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Feature Story October 8, 2007
 
Inside the Zone
50 YEARS AFTER THE WORLD'S FIRST MAJOR NUCLEAR ACCIDENT, RADIATION IS STILL LEAKING INTO THE SOUTHERN URALS — AND BEYOND By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 8
 

Ismagilova continues her fight to have the town evacuated and resettled, but admits that is unlikely to happen. The governor of Chelyabinsk, Petr Sumin, personally told her in a 2004 meeting that there was no money for resettlement. And anyway, he added, it wasn't his problem. "This is the USSR's fault, not ours," said the governor.

In lieu of resettlement, Ismagilova fights for whatever help she can get.

"The economy here is dead, the radiation destroyed it," she says. "I know there's no future here, but I promised to help these people, to get them some medical help, remuneration, roads. Something while they are still alive."

* * *

Belief that a cruel medical experiment has been perpetrated against villages downwind and downriver from Mayak is also strong in places unaffected by the '57 explosion. This is especially true of the Tatar village of Muslyumovo, 15 kilometers south of Karobolka, which received its first major dose of Mayak radiation long before the cooling system failure of 1957.

Like other villages along the Techa river, which flows east past Ozersk and the Mayak plant, Muslyumovo's tragedy began in 1948, at the dawn of Russia's nuclear era. It was then that the secret Mayak complex was built to produce plutonium for the country's nascent nuclear arsenal. During the first three years of Mayak's existence, the waste problem was solved in the easiest and cheapest possible way: it was simply pumped directly into the nearby Techa. It was not a decision made in ignorance. Stalin personally forbade Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet bomb, from handling uranium in his research. And Mayak officials had seen Gulag laborers spit blood and die quickly from carrying barrels of radioactive waste with their bare hands. Soviet officials knew the stuff was deadly. It was only when 70 percent of the Techa riverside village of Betlino was diagnosed with cancer in 1951 that the dumping stopped.

But the damage to the river was done. The radioactive waste sunk into the riverbed and bled deep into the sediment along the banks. To this day it remains in the water and the grazing grass of local livestock. The long-term affects can be seen in Muslyumovo, the biggest of a handful of villages (with a total population of about 7,000 between them) that for unknown reasons were not evacuated away from the Techa's most radioactive floodplains and riverbanks.

Throughout the southern Urals, Muslyumovo is a pariah town. The most famous bastard mutant of Mayak, it is shudder-inducing shorthand for all of the murky fears evoked by the specter of that insidious ghost, radiation.

A young woman holding a sign at an anti-nuclear protest in Chelyabinsk. The sign shows an Atomic Energy official telling local residents, "Russians! Your health is in your hands!"

"Few boys want to date or marry a girl from here because they think she'll be barren or give birth to a monster," says a lifelong resident named Mohammed. "If a boy falls in love with a Muslyumovo girl, the parents will step in and put an end to the relationship, even demand a divorce." The fear that Muslyumovo girls cannot produce healthy children is fed by the large collection of hideously deformed miscarriages kept in formaldehyde at the local hospital.

The health problems don't stop at birth. Muslyumovo suffers almost three times the national cancer rate, not counting the hundreds of sick residents regularly monitored by oncologists. Tales of chronic radiation sickness can be heard from anyone you stop on the street. A 2005 state study found the local drinking water to hold, on average, three times the acceptable level of radiation. Geiger counters placed at different points along the riverbank and nearby fields show 1000-2000 micro Rems per hour—or 50 to 100 times higher than normal. The village gets cleaner the farther you move away from the river, but most villagers live on land registering three times the safe level of Cesium-137, according to a Greenpeace study.


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Zaitchik
Browse author
Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at zaitchik@gmail.com
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