Muslyumovo: The most polluted place on Earth

TARA SONENSHINE & JAY LaMONICA

February 19, 1992|By Tara Sonenshine & Jay LaMonica

IMAGINE growing up not knowing that the water you drink, the air you breathe and the food you eat are contaminated with radioactive waste.

Imagine getting radiation sickness and having doctors tell you only that you are suffering from some "special disease." Imagine finding out 35 years after the fact that a major nuclear accident had taken place near your home but that the authorities had kept it secret. Imagine all that, and you have only begun to imagine the horror of Muslyumovo.

Muslyumovo looks like an idyllic Siberian village of about 3,500 souls on the Techa River. But 50 miles upstream is one of the most secret sanctums of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Mayak. In the late 1940s Stalin assembled his best scientist there and at a nearby design lab, Chelyabinsk-70, to break America's nuclear monopoly. Mayak's reactors produced the plutonium for the first Soviet bombs.

Last week, Secretary of State James Baker went to Chelyabinsk-70 to offer its scientists U.S. help in destroying its arsenal. We hope he was made aware of the damage the plant inflicted on the area, and will offer American aid to help the people of Muslyumovo deal with their own cold war legacy.

Originally, the Tartar villagers of Muslyumovo were vaguely aware of the military complex; what they didn't know was that for the first six years of its operation it dumped highly radioactive waste directly into the headwaters of the Techa.

A rusty barbed-wire fence still zig-zags along the Techa River where it was erected by the authorities in 1956. A hand-painted sign simply says, "River Closed. Forbidden." At the time, no one explained to the residents why the river was closed or why villages upstream and downstream were being evacuated. In a region dotted with political prison camps, people were simply too afraid to ask.

So people continued to swim in the river, to drink its water, to fish, to bring cattle to graze. When we visited Muslyumovo last month, there were new ice-fishing holes in the Techa.

The dumping of nuclear waste into the Techa was only the first act in Mayak's nuclear tragedy. In September 1957, a containment tank holding nuclear waste exploded, sending radioactive materials over an area populated by a million and a half people. Residents from more than 200 towns and villages in the area were relocated.

As if human failure were not enough, in 1967 a drought turned radioactive waste in a lake near Mayak into powdery silt that winds blew over the area. The accidents turned the region into what Thomas Cochran, a physicist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called "the most polluted spot on the planet."

Only in the last two years have the people of Muslyumovo learned the truth. For four decades, doctors were forced to lie to their patients. The decree forbade doctors from entering the name of patients' villages on their charts. People suffering from chronic radiation sickness were simply told they had "a special disease."

Reservoirs around the complex are still highly radioactive. One Mayak official warned us that radioactive waste may already be seeping into the groundwater. Even more frightening is the possibility that reservoirs will overflow this spring and the region's decrepit dams will be unable to prevent radioactive waste from gushing down the Techa River basin.

The people of Muslyumovo cannot think about a future accident; they are still struggling with the past. "We lost 22 people here last year in one month's time," a villager told us. "Everyone dies, the young, the old. Usually people do not make it to their pensions. It's a hellish situation."

"We were chasing the atom," lamented another. "We wanted to build up our armaments to ward off America. But look how many people we lost right here at home. What can I say?"

The cold war is over and both sides are laying down their arms. But like all wars, there were unintended casualties. Muslyumovo is in desperate need of medical supplies, food and Western expertise to analyze past catastrophes and prevent a future one. American and Russia have a mutual responsibility to correct the excesses committed in the name of deterrence.

Tara Sonenshine and Jay LaMonica are producers for ABC News' "Nightline."

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