The nuclear guinea pigs

The Times (London, UK), July 31, 2002
By Rosemary Righter

For 40 years, until 1989, the Soviet Union was secretly exploding nuclear devices in a region that was home to 700,000 people. Rosemary Righter reports from Semipalatinsk on the Cold War's most callous experiment

Hiroshima. Nevada. Bikini. Mururoa. Lop Nor. Chernobyl. Nuclear landmarks all, to which memory and imagination need no signposts. Semipalatinsk. Where did you say it was, Kazakhstan? Doesn't ring a bell.

This harrowing place should ring the bells of Hell.

Nineteenth-century Semipalatinsk, a Russian imperial trading post for fur trappers in the bleak steppes south of Siberia, was already a desolate place when Dostoevsky, in exile, wrote The House of the Dead there, crammed with wife and screaming baby in a two-room house whose floorboards still creak. Now Semipalatinsk, the provincial capital of a region the size of France, is itself a "house of the dead": of premature ageing and immunological deficiencies; of galloping cancer rates and babies born without limbs or without any bones; of childhood dementia; of malign genetic mutations; of frightened people, poor, terribly wronged and as depressed to the point of suicide about their future as they are traumatised and sickened by their past.

Modern Semey, as the Kazakhs call it, is grey even by Soviet standards, ringed by factories that no longer pollute only because their gates are closed, and by grim housing estates built for workers for whom there are now no jobs. Its one beauty is the Irtysh River that winds through Siberia: and beside it, in a new park bright with wildflowers, stands a soaring, charcoal-hued granite memorial that testifies to another, far deadlier, pollution that the eyes cannot see nor the nostrils detect.

This is the place where, in 1947, the Soviet military carved out 7,142 square miles of steppe west and south of the city, a slice about the size of Wales, put the zone under impenetrable military guard and elaborately equipped the top secret command centre of the Soviet nuclear weapons testing programme. No map marked the Semipalatinsk Polygon; but the mark it has left is indelible.

Hiroshima was bombed once; the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown was a single catastrophic accident. The people of Semipalatinsk region were deliberately, callously and continuously subjected to nuclear fallout for four decades. They and their children must live with the grim consequences far into the future.

Semey is a long way from London: nine hours by air to leafy, cosmopolitan Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city and former capital tucked under the stupendous Tien Shan range that divides Central Asia from China. Then 21 hours north by train into the great sparse plains. The wing-and-a-prayer Almaty-Semey flight on a clattering Yak-40 is quicker if you don't mind seats that collapse at take-off.

This is no longer the forbidden military zone that it was under Soviet rule, though foreigners need Kazakh Interior Ministry assent to go there. But few Westerners come. Remarkably few know what happened here. If Semipalatinsk were as close to Western Europe as, say, Chernobyl, it would be recognised in horror as the cruellest proving ground of the Cold War. It would be intensively studied: no other human beings have been so long and relentlessly irradiated by nuclear fallout and by radioactive substances in their water and food; no inhabited land has been so deeply and dangerously contaminated. If people knew more, the many thousands of victims of a calculated Soviet evil would have far, far more help than Semey's expert, devoted but cash-starved surgeons, epidemiologists, psychiatrists and nurses can begin to provide.

Semey is a long way from Moscow, too -culturally as well as geographically. Its people are Kazakhs of the Middle Horde, descendants of Genghis Khan's warrior horsemen who were still nomadic -the word Kazakh means "free rider" -when the Russians came, and remained so until forcibly "settled" by Stalin in the 1920s collectivisations. > It was a catastrophe -the Kazakhs destroyed their herds rather than surrender them to the State. Those who resisted collectivisation were killed or sent to Gulags. Unused to farming, people died like flies of starvation. In seven years the Kazakh population fell by two million, and in the sparsely peopled steppe around Semey, 200,000 perished.

These are people whose lives the Kremlin held particularly cheap. "Semipalatinsk-21", the code name given the testing zone, was described as "uninhabited" by Lavrenti Beria, the notorious head of the KGB who was ordered by Stalin in 1945 to oversee the Soviet Union's crash nuclear weapons programme. The actual inhabitants were of no account, aside from their usefulness as human guinea pigs.

Saim Balmukhanov is an octogenarian scientist, a decorated war hero and, since his mid-twenties, a distinguished professor of biology. He is an academic, most at home with sheaves of carefully tabulated data. But he is anything but detached. Balmukhanov was part of the scientific team that, from 1957 to 1962, presented more than 20 reports to Moscow on the devastating impact of the early tests: soil saturated with radioactive particles, deformities in surviving livestock and "human pathologies" associated with radiation poisoning. For this work the scientists were pilloried by apparatchiks of the Soviet scientific Establishment, who derided a fourfold rise in cancers and genetic deformities as nothing more than hereditary effects of the "poor Kazakh diet".

The military suppressed the evidence, threatened troublemakers with stretches in the Gulag for their lack of patriotism and, in 1962, ordered their work terminated. Research continued, but only within the Polygon and at Brucellosis Dispensary No 4, a top-secret institute in Semey under military and KGB control. This institute was the most cynical and sinister of the Polygon's outgrowths. Even the name was Orwellian, calculated to deceive; because it monitored radiation impacts that officially were dismissed as insignificant; and because it dispensed nothing. This was where 35 scientists kept secret medical records on 20,000 people in heavily contaminated settlements; they treated none of them; they watched them die.

So Balmukhanov knows what the Soviet command knew. And because he is also a man of the Degelen hills, deep within the Polygon, the animist imagery of his ancestors merges with the vocabulary of science as he bursts forth in anger at what was done to his kin and their land. "The stones became as vipers and in the form of a cloud flew high in the sky; and then, cooled by the atmosphere, they fell as a terrible rain, big particles followed by smaller ones -the smallest reached all the way to Almaty. On pasture, crops, animals, houses. And on people: we Kazakhs, entirely intentionally, were made the laboratory animals in their experiment."

Buried in the Degelen outcrop is a vast inventory of radionuclides -plutonium, strontium, caesium -and how long it will stay "buried" is uncertain. The hills were so tunnelled into and so destabilised by nearly 200 underground nuclear fireballs that even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose tardiness in conducting a full investigation is one of the many scandals surrounding Semipalatinsk's tragedy, admits that contaminated rainwater is escaping from test shafts through fissured rock formations that "have simply lost their integrity". And these were the "safe" nuclear tests.

On August 29, 1949, an exultant Beria came to watch, from a protected post, the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb explode a mere 100ft above the Polygon's Ground Zero. In unprotected Dolon, 31 miles away, 800 villagers received lethal doses of radiation from "Joe One"; during the night the wind picked up and carried the fallout a further 300 miles. From 1949 until the 343rd, and final, underground nuclear test here on October 19, 1989, the 700,000 people of this region were exposed, at all times recklessly and at times deliberately, to lethal or crippling doses of radiation from at least 670 nuclear explosions. The Russian Ministry of Defence admits that 25 were detonated at treetop height, with devastating impact; the IAEA figure is 86, and as many again were detonated in the atmosphere or stratosphere. After 1963, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawed tests in the atmosphere and space, the tests were contained underground -theoretically, but by no means always. The vertical boreholes used in 88 of these tests were far too shallow to meet the treaty requirement "to put an end to the contamination of man's environment by radioactive substances"; the explosions sent waste spewing into the air.

The total number of explosions is even now an estimate. Moscow still refuses to declassify much of its carefully recorded data on what for decades was one of the Kremlin's most tightly kept secrets. And it covers weapons tests only. It omits the canisters of radioactive waste, hastily dropped from aircraft by pilots desperate to avoid contamination themselves; the aim was to test the use of dispersed pollutants as weapons of mass destruction. It excludes unknown numbers of experiments with chemical devices -and so-called "peaceful" explosions dreamt up almost playfully by scientists to cheat the "constraints" -which, in fact, applied to all categories of nuclear explosion -of the ban on atmospheric testing.

Some tests went wrong and dispersed heavy concentrations of plutonium; some rockets crashed. And unexpected winds spread fallout for hundreds of miles, affecting another half million people. The radioactive cloud from one colossal 1,600-kiloton hydrogen bomb, dropped by an aircraft in 1956, reached right across eastern Kazakhstan into China. After that, the Soviets tested hydrogen bombs in the Arctic Circle.

FROM SEMEY to the "nuclear city" of Kurchatov is a bumpy 100 miles past desolate remnants of collective farms and factories and then on an uncharted road that runs through the middle of nowhere to Nowhere. The very existence of the Polygon's intellectual nerve centre was shrouded in secrecy; eventually it was named after the "father" of the Soviet bomb, but initially it was just a military postbox number. So strong is the fear still evoked by that taboo that the driver refuses to say where it is on the modern, highly detailed map I hand him. He says south of Semey; Kurchatov is actually to the west -sited so that the prevailing winds would blow nuclear fallout away from its cosseted denizens, on to those less privileged.

Here lived the 30,000 officers and Yadershchiki, or "nuclear boys", of the Soviet atomic Establishment, untrammelled by scruples about radiation damage and wholly unaccountable to the people whose lives they destroyed. And how well they lived. Palladian pediments grace the facades of the vast empty apartments with their flapping shutters. In the squares the triangles, now choked by exhausted reeds and roots, were once proud flowerbeds. Here were cinemas and theatres, sports grounds and restaurants, shops where rationing was unheard of. There is no cemetery.

Only 8,000 people live here now, a few hundred scientists studying radiation and nuclear safety and a despondent remnant without jobs. In the chill sun, outside the dacha that Beria built for his nuclear entertainments, defeated old women pour very thin whitewash into buckets and paint the bases of ant-infested trees that house the rooks that are now Kurchatov's most prominent citizens. Just beyond, a heavily rouged girl straight out of Chekov, in a long billowing black leather skirt, pinheel ankle boots and layers of capelike upper garments, picks her way across the paving stones past a vast statue of Kurchatov. Where, in these tall casements with their cracked windows, is this "woman in black" headed?

Murat, the dosimetrist assigned to us, runs his Geiger counter over me to check the radiation dose level. It is a normal 0.16 Zeiverts -which it will not be at Balapan, the "Atomic Lake" near the Polygon's southern perimeter, our next destination. > Here in the nuclear heyday, you think, was total insulation from the awful human reality outside. Until you enter the museum.

The museum was an educational tool for young officers and scientists. In its first room are dog, pig and sheep parts in formaldehyde, showing how their lungs, hearts and intestines exploded under thermal shock wave and radiation impact. There are glassy, tortured rocks, the sculptures of nuclear science, scale models of tunnels and boreholes -and two telling photographs. One shows a nuclear mushroom soaring skyward after an "underground" explosion; another is of Degelen's hills, riven and smoking like a live volcano.

There is a mock-up of Ground Zero. The area around the 100ft concrete test tower is divided like a cake into 14 segments, military aircraft in one, bridges and buildings, houses, metro tunnels and factories in others, and one reserved for the animals tethered there to take the force of the nuclear blast. Hideously neat. On the perimeter was the command post, three rooms lined with lead and covered with earth; one room was permanently connected by wire to the Kremlin, which had a dual key, one to give the test order and prepare the charge, and another to initiate the blast. Much closer to Ground Zero's epicentre are the buildings that housed the monitoring equipment -signals that were read, within an hour of each test, by Red Army soldiers sent in with only goggles, boots and rubber gloves over standard uniforms.

Up to 30,000 Kazakh conscripts served on Soviet test sites; it is impossible to be more precise because there is nothing in the military records about where they served or in what capacity. Fewer than 100 are alive now.

In Almaty I met Melgis Metov, named after Marx, Engels, Lenin and Giusef Stalin. This voluble, angular and once physically tough veteran was sent to the Polygon from 1961 to 1963 in division 3772; a division whose very existence the Soviet military denies. He had studied physics, but most of his mates knew nothing about radiation; "we knew we were testing bombs, but that was all". Though once, in 1962, there was an unplanned "ground explosion" when a rocket crashed. "It blew in our direction. There was panic. Officers flung us into trucks and we scrammed. We slept on the ground that night. It was cold. We made heaps of our bodies. In the morning they brought mobile showers. Then we shook out our clothes and put them back on. They never said what doses we had received. But they hosed out the trucks when we got back to base."

Within three months of being posted to the Polygon, Melgis was referred to Kurchatov hospital with mysterious open sores on his arms, caused by radiation. But a proper diagnosis came only in 1994; under Soviet rule, Kazakh doctors were forbidden to identify radiation as a cause of disease. He is bitter that the surviving veterans get no more help than less directly exposed civilians, bitter at Russia's refusal to pay compensation and at his own Government's insistence that it is not Kazakhstan's responsibility. But Melgis was luckier than some.

In 1954 the Soviet Second World War hero Marshal Zhukov assigned 45,000 soldiers to a live-fire exercise designed to test the resilience of men and equipment in nuclear war. In standard gear, they were sent into battle 15 minutes after a 40-kiloton bomb exploded. Then they were made to sign a pledge to disclose nothing and demobbed. Most were dead not long after, but no documents were kept. Zhukov came to the epicentre to inspect -but he came in a lead-lined tank. At the Semipalatinsk Polygon two years later, 272 soldiers were parachuted in immediately after a nuclear test with orders "to hold the ground pending reinforcements". None was seen again. They are believed to have died within days.

LONG BEFORE you see the water, you see the "hills" of the Atomic Lake, not hills at all but blackened rocks and scree thrust up by the force of the nuclear explosion that made the crater. Near the track are great reddened rocks hurled a full mile from Lake Balapan's perimeter. Here, just for the hell of it, Kurchatov's Dr Strangeloves played God with nature. The water, strangely, is pure. Birds lift from the waves as we pick our way downward -more carefully after Murat, the dosimetrist, stoops over the first of many small circles of perfectly even brown pebbles, each about a centimetre across, where no plants grow. They look freshly raked and smoothed, like gnome-sized Zen gardens. Hot spots. Very hot: the Geiger counter reads 28.5 Zieverts, 192 times higher than natural radiation. Barely a mile away, a mounted shepherd watches horses graze. Kazakhs eat horsemeat.

A lizard darts across a Zen patch. It looks quite normal, we joke, a little thinly. Murat's job is to chart hot spots. Not just here, where they are everywhere, but all over the Polygon. It is a task far beyond Kazakh money and manpower.

Shamil Tukhvatulin, the director of Kurchatov's post-Soviet National Nuclear Centre, is an "insider". He has been there 30 years. Yet he still has no clear picture. He insists that the background radiation is down to a third of Nevada levels, but admits that about 17 per cent of the Polygon is dangerously contaminated -up to 1,000 times "safe" levels -and no one knows precisely where. There is tritium in streams that run out of the test area; and the test site itself is not stable, he says. Heavy snows and strong winds spread secondary contamination. "It is like a minefield. There are dangers, but not in every inch of the site."

And there is no way to keep local people out. Bowing to what must have been the first successful mass protests in Soviet history, testing finally stopped in 1989. The Soviet military took its secrets and Russian scientists back to Moscow, and the barriers came down. Locals promptly moved in to graze their herds, take firewood and radioactive scrap metal and, worse still, to loot the miles of contaminated copper cables inside the test tunnels. Unbelievably, there are "customers" for Polygon waste. The Americans have paid to have all these tunnels sealed -not least, to make them militarily unuseable. But looters still bore down through the rock to get at the copper. They know that contact with the cursed stuff could kill them within a few years, but the cash they get for it in China feeds their families. "The Chinese," they say, "make costume jewellery out of it. For export to the West." 

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.
Correspondent account No000730754 with American Express Bank Ltd, New York.

* * *