Nuclear waste a disaster for German town

June 23, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

OBERROTHENBACH, Germany -- The tiny town and the area surrounding it in the far eastern part of what used to be East Germany are home to the deadliest legacy of the Cold War.

Until last month, Oberrothenbach was part of a top-secret Soviet uranium project. Now it is the center of Europe's largest environmental disaster area, and the cleanup will take 10 to 15 years and cost at least $10 billion.

With at least 5,000 deaths directly attributable to the project, many experts already consider it the largest peacetime radioactive catastrophe next to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986.

That is not news to Dr. Karl Braun, the village's 52-year-old family doctor.

"I've got it. Every other family has got it," he says. "It's just called 'the sickness.' We don't bother saying cancer anymore."

Cancer may be largely unspoken, but it is the word that inevitably comes up as people try to explain what it is like living in the middle of one of the world's largest radioactive uranium waste dumps.

"People always got it, but we could, from 1Anever talk about it. Everyone knew," Dr. Braun said.

When the weather is dry, the wind deposits a cover of thick dust on Oberrothenbach.

"We were always told that the dust was harmless," Town Councilor Ingo Peters said. "What we didn't know is that it is radioactive. We ate the vegetables that were covered in the dust. The animals ate the grass."

The dust has blown through the area for more than 40 years from an artificial lake that engineers of the Soviet-East German uranium corporation Wismut built to accommodate mountains of uranium slag from a uranium-processing plant.

The plant, built in neighboring Crossen after World War II during the Soviet rush to nuclear capability, processed uranium "yellow cake" until last year. Pipes carried the waste slag through Oberrothenbach and into the man-made lake.

In the 1950s, engineers decided to pump the muddy slag into the valley here, but they built a 150-foot-high earthen dam to prevent the slag from running into the town.

The lake, which now holds 50 million tons of uranium slag, lies above the village behind the dam. In hot weather, it shrinks, the shore turns dusty, and the dust blows into the town.

"You can't escape the dam. It is there all the time. The waste just sits there above our heads," said Gerd Meyer, Oberrothenbach's environmental commissioner.

In addition to the dust, several million tons of mud and more than 20,000 tons of arsenic -- a byproduct of the discarded ore -- have seeped into the earth and poisoned the ground water.

Water is piped in, but officials worry that the water contamination is spreading.

Strangely, the area looks anything but disastrous. Most of the mud has settled to the bottom, and the lake looks almost pristine. The dam has sprouted grass and trees, and it looks like a forest that gently slopes up from Oberrothenbach.

"We have a hard time convincing strangers that it's radioactive. But the radium in the mud won't decay for 1,620 years," Mr. Meyer said.

Residents have been worried since 1961, when the dam burst. Within minutes, the entire town was covered in mud. The next day was one to remember in gray East Germany: Authorities sent trucks into town to dole out bananas, a sure sign that the government was worried about something.

"We knew something wasn't right. After that, all the wells were closed," Mr. Peters said.

Since united Germany took control of the plant and waste site on May 16, more detailed information has been released about the effects of the mud and dust.

According to a study completed by the Office for Energy and Environment in Munich, Oberrothenbach and Crossen have 750 locations with abnormally high radiation. The office reported readings of up to 7,000 becquerels of radiation per cubic meter. The normal reading in Munich is 19.

In addition, the office estimated that one-fifth of the ground in both villages -- including the sites of the sports center, the soccer field and the children's sandbox -- has been contaminated by the dust and careless handling of the uranium.

To make matters worse, there is another uranium processing plant 50 miles away in Seelingstaedt. And buildings throughout the region are contaminated because East Germany used the radioactive waste as construction material.

In all, more than 500 million tons of radioactive mud and slag are lying open at the two main processing sites and at 3,600 other small sites throughout the densely populated eastern regions of Saxony and Thuringia, officials have estimated.

It is estimated that about 1 million tons has been used in construction, primarily in southern Saxony.

Martin Joensson, the former director of the Worker's Hygiene Department at Wismut, says that safety never was a high priority.

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