Huge, little-known nuclear disaster haunts Russia almost 50 years later

By Mark McDonald

Philadelphia Inquirer

Friday, April 23, 2004

KARABOLKA, Russia - One of the world's ghastliest nuclear accidents happened just upwind of here, in a nameless atomic city that never appeared on a map, when an explosion of radioactive sludge produced a toxic plume that contaminated a quarter of a million people.

It happened in the Soviet Union on Sept. 29, 1957, but only now are the victims' voices being heard.

Communist authorities responded to the accident with a global cover-up and a scorched-earth cleanup. Even as they evacuated entire Russian communities, they sent 1,500 ethnic Tatar farmers into the hot zones to do the dirty work.

Children from fourth grade up were pressed into service. Many "young liquidators," as they came to be known, died of radiation-related diseases soon after the blast, which few people know about even today.

Finally, however, the surviving liquidators have begun winning victories in the courts. It has taken nearly half a century for Moscow to admit responsibility for the disaster, but recently, three Karabolka residents won tiny but precedent-setting judgments that give them reparations of $8 a month, plus an annual stay at a Russian spa.

The children and grandchildren of the liquidators inherited an array of health problems; they, too, have begun filing damage claims.

'Hands were bleeding'

The Karabolka farmers never were told of the dangers of the explosion at the secret nuclear lab called Mayak, "the Lighthouse." Officials said the cleanup was needed because crude oil had seeped into the fields and groundwater. Even if the villagers had been told the truth, terms such as radiation and nuclear were not part of the vocabulary in a remote village in the southern Urals in 1957.

The Karabolka children helped with nuclear triage alongside their parents. Week after week they dug up contaminated potatoes and carrots with their bare hands, then buried them in pits. They filled poisoned wells, cleaned bricks covered in radioactive soot, buried dead cattle, dismantled houses.

"Our hands were bleeding. Everybody was vomiting," said Glasha Ismagilova, 57, who was 11 at the time. "My vomit was very green. The doctor looked at it and said I had eaten too many peas, and he sent me back to work. But of course I hadn't eaten any peas at all."

The explosion would not be the only nuclear disaster to befall the area. People living along the nearby Techa River now are suing for damage caused by decades of radioactive waste-dumping in the river by Mayak engineers. That practice, begun in the late 1940s, ended only recently.

'No accident'

Experts have called the Techa district the most polluted place on Earth. Individual radiation exposures once reached the rough equivalent of four Chernobyl accidents, according to Mark Hertsgaard, a well-known investigator of accidents and exposures. The Chernobyl nuclear-reactor explosion took place April 26, 1986, in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union.

"But this was no accident," said Alexander Aklayev, director of a small Chelyabinsk hospital that studies and treats radiation diseases. "The Techa discharges were authorized."

His database, developed with help from the U.S. National Cancer Institute, is tracking 69,000 documented victims, who have been given ID cards.

Victim No. 001213 is Safia Skaripova, who has launched the first lawsuit based on what is known as "moral damages."

"I want the state to pay for killing my first son and damaging my second son," said Skaripova, 51. She was not exposed during the Mayak blast, but she grew up along the Techa, swimming in it, drinking its water, eating its fish. She says she believes her contamination by the radioactive river gave her son Valery the brain cancer that killed him at age 5 and Misha, 8, Down syndrome.

"A big group of children," Aklayev agreed, "were irradiated inside the womb."

Ismagilova spoke calmly about her own illnesses - about the new three-inch tumor on her liver, the painful crumbling of her knees and hips.

Tears started to come only when she remembered borrowing her mother's orange sun dress on that morning 47 years ago when the Mayak cleanup began. She wanted to look nice because she thought her fourth-grade class was headed off on a field trip.

They were headed, of course, to their doom. She said, "What kind of monsters would assign children to do such work?"

The secret Mayak lab, hidden in the closed city now known as Ozersk, was the epicenter of the Soviet nuclear-weapons program. Heavily guarded, Ozersk still operates full bore, and still is off limits to nonresidents.

On the afternoon of Sept. 29 that year, 70 tons of superheated atomic waste blew the lid off its concrete storage vault.

The initial cleanup lasted throughout the fall of 1957, then began again in spring of 1958 when the snows receded.

Once again, children were taken out of school to work. Almost all were Muslims, children of ethnic Tatar and Bashkir families who had lived in the area for centuries. A few hundred Russian families lived across town; these "Volga Russians" were newcomers who had gone to work in the foundries and chemical plants in the nearby industrial center of Chelyabinsk.

"But when we got there, not a single soul was left in Russian Karabolka," Ismagilova said. "They had all been evacuated and resettled."

Aklayev, the clinic director, said 10,000 people from seven villages were resettled after the blast. "No one knows why some were resettled and others were not," he said. "Even for the evacuees, though, it was too late."

Ismagilova does not accept the government's explanation that the Tatar side of her village was safe enough while the Russian side had been contaminated. She said this was genocide.

"Our farms and houses were right next to the Russians'," she said. "They lived on one side... we lived on the other side. But our families were not well-educated, so it was easier for the authorities to keep us in the dark."

Even now, more than four decades on, the irradiated fields and pastures remain dangerous and unplantable. Only 520 destitute villagers remain from an original population of 2,900.

"Almost all the people here were liquidators, but they're too old and sick to press their claims," Ismagilova said, the tears coming again. "They did the state's dirty work 45 years ago, and now they have no money. Not even enough for bread. They have no future."