Wednesday, July 13, 2005

We've had a couple New Scientist issues lying around the place for a while, and I stumble over them every now and then, and read an article or two.

Today, it happened to be an interview with Kaisha Atakhanova, a biologist and environmental activist from Kazakhstan, who has recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The interview, quite heartbreaking, is available online. Here're the parts that strike me most:

[...] Over 40 years there had been almost 500 nuclear tests there, in the air and underground. Together they were equivalent in strength to 20,000 Hiroshima bombs. When we first went, we found lots of old military machinery and equipment, planes and tanks that had been left out in the open during the tests to see how they were affected. Afterwards they were put into big dumps. We went past these dumps regularly and I saw that they were gradually getting smaller and smaller.

We found out that the locals were taking the radioactive material for scrap or to use in their houses or on farms. They took whatever they could. It was good quality, you see. We had a guide who was a local doctor. One day when we came across some telephone wire, she picked it up and said it was good quality, some general or colonel had probably used it. So she took it home and used it for her telephone.


Frogs were good for doing these tests because they absorbed the radiation and they have big chromosomes, so you can see the damage. I collected frogs on the testing grounds, especially from a nuclear lake that we found. This was where the largest nuclear explosion took place, in 1965 on the dry bed of the river Shagan. To prevent the nearby river Irtysh being contaminated with radioactive dust, the Shagan was dammed and a radioactive lake formed. The military put carp in the atomic lake. The fish grew really large and we carried out tests on the fish, lizards and frogs.

- Did anyone else know this nuclear lake existed?

The military knew about it, of course, but until we went no non-military scientists knew about it. The local people knew it was there, but they didn't know it was dangerous. They went fishing in it, even swam in it. When we started work, the people who lived in the villages near the Polygon knew nothing about the risks. They took their cattle and goats to feed on the pastures there.


- But you gave up research. Why?

After a while I felt we had got a lot of scientific information from the research. It showed that the population suffered from even small doses of radiation. But the people themselves felt like guinea pigs. For 70 years, as citizens of the Soviet Union, they had had pensions and social benefits from the state. They thought that now, with the Polygon closed and the discovery that their health had suffered, someone would come and treat them. Instead scientists came to test them and write scientific papers about them, but nothing actually changed in their lives. They had been poisoned and their social conditions were bad, but nobody helped them. So I started on public work to help people change their lives.

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