Ground zero is an hour and a half drive away from the Kazakh National Nuclear Centre (NNC) along a dusty road in the seemingly endless steppe. The Ecologist is in the Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey in 1991) region of eastern Kazakhstan to observe one of the world's nuclear hotspots: the epicenter of the Soviet Union's previous - and highly controversial - nuclear testing programme.
The natural beauty of the reeds and rushes blowing in the breeze and the sun reflecting off the water belies the truth of this spot: the ‘lake' is actually a crater created from the explosions and the ground beneath is highly radioactive, and indeed, dangerous.
Our military escort carries a Geiger counter, first measuring 0.09 micro Sieverts per hour along the drive, then shooting up to 3.6 micro Sieverts per hour.
My mind vacillates between extreme fear and confidence in what I have been told: being at the epicentre for 10 minutes will give you a dose of radiation the same as that of taking a transatlantic flight. Facemasks and feet covers offer protection from inhaling or gathering the radioactive dust. We hastily make our way back. The experience is not one to be repeated, but will always be remembered.
Others weren't so lucky.
Matysh Iskakove, 78, remembers seeing a huge ball ‘the size of a yurt' towering in the sky. There was a big flash, then silence. The smell of singed hair, she said, never disappeared. ‘It came back every time it rained'. After witnessing a third atmospheric nuclear explosion, Matysh lost her sight forever. ‘I was curious. I wasn't alone. Many were left disabled'. It was 1953.
The Semey state institution for the care of the elderly and invalid is home to a generation blighted by radiation, the victims of four decades of nuclear tests, one of the worst experiments man has ever conducted on fellow man.
During the Ecologist's visit, she and 7 other residents sit in a semi circle in a sparsely decorated room and give first hand accounts of a bygone era. The Polygon - Russian for ‘testing place' - an area 8,500 square kilometers in the steppe to the west and south of Semipalatinsk, was the home of the Soviet Union's nuclear research and experiments. In surreal government documents, the area was described as ‘uninhabited'.
One and a half million people were affected from the 456 tests which ran from 1949 to 1989. They were given little warning and hardly any information on the real dangers of radiation. Many children would be awed by the sight of the famous ‘mushroom clouds' explosions, and 116 were performed at an average of 4 per week in an area the size of Sussex.
Along with residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl, those in Semipalatinsk have the ignominious distinction of being one of four world hot spots poisoned by excessive ionizing radiation.
Kazakh doctors under Soviet rule were forbidden to pinpoint radiation as a cause of disease. Many were told the illnesses they suffered were ‘their fault'. Matysh is one of the few who received compensation.
Nina Kolennikova, 83, a nurse, walked outside barefoot during a nuclear test explosion in 1954. She felt a warm wave of air and saw the smoke in the sky. People around her, she says, were, crying ‘blood tears'. Since then she has suffered from pain in the legs and a weak immune system from a low white blood cell count. ‘No one ever asked how we felt, we were told to be quiet and get back to work,' she says.
Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has worked to distance itself from its nuclear legacy. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk test site, and President Nursultan Nazerbayev rid the country of its arsenal of 1,410 nuclear warheads in 1995.
There is no way of erasing Semipalatinsk's devastating history, but researchers there are trying to carve out its future as an international hub for radiation research, so that the world may know whether, and how, radiation impacts on generations to come.
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of nuclear radiation is that, especially for the residents of Semey, the extent to which it can be traced to specific illnesses is still inconclusive.
Dr. Marat Sandybayev, Director of the Semey Oncology Center, where over 4,000 cancer patients receive treatment, says he believes the link between radiation and genetic diseases is usually discovered in the third generation. ‘Small doses of radionuclides went into the soil and the air blew them, so it can be found in various places and since the half life of some of them is 1,000 years, yes, we will continue to see effects,' he says.
Already, the thyroid cancer rate in the east and north of Kazakhstan is twice as high as in the rest of the country, and other cancers such as breast, have higher rates. With a $100 million government grant to build a radiation treatment centre he hopes increased screening will lead to greater survival rates and awareness of the oncological diseases it can cause.
The statistics on the rate of children with abnormalities is unclear. Akmaral Musakhanova, head of clinical research at the Medical University says in some areas the rate is double the national average, but it is impossible to link cases of Down's Syndrome and hydroencephalus, or ‘water on the brain', back to radiation.
The questions linger, but the results of a new study should be revealing. Dr. Kazbek Abasalikov, director of the Scientific Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology, created in 1992 out of the ashes of the classified Soviet institute that secretly observed the population, is behind groundbreaking studies on the effects of radiation.
They have developed a State Scientific Automated Medical Register to study those exposed to ionizing radiation and the hereditary effects on a DNA level. A detailed database is tracking 800 families that suffered directly from radiation - where they were born, where they were at the moment of radiation to what they are now doing. The study now includes a 3rd generation, the grandchildren of survivors, who are being closely monitored.
Dr. Abasalikov says the problem of the effect of minor dosages of radiation is increasing, as sources of radiation increase. ‘Oil and gas will not last forever, at some point we will need nuclear, but each nuclear power plant means a minor dosage of radiation and if an accident happens, there will be big fallout. We will have all the data. ‘
‘In every organism, there is a disposition to disease. There are two opinions: one that minor radiation is harmful and a cause of disease. The other is the minor radiation is not harmful. The truth is somewhere in-between,' he says.
They are studying DNA to search for a threshold dose to cause cancer. He says they aim to have results in a few years.
‘Kazakhstan is in an unfortunate and unique situation in that the population was affected throughout many years. There have been generations born since the tests stopped. The reason why researchers come here is that they know radiation diseases will be topical problem in the 21st and 22nd centuries. There is an information vacuum in Western nations, they don't know which institutes work on this.'
They are advising researchers from Japan over Fukushima. ‘Fukushima shoes how treacherous radiation can be,' he says.
Not everyone agrees that there is a link between diseases such as cancer in the Semey region, and nuclear radiation.
In the National Nuclear Centre, Director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, Sergey Lukashenko, warns Kazakhs may suffer from a ‘psychology of victimhood'. He claims there is no link between the region's cancer rates and radiation and defiantly boasts about spending unlimited time at Ground Zero and swimming numerous times in Chagan, the ‘Atomic Lake'.
He wants the Polygon testing area to be reopened and says a team of radio ecologists have performed extension research, claiming to have identified and demarcated the various levels of contamination throughout the 8,500 square kilometer area.
In a study submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an area of 3,000 square kilometres in the northern area is ready for ‘normal use'. In 2010, the IAEA assembled an international team to review the report and found that the report is ‘scientifically sound and fundamentally correct'.
According to Dr. Lukashenko the area still contaminated can be remediated by removing the top 5 centimetres of soil removal.
Uranium fuel bank
Back in Astana, the country's capital since 1997, replete with futuristic skyscrapers designed by Norman Foster, the profits from gas and oil exploitation on the Caspian Sea are easy to view. Kazakhstan also holds over 20 per cent of the world's natural uranium reserves and production has doubled since 2009 to 18,000 tonnes.
Roman Vassilenko, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, says ‘God had it that Kazakhstan suffered both the horrible consequence and the rewards of nuclear' and aims to cement Kazakhstan's role in ‘peaceful' nuclear by housing the IAEA's international uranium fuel bank, to allow countries to access enriched nuclear fuel without possessing enrichment technology. The fuel bank has been proposed as a way to curb nuclear weapons proliferation.
The country's own nuclear power generation has been on hold for the past 20 years, with the only nuclear power plant on the Caspian having been closed. As for new nuclear build, Mazhit Turmagambetov, vice minister of Environmental Protection says as an engineer he is not opposed to it but, ‘taking into consideration the events in Japan, we question whether we would have the safety measures sufficient.'
Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, larger than Western Europe, with a population of only 19 million. The flat, windy steppes would be an ideal landscape for wind power, yet there are very few incentives to develop the industry.
Vadim Ni, director of the Law & Environment Eurasia Partnership, says that in September the Kazakh Senate is set to pass an Emissions Trading Scheme legislation which, ‘should create incentives for renewable energy.' Yet he is afraid the system won't work. ‘There is no incentive for small projects in Kazakhstan. Everything here is in big numbers.'
Vice Minister Turmagambetov believes ‘it is too early to say‘whether the former nuclear site could return to use for the people. A government commission including various ministries, NGOs and other stakeholders will put together a comprehensive report before a final decision on the future of the Polygon is made.
However, he said, there is no timeline for the report or the decisions. ‘The public here has a very negative attitude to returning the land to use. There is a lot of radio phobia. So many people have died,' he says.
Scientific Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology
The Ecologist travelled to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry
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