Nuclear Exaggeration: Is Atomic Radiation as Dangerous as We Thought?

By Matthias Schulz

A mounting number of studies are coming to some surprising conclusions about the dangers of nuclear radiation. It might not be as deadly as is widely believed.

The explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (pictured) were devastating. The resulting radiation illnesses, though, weren't as bad as expected.
DPA

The explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (pictured) were devastating. The resulting radiation illnesses, though, weren't as bad as expected.

Wearing mosquito helmets on their heads and radiation dosimeters on their belts, Clemens Woda and his three Russian colleagues drive past a bored-looking guard leaning nonchalantly against a meter-high fence. The truck moves past a yellow warning sign reading "radioactivity" and into the restricted zone. Inside, the streets and fields show the effects of years of abandonment and are overgrown with tall reeds. The area hugging the swampy banks of the Techa River has been unpopulated for decades.

The group reaches Metlino, a ghost town that was evacuated in 1956. A weather-beaten grain silo protrudes into the sky. The scientists take soil samples and, wearing rubber boots, wade through the mud over to a Russian Orthodox church in a depressing state of disrepair. One of them climbs the bell tower, hammers at the wall and slides a brick into his bag. The brick will be used as evidence.

Woda, who works for the GSF Research Center for Health and the Environment, located in the town of Neuherberg near Munich -- Europe's largest radiation protection institute -- is currently involved in an exciting investigation. As part of the EU's "SOUL" (Southern Urals Radiation Risk Research) project, Woda and his team are exploring the region where the Soviets once manufactured the explosive material for their first atomic bomb.

The Siberian factory was called Mayak ("beacon"). Workers from the gulags laid railroad track and built a "closed city" for 17,000 people, cooling towers and a radiochemical plant. The first nuclear reactor went online in 1948 and was soon producing weapons-grade plutonium for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The giant weapons laboratory did not appear on any map.

A consensus in the West has been reached about what happened next. Soviet nuclear scientists stand accused of having irradiated the environment and of otherwise poisoning the surrounding area. The result, it is said, has been thousands of cancer deaths and myriads of deformed children. Indeed, this autumn, Mayak (of which not a single historic photo exists to this day) celebrated a gruesome anniversary. In the fall of 1957, a tank filled with 80 tons of nuclear waste exploded. According to an eyewitness, a "strange, bright red fog" rose several thousand meters into the air. "In the winter," says the eyewitness, "I would have terrible headaches and nosebleeds, and I almost went blind."

The consequences of the 1957 nuclear accident in Siberia were "far more serious" than Chernobyl, the German television network ARD recently reported. "Most of the pupils in my class died of cancer," says Gulchara Ismagilova, who was 11 at the time.

But what really happened? That's what the team of Bavarian physicists have traveled to Siberia to find out, and that's why they are taking soil samples and packing bricks into their bags. They are also looking at other important pieces of evidence from the secret nuclear complex. "The employees there were examined with a dosimeter, sometimes once a week, and required to provide urine samples," says GSF researcher Peter Jacob. The results of the tests were documented in more than 7,000 health records encased in gray cardboard folders. "An invaluable archive," says Jacob.

There are even kidneys and livers of workers who died at the site. Preserved in paraffin, they are kept stored next to frozen vials of blood at the Biophysical Institute of Osyorsk. Russian doctors are also collecting hair samples from those workers still alive today along with teeth that have fallen out. The samples are then sent to Germany; 200 teeth are already on file. Once analyzed by the GSF's state-of-the-art laboratories, the scientists will have radiation profiles for each person who worked at the nuclear plant. The project receives €6.8 million in grant money from the EU.

Despite this wealth of material, the task is a difficult one. Mistrust of the operators of Mayak runs deep. According to environment organization Greenpeace, 272,000 people were harmed at the facility and in the surrounding area. Even in the town of Muslyumovo, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away, "one in two adults are infertile, and one in three infants are born with deformities," a Greenpeace report says.

As deeply disturbing as these claims are, the tests in no way bear them out. Indeed, a number of project groups at the GSF center near Munich are doing their best to determine just how many people fell victim to the radiation pollution at Mayak. Their conclusions? The horrors of Mayak are much less extensive than believed.

There is no doubt that the workers at this plant east of the Ural Mountains performed dangerous work. Enveloped in a permanent atmosphere of fear -- with intelligence agents in black coats constantly hurrying through the hallways -- about 150 men would lift the warm, spent fuel elements from the reactors and carry them to the radiochemical plant.

There, in a long brick building, workers, including many women, sat in a dimly lit environment and placed the encrusted rods into nitric acid, triggering a process that allowed them to remove the weapons-grade plutonium. While the same work was performed with remote-controlled robotic arms in the West, the Soviet workers were not even given masks to wear. There was nothing to stop plutonium gases from entering their lungs.

And yet the amount of health damage sustained by these workers was astonishingly low. The GSF study has examined 6,293 men who worked at the chemical plant between 1948 and 1972. "So far 301 have died of lung cancer," says Jacob. "But only 100 cases were caused by radiation. The others were attributed to cigarettes."

The second large, but as yet unpublished study by the GSF scientists also offers surprisingly low mortality figures. The subjects in this study were farmers who lived downstream from the nuclear reactors, in 41 small towns and villages along the Techa River. From 1949 to 1951, waste material from the plutonium production -- a bubbling toxic soup -- was simply poured into the river untreated. As a result, highly radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and strontium 90 were deposited in the river's sediments. The riverbanks became radioactive.

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