The cost of nuclear testing

2016-09-04 00:02
Every member of the delegation to The Polygon had to wear masks and plastic shoe covers to protect themselves against radiation. Picture: Carien Du Plessis

Every member of the delegation to The Polygon had to wear masks and plastic shoe covers to protect themselves against radiation. Picture: Carien Du Plessis

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Johannesburg - There isn’t much to see at the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons test site in eastern Kazakhstan’s flat, outstretched grasslands. Much of what was there was destroyed by radioactive bombs.

The former Soviet Union government conducted 465 nuclear tests in an area the size of Gauteng between 1949 and 1989, much of it in secret and some of it underground.

It left unknowing citizens ill and newborn babies deformed. Special social grants are still given to residents of surrounding areas who suffer from above-average rates of cancer.

On Wednesday, a delegation of nuclear abolition campaigners, physicists, parliamentarians, peace activists and former military leaders travelled to the formerly top-secret Semipalatinsk Test Site, called The Polygon, as part of a nuclear disarmament conference in the capital, Astana.

Twenty-five years ago, this site was closed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse and Kazakhstan’s independence. Kazakhstan returned the 1 400 nuclear weapons to Russia.

In 2009, that day, August 29, was declared the International Day Against Nuclear Tests by the UN.

The site is a 40-minute drive from a small town called Korchatov, built with gulag labour and which housed about 20 000 engineers, physicists, military personnel and nuclear support workers in its Soviet heyday.

It now sports a National Nuclear Centre to support the Kazakhstan government’s policy of the peaceful use of atomic energy.

At the old test site, a handful of concrete control towers, which resemble giant shark’s fins, surround a small water-filled crater, where once stood a tower from which nuclear explosions were launched. The site is still dangerously radioactive, and delegates wear plastic bag shoe covers and white safety masks. Touching the soil or plants is forbidden.

A local physicist who introduces himself as Yuri, a bearded, rugged man who fails to wear a mask, explains that the first of four explosions at this site took place in 1949.

“The most powerful nuclear explosion was in August 1953, and was equal to 400 kilotons,” he said. In comparison, the 1945 Hiroshima explosion was about 15 kilotons in strength.

“The area of the epicentre was flat, and all the buildings here were constructed again after every explosion.

“Around here, you can see some demolished bridges, and there are some fortified structures in front of you,” he said, pointing in turn to a water-filled dam surrounded by green grass a few metres behind him, a control tower about 100m further on, and ruins in the distance.

Ela Gandhi, a peace activist and former ANC MP from Durban, and granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, then led a group of 10 religious activists in the nuclear prayer. One woman was moved to tears.

Gandhi later said it was a “magnanimous” step by Kazakhstan to voluntarily abolish nuclear weapons despite having big nuclear-armed neighbours such as Russia and China.

“There could always be some tensions, but you still made the decision to dismantle your nuclear weapons,” she said, adding that South Africa did the same thing in 1991, the only non-former Soviet state to do so.

“Having a nuclear weapon doesn’t mean you have the power and you can be superior to other people,” she said.

On Monday, at a government-sponsored conference themed Building a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, Nazarbayev, now in the 27th year of his presidency, told attendees: “Kazakhstan is making every effort to ensure peace throughout the Earth over a quarter century. We have initiated many new ideas for the strengthening of global security.”

There were, however, no high-level delegates from nuclear powers at the conference.

Kazakhstan’s large investment in preaching to the converted comes a year ahead of the opening of the $150 million nuclear fuel bank, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Developing nations are critical of the plan because they believe this bank will keep them from acquiring nuclear technology for peaceful use.

Proponents, however, reckon the enriched uranium bank will help nuclear non-proliferation by preventing countries from developing enrichment processes themselves, and using them for nuclear weapons.

Experts say the increasing use of nuclear power will lead to more countries using this power bank.

It will also help put the 17 million-strong nation of Kazakhstan, which by 2050 wants to be among the top 30 global economies, on the world’s political map.

It’s not by chance that the oil, gas and uranium-rich country is beautifying Astana with fancy new infrastructure for the thousands of international visitors expected here for Expo 2017, themed around the future provision of clean energy.

Activists, however, expressed reservations about such a nuclear fuel bank and its uses.

Jackie Cabasso, a nuclear abolition activist for 30 years from Western States Legal Foundation, spoke out against nuclear energy at the conference. She told City Press afterwards: “With accidents like Fukushima [in Japan in 2011], it just is not safe enough.”

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Read more on:    kazakhstan  |  nuclear

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