Fall-out in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s nuclear test zone, deserted and largely forgotten, will continue to be a health risk until the huge site is thoroughly cleaned up, say experts.

Despite being closed down 17 years ago, academic researchers and pressure groups say the incidences of cancer, congenital defects, retarded development and psychiatric disorders around the abandoned site at Semipalatinsk, in the country’s northeast, are much higher than elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Some 1.7 million people are believed to have health problems caused by exposure to radiation, even though above-ground blasts were halted in 1962 and underground testing in 1989.

While radiation levels have dropped, the health fall-out will continue. Experts warn that low doses and constant exposure can still show up as genetic malformations, which will persist until there is a complete clean-up. Indeed, radiation levels in the testing zone are still 1,000 times the permissible amount. Subsoil water continues to carry away radioactive material left inside the now-derelict underground shafts and this material is finding its way into the food chain. ‘[People] put their livestock out to pasture there without hindrance, and the meat and milk then ends up on people’s tables,’ explains Aytkoja Bigaliev, Director of the Ecology Institute at Kazakhstan’s Al-Farabi University. Despite this, little action is taken to stop people pasturing their livestock, collecting salt and mining coal on polluted land. Dr Bigaliev blames ignorance and a lack of laws banning such practices.

The nuclear testing was done to boost the nuclear capabilities of the then Soviet Union, of which Kazakhstan was part until 1991. Soon after it gained independence, it voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons – the first nation to do so.

Bakhyt Tumenova, director of Aman Saulik, a non-government pressure group on health matters, says no-one has kept track of how people have been affected. As well as local residents, soldiers stationed near where the nuclear blasts took place say they are still living with the effects. Back in 1962, Melgis Metov was a young conscript based four kilometres outside the testing zone. His job was to prepare the monitoring equipment and take meter readings immediately after the blast.

In the year he spent there, 19 tests took place – including one highly dangerous above-ground blast. He had only basic chemical-warfare kit – a gas mask and a protective cape – and within months was suffering splitting headaches, exhaustion and skin discolouring. By the time he was 30, he had a nervous tic and was losing his sight. He now has limited vision in only one eye. Forced to retire early, he is resigned: ‘I might have achieved more than I did in life if the [testing zone] hadn’t come my way. It has cursed my life.’

For many years Metov has tried to get the authorities to recognize the particular risks the nuclear troops underwent but is continually told that veterans are not eligible for compensation. Despite a 1992 Kazakh law setting out the benefits available to people who suffered as a result of nuclear testing, soldiers who served in and around the testing site appear not to be covered.

*Elmira Gabidullina* works as a journalist in Almaty, Kazakhstan. This article is an edited version of a piece she wrote for the Institute of War & Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net).

New Internationalist issue 419 magazine cover This article is from the January/February 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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