Life under a nuclear cloud

By Rosemary Righter

The Times (London, UK), August 01, 2002

In her second dispatch from Kazakhstan, Rosemary Righter reports on a settlement where every family contains, or has buried, victims of radiation poisoning following four decades of Soviet nuclear testing.

It is horsemeat for supper in the Akyshev household at Sarjal, and my squeamish loss of appetite goes down badly. We are just outside the Polygon, the vast and secret Soviet testing ground a few miles downwind from the Atomic Lake, where Sarjal's herds graze.

The village looks at first sight less desolate than some blighted collective farms we've seen, where the few remaining families live in filth and deprivation that make Indian slums seem prosperous. It is peopled, for a start. With children characteristically clad in electric colours -Kazakh dress compensates for the wintry monochrome of the Steppes. With the thin cattle every family keeps within the walls of compounds that have no running water, and where the septic tank is an unheard of underpinning to the precarious rotting floorboards over the redolent latrine pit. The school functions. So, exceptionally for a place this size, does the clinic -for the good and terrible reason that every family in Sarjal contains, or has already buried, victims of radiation poisoning.

Bolat, the father, was one of the small children who in 1949 rushed out to stare at the fireball of the first test. He talks about living under a nuclear cloud in the flat tone that comes of endless, obsessive repetition, first at home and now to the clinicians who are no longer barred from investigating and treating these diseases. About the choking, inescapable dust, about how constantly tired people felt. About his eerie addiction to radioactivity; if he leaves Sarjal, he says, to visit his daughter in Almaty, he gets headaches that go away only on return. (We will meet this again; the same headaches afflict a young man who now lives in Almaty but grew up close to the fast neutron reactor, now decommissioned, in western Kazakhstan that produced four tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium.) And above all, he talks about what Sarjal's people were told, and not told. "The soldiers would come round the day before and tell us to take down the china and not to light our ovens because the blast could blow out the stove door and burn the place down. But they never told us that the earth wouldn't be safe to work, or that milk and meat from our animals would make us sick."

Even that was better than the advice some villagers got, to stand outside in case their shacks collapsed; radiation kills more silently than falling masonry. The Akyshevs were evacuated, once, though almost pointlessly because they were sent back after only a few days. That was in 1953, when they tested Andrei Sakharov's 400-kiloton hydrogen bomb. They evacuated nearby Kainar village then, too; but they kept behind 42 strong young men, as "samples". All are dead. Bolat does not know that. Did Sakharov, I wonder? "They didn't say that many of us would go blind, or get sores that never heal, or that men would divorce our daughters because they were barren; or that our children would be idiots and many of our young people would commit suicide."

I think of Empson's poem: Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills; The waste remains, the waste remains, and kills.

And now, I ask? "They let us rot." That isn't true. Moscow has indeed, quite scandalously, paid not a kopek. But under a special Kazakh law for Semipalatinsk region, Sarjal people get pensions, at 50, of Pounds 25 a month -not riches, but not far off a teacher's wage. And everyone has received lump-sum compensation, at three times the rate payable in less acutely affected Semey. The Akyshevs are not poor, by local standards. But they are people broken by knowing how callously, casually even, their community was destroyed. It is like intruding on strangers at a wake. Sarjal villagers are as crippled mentally as they are physically by a collective ordeal that continues -and whose deadly and mysterious after effects worsen -13 years after the last test.

And that, says Dr Naila Chaizhunova, "is one of the saddest and most untreatable legacies of the Polygon: the creation of an entire society of victims". She is an epidemiologist. The place where we meet looks like just another dumpy brick Soviet-era office, until you see the big old safes, gaping now and empty, that held the secrets of Dispensary No 4 -the sinister Soviet unit that kept detailed records on radiation sickness but did nothing for its victims. The papers went back to Moscow with the Russians. Somewhere, information exists that could have helped these people then; and could help them now.

Since 1991 the institute has had a new name: the Research Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology. It now has a public identity and the ambitious remit of tracking the impact of radiation on the region's populace. But embarrassment and controversy still plague work here. "We now know that a million people are affected," Chaizunova explains, "and that 370,000 of them need medical care."

Four-fifths have weakened immune systems. But her team can find money and backing to monitor only four areas where radiation was most severe and the "group risk" greatest. Even within these limits, because people move, it is hard without the missing records to trace who most needs investigation and treatment.

All conspiracies of evil have their hidden heroes. Chaizhunova's boss, Professor Boris Gusev, is one of them. A stout, prematurely aged man, he worked in Dispensary No 4; and what information the new institute has about the past is lodged in his head or was, at great risk, smuggled out past Soviet guards. What keeps him going is the conviction that his tiny unit is tracking the Polygon's most appalling legacy. It is clear to him that the unprecedentedly severe and prolonged nuclear bombardment that Semey's people suffered has caused genetic mutations, transmitting disease and deformity down into the third and fourth generations.

There will be radiation victims here, as yet unborn, for many decades, long after the people who were directly exposed to fallout are all dead, Gusev explains. The worst affected, unsurprisingly, are the people exposed to above-ground and atmospheric tests, from 1949 to 1963. People born after testing moved underground are healthier and show different disease patterns. The surprise is that their children, and children's children, suffer rates of disease, abnormality and deformity up to four or five times those elsewhere in Kazakhstan and in carefully selected control groups monitored in other
countries.

"It seems almost to have skipped a generation," Gusev says. Nine to 15 years after the first tests, there were a lot of cancer deaths, 60 per cent of them abdominal. Ten years on, the rates were not much higher than normal. "But by 1985, we were again finding a lot of abnormality. And now for the first time we see sharp rises in different cancers -blood, breast, skin and brain -dramatically higher than in our control groups. Leukaemia peaked in 1954; but now it is again six times normal rates in the most exposed areas. And remember that direct exposure is, in most cases, now minimal."

Japanese studies of Hiroshima survivors found no evidence that radiation could affect future generations. "But our epidemiological evidence is quite different. Remember, that was one bomb. We are seeing chromosome abnormalities in the blood; and that is showing up in children acquiring cancers, particularly infant melanoma and bone cancers, and breast cancer in teenagers and very young women, that appear to be derived from their parents. Who, remember, themselves don't necessarily show any symptoms."

Gusev's unit is beginning to find collaborators, particularly in America, to explore these alarming findings more thoroughly than his cash-starved team can do on its own. At another run-down compound, the doctors working at the hospital of the Oncology Centre are unsure that inter-generational cause and effect has as yet been conclusively proved, since the environment is still heavily polluted by plutonium, uranium and other radioactive residues. But they are in no doubt about the speed at which their caseload is increasing. Last year they treated 3,200 patients, 18.5 per cent more than the year before. Partly, they say, this reflects the period it takes some cancers to develop; thyroid cancer takes decades. But the main cancers are of the lungs, stomach, breast and skin, including melanoma, the vicious skin cancer that "Kazakhs don't normally get -it's a white man's cancer - but which even tiny babies get here".

In the US 90 per cent of these cancers would be caught at the primary stage. Here, by the time that they are seen, more than 50 per cent of the patients have third or fourth-stage cancers that have metastased. Yet such is the skill and devotion of these surgeons and physicians -the most senior earns only Pounds 65 a month - that half these patients live for more than five years. In antiquated operating theatres, they perform operations that would be the Royal Marsden's pride. Dr Abdul Hanum had removed most of one peasant woman's pancreas ten days earlier and replaced her diseased oesophagus at the same time. Her eight children had been terrified. But, he smiled, she would be going back to them in a few days. Lying fully clothed under the sheets, she smiled back.

This great, shabby hospital has 50 doctors, 300 nursing and auxiliary staff and a budget, sighs the director, Marat Sandybayev, of just Pounds 380,000 a year. The best drugs are beyond reach and the equipment terrible: they are still using 1950s radiotherapy machines that look like electric chairs out of a Hammer horror film. Japan -the only country to have begun to understand the scope of Semey's pathological drama -has provided a new diagnostic machine and other help worth Pounds 4 million in all, but the best the Europeans have come up with is Pounds 38,000 from the Swedes. > The British Ambassador protests that his aid budget for all Kazakhstan is only Pounds 24,000. Has Clare Short, one wonders, heard of Semipalatinsk? Thanks to the efforts of Struan Stevenson, a Scottish MEP, last year the European Parliament earmarked Euro 2 million (Pounds 1.25 million) of EU TACIS funds to "assistance in the nuclear sector" for Semey. But TACIS (technical aid for the former Soviet Union) money is notorious for ending up in the pockets of EU "expert consultants", not hospital budgets -and not a cent has yet reached Semey. Chris Patten, the EU aid commissioner, has so far done no more than ask his staff "to look for possible ways to provide a meaningful EU contribution" in "the medium to long term".

Semey needs help right now -not experts, but equipment and drugs. And the city has no money. The Polygon's military-industrial complex employed hundreds of thousands. It thus destroyed Semey twice -when it spread its poisons; and when it pulled out. Yet the Oncology Centre is not just a place of hope: it is a moving and inspiring example of the quite extraordinary determination and intelligence with which Semey's people are fighting their battle against despair.

People like the redoubtable Zhanna, a girl of the Steppes who rose under communism to be a regional second secretary but now, revealing creditably little nostalgia, is a minor cog in the Semey administration, dealing with the few foreigners who come and try to understand. She dreams of splendid new economic opportunities: are not the dense little tomatoes of Semey the best in the world? They are, in fact, wonderful; but how do you market the "Semey brand -direct to you from radioactive soil"? And she insisted that we see everything. Even the Statues' Graveyard.

When the end came, they did not smash the towering statue of Lenin that was the mandatory ornament of Soviet town centres. They took him down to a gentle spot by the river. And they lined up in front of him, like the avenue of sphinxes at Luxor, every bust of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Bulganin, Voroshilov and other Soviet luminaries that the city possessed.

"You see," said Zhanna quietly, as we watched the sun set on this conversation piece in stone, "the Soviet Union destroyed not just our land and our health, but our history. We would be criminals like them if we were to do the same."

Readers wishing to donate money to the Semipalatinsk Oncology Centre can do so as follows: Account No260000-001070175, Beneficiary: Semipalatinsk Oncology Center, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Beneficiary Bank: Halyk Saving Bank of Kazakhstan, 97 Rozybakieva Street, 480046 Almaty, Kazakhstan. CHIPS UID: 350811; SWIFT BIC: HSBKKZKX. Correspondent account No000730754 with American Express Bank Ltd, New York. CHIPS ABA: 0159 SWIFT BIC: BKTRUS33

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