Radon blamed for thousands of German deaths

January 06, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SCHNEEBERG, Germany -- Hans Haeussler dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher, but World War II got in the way. In 1942 he was drafted right out of high school into the Wehrmacht to fight for Nazi Germany. After the German defeat, he spent four years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.

Finally, in 1950, he returned to his home in the Erzgebirge, the "ore mountains" of Saxony in Soviet-occupied East Germany, hoping to pursue his goal. Instead, Mr. Haeussler and almost every other able-bodied man in the region were forced by the Soviets to work in the mines.

The Erzgebirge had been a source of mineral wealth, particularly silver, for centuries. But the Soviets were not after silver.

They were after uranium.

In their rush to catch up with the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the Soviets mined quickly and with no regard for safety. Over the next four decades, they took about 220,000 tons of uranium from the mountains, in partial payment of Germany's war reparations.

But the Germans who lived in the Erzgebirge paid in a more personal way: Hans Haeussler, for one, died of lung cancer in August 1988, shortly before his 64th birthday.

His cancer is believed to have been caused by radon given off by uranium dust, making Mr. Haeussler one of the 5,100 people who have died in the region as a result of the Soviet Union's frantic Cold War push for uranium.

Even now, hundreds of thousands of Germans continue to be endangered. The landscape for miles around Schneeberg is marked with giant mounds of rubble from uranium mining, much of it giving off radioactive radon.

German officials estimate that 465 square miles are contaminated.

"Not even the Nazis dared to mine the uranium from these mountains because they knew that it would destroy the people and the landscape here," the minister at Mr. Haeussler's church, the Rev. Andreas Krusche, said bitterly. "The Russians did it at the expense of the local population."

The minister is a leader of an environmental group named "Pechblende" -- the German word for pitchblende or uraninite, the black, opaque ore from which "yellowcake" for bombs was processed.

"The Americans had the atomic bomb. The Russians wanted the bomb as quickly as possible," he said. "As a result, we are all victims of the Cold War."

There are more than 3,000 piles of uranium rubble scattered in a belt from the city of Gera in the state of Thuringia to Dresden in Saxony. Some are more than 300 feet high, and on one of the rare clear days in the region, they can be seen from miles away.

Tests have found radon levels ranging from 40 to 400 times above the standard of 250 becquerels per cubic meter that Germany considers safe. (A becquerel, a unit for measuring radioactive decay, is the number of atoms that disintegrate per second.)

And the Germans have a relatively loose safety standard: In the United States, where radon is a naturally occurring hazard in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, environmental officials say that preventive action should be taken at 150 becquerels of radon per cubic meter.

"We know that exposures at this level over a long period of time will cause lung cancer, just as it did among the miners," said Professor Walther Roehnsch of Germany's Federal Office of Radiation Protection.

It will take most of the 1990s and cost an estimated $6.7 billion to clean up the mess, according to Mr. Roehnsch's office. In addition, there will be many millions more that will have to be paid to survivors of those who died. Some environmentalists have suggested that the only solution is to evacuate the area.

With the unification of East and West Germany, the new German government inherited not only the contaminated landscape, but also a 50 percent share in SDAG-Wismut, the joint East German-Soviet company responsible for the mining and processing of the uranium -- and thus the multibillion-dollar debt for Wismut's sins.

Since Mr. Haeussler's death, his wife, Susanne, has received a special pension of $425 a month. It goes to the widows of all the men who died of illnesses related to mining from 1945 to 1955 -- a decade known as "the wild years" because the Soviets forced the miners to ignore all safety precautions to get the vital ore.

Susanne Haeussler says her husband never talked much of his top-secret work at Wismut. But she remembers her husband describing the raubbau, or exploitative techniques of mining, in which the ore was simply ripped from the earth as quickly as possible.

With no protective gear or breathing devices, the miners were forced to use dry-drilling techniques to extract the uranium, producing clouds of radioactive dust. It wasn't until after 1955 that the miners were allowed to use wet-drilling techniques to keep down the dust and that the shafts were ventilated with fresh air.

And it wasn't until last year, after the Berlin Wall fell, that anyone dared mention the uranium operation or its consequences.

It was only recently, for example, that Wismut officials admitted that they had records showing that at least 5,100 miners like Mr. Haeussler died from lung cancer caused by inhaling the waste dust, which gave off radon gas.

But because it takes about 25 years for cancer to develop from radon, the outline of the human tragedy is just beginning to become clear. About 400,000 people worked at Wismut. About 1 million Germans live in or dangerously near the contaminated areas.

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