefit more from […] transparency and education. This would help them manage any remaining health consequences from the testing program and build a quality healthcare system for the future."

In a bitter twist, the rural populace remains inexorably bound to the testing range, using the poisoned land for pasture and cultivation: "Governmental officials indicated they could not prevent local populations from straying into potentially contaminated areas, even if warning signs were posted," said Mr. Behrstock, the former UN representative. "Livestock were known to graze in some of the areas near 'ground zero' and drink from surface water, including one infamous water source that was protected by barbed wire."

An army of volunteers, recruited from both national and international groups, has been involved in a mass clean-up of the Semipalatinsk test site. The first phase of the clean-up was completed at the end of 2000 in a joint Kazakh-Russian operation, although experts estimate that total decontamination of the site would require a minimum of $43 million.  The Institute for Radiation Safety and Ecology at Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center claims that up to 80% of the land is salvageable, and a 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that "there is now little or no residual radioactivity over most of the test site".

However, Kazakhstan's Ambassador to the UN, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, has criticized the U.N.'s efforts as inadequate, calling on the donor community to provide financial and technical assistance for the region's long-term regeneration and development: "The rehabilitation of disaster areas, especially those affected by radioactive contamination, should continue to be a top priority for the international community."

And yet this abominable cloud has had a silver lining, for Kazakhstan has emerged today as one of the world's strongest advocates against nuclear weapons. As the old USSR collapsed around it, this Central Asian State was left with a substantial nuclear inheritance – nuclear weapons facilities, components for a strategic anti-missile defence system, and 1,410 strategic nuclear warheads, not to mention one of the world's largest nuclear testing sites at Semipalatinsk.

Yet the country used its new-found independence to close the Polygon and relinquish its nuclear arsenal, fourth largest in the world. It joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state in 1993, and in September 2006 (the 15th anniversary of the test site's closing), Semipalatinsk hosted the signing of an agreement among Central Asian states to set up a nuclear-free zone.

"President Nazarbayev deserves admiration and respect for his leadership, wisdom and perseverance – at least beginning in the 1980s when Kazakhstan was part of the USSR – to advocate the cessation of nuclear testing," said Mr. Behrstock.

"In my personal view, Semipalatinsk is symbolic of the worst and the best of the history of nuclear weapons," he added.  "If the worst is the initial nuclear explosion 60 years ago and the development and testing of some of the most destructive weapons in the history of humankind, the best is how the Government and leadership of Kazakhstan opened an enlightened, admirable chapter that should be widely applauded."

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