The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet
For forty-five years, Chelyabinsk province of Russia was closed to all foreigners.Only in January of 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin sign a decree changing that.Shortly afterwards, I made my first trip to this region, which later Western scientists declared to be the most polluted spot on earth.
In the late 1940's, about 80 kilometers north of the city of Chelyabinsk, an atomic weapons complex called "Mayak" was built. Its existence has only recently been acknowledged by Russian officials, though, in fact, the complex, bordered to the west by the Ural Mountains, and to the north by Siberia, was the goal of Gary Powers's surveillance flight in May of 1960.
The people of the area have suffered no less than three nuclear disasters: For over six years, the Mayak complex systematically dumped radioactive waste into the Techa River, the only source of water for the 24 villages which lined its banks.The four largest of those villages were never evacuated, and only recently have the authorities revealed to the population why they strung barbed wire along the banks of the river some 35 years ago.Russian doctors who study radiation sickness in the area estimate that those living along the Techa River received an average of four times more radiation than the Chernobyl victims.
In 1957, the area suffered its next calamity when the cooling system of a radioactive waste containment unit malfunctioned and exploded.The explosion spewed some 20 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere.About two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing 270,000 people to as much radiation as the Chernobyl victims.Less than half of one percent of these people were evacuated, and some of those only after years had passed.
The third disaster came ten years later.The Mayak complex had been using Lake Karachay as a dumping basin for its radioactive waste since 1951.In 1967, a drought reduced the water level of the lake, and gale-force winds spread the radioactive dust throughout twenty-five thousand square kilometers, further irradiating 436,000 people with five million curies, approximately the same as at Hiroshima.
In the past 45 years, about half a million people in the region have been irradiated in one or more of the incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims.
"The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet" is a journey, starting on a train which, after 36 hours, brings me from Moscow into the city of Chelyabinsk, the administrative center of the province and home to over a million people.The city sprang up during the Second World War, when Stalin moved weapons production to the isolated region.It would go on to produce 50% of the Soviet Union's tanks.This gave the city its nickname, "Tank City."
From there, the camera travels to the villages of Muslyumovo, Brodokalmak, Tishma, and the town of Argayash.The villagers of Muslyumovo and Brodokalmak were never evacuated from the banks of the contaminated Techa River.Authorities moved the villagers of Tishma in the late 1950's, but only a few kilometers, leaving the locals' grazing land along the banks of the Techa.Argayash is the home of the Sunrasin family resettled after the 1957 explosion.Through Idris Sunrasin, we learn the radiation's death toll on one family: his grandmother, parents, and three of his eight siblings have already died of cancer.Idris himself is dying of stomach cancer and Argayash, a town of 10 thousand, falls within one of the most radioactive zones in the province, according to Russian environmentalists.
"We're all sick. As for the children, I don't know. It's some kind of dying generation." - Lena Morozova, 32
The camera interviews people from all walks of life: Simple farmers and shepherds, teachers, doctors, factory workers and environmental activists from the association Kishtym-57.Officials who represent the Mayak complex and doctors who work for the infamous FIB, the institute devoted to testing the region's people for radiation, are also interviewed.Until 1988, FIB also kept secret the cause of the cancers and chronic illnesses, even from the patients themselves.
The private citizens tell us the stories of being kept in the dark, ineffectively resettled or not resettled at all, the deaths in their families from cancer, their children's chronic illnesses, and their inability to move out of this contaminated area.The mullah of the largely Muslim village of Muslyumovo says simply, "It is the will of God."The villagers tell us that they do not because their roots are there, because they have no money, because their fear the ability to get a job elsewhere, because they know no other life.One man says simply: "You can't escape your fate."
When the camera visits doctors, we learn that the horrifying illnesses faced by the people are compounded by the authorities' refusal, until about three years ago, to even acknowledge that cancer existed in the region.We visit a renowned osteopath whose patient tells us that many, many children in the area of the Mayak complex are born without hands, legs, and feet.
We're nothing but guneia pigs here... They don't give a damn about us.
There aren't many births, the women don't want to have children. Who needs more cripples? - Men gathered at the Muslyumovo store.
The camera visits Dr. Genady Romanov, the head of the nuclear complex's research institute.His reactions illustrate the official view of the continuing mismanagement of radioactive waste.When I mention my conversations with local doctors about the high cancer rate in the region, he replies: "What doctors?The Muslyumovo doctors?They're ignoramuses.They're all ignorant about nuclear biology and radiology."
Interviews with villagers reveal the presence of the Institute of Biochemistry, called FIB, which has been checking the residents for radiation since the late 1950s, but neither told them the cause of their illness, nor treated them.The camera travels to FIB and talks to Dr. Kosenko, who has worked in the institute for over 30 years: "They didn't know anything, and we had no right to tell them that they had been irradiated.All this information was top secret, because the factory produced weapons-grade plutonium... If someone had found out that in some area there were people who had been irradiated, then it would have been possible to find the factory.That's why these people weren't given any information about radiation."
The authorities' cover-up of the situation expands, as we learned from yet another doctor that until recently, doctors were not allowed to give cancer as a cause of death: "Write something else, either a stroke, or a severe heart attack, or even chronic heart disease, basically any of those accompanying factors.But to just put down cancer as a cause of death was just not allowed."
The camera returns to Dr. Kosenko at FIB, where we see her in a room with thousands of files.She explains that even at FIT they were not allowed to write "radiation sickness" on the patients' charts: "We were given instructions to indicate it with initials, and the three letters were ABC.Wherever we see that abbreviation... all of us who work here knew that it was radiation sickness."
When I left the region in March of 1992, I promised the friends I had made to return soon.When the next summer comes, I am once again on the train to Chelyabinsk.My camera revisits the people in the contaminated areas.I meet kids fishing on the Techa River, where my Geiger counter shows that the fish they've just caught contains twenty times the normal radiation."We eat these fish," they tell me, and add sarcastically, "It's like they say, 'you can't infect the infected'."
The camera then travels to the village of Tishma, which was rebuilt several kilometers from the contaminated Techa in the late 1950s.Anisa Nineeva explains that the village's problems have not been solved: "Only eight kilometers from us there's a radioactive waste containment facility...[the trucks that carry the radioactive waste] come right through our village... And right alongside [the Techa River] is our collective farm... That means we cut our hay there, drink that milk."
We go with Anisa to see her grazing land and Anisa is shocked to tears when our Geiger counter's needle repeatedly goes off the scale, showing forty times the normal background radiation."This is terrible news for me.What should I do now?This is where half the village has been cutting hay since 1956."
The cinema verite style encourages these disclosures.A woman talks casually in her own kitchen, Dr. Romanov in his office, Dr. Kosenko among her files.The people are unposed and unprepared to dissemble of put a good face on things.The camera allows us to see that the victims, who were so proud to live where the Soviet Union produced its first atomic weapon, to some degree collaborate in their own undoing: Faced with death and the increasing weakness of each generation, they do not move away, they do feel helpless, and they strive more for financial remuneration that for a cleanup or resettlement.In the final interview, Dr. Romanovinsists that nobody died as a result of the 1957 explosion.Because the interviews seem so informal both to the victims and their victimizers, the camera captures a glimpse not just of a black-and-white situation, but of something much more complex: The victims are not saints, and while the officials are unpleasant, they were also victims of the propaganda of the Cold War, fe d on patriotism, and, of course, threatened with labor camps should they reveal the secret of Mayak.
When they evacuated us... they made us sign a form saying that we wouldn't reveal state secrets. Of course, we knew what that meant... People knew where we were from, and were afraid of us; they thought we might be contagious.They shied away from us like people do now if you have AIDS. - Sofiya Khrylenko, retired teacher from an orphanage
The reasons for making this film are clear: the story of these people needs to be told, and needs to be shown to the Western audience, as well as the Russian one.The film operates on three levels: the most immediate is that of a region in crisis, a region where people expect to live to be 50, perhaps 55, where as many as 90% of the children suffer from chronic illnesses.They deserve attention and help at least as much as the victims of Chernobyl.
But the story is also a cautionary tale.Because this is not one cataclysmic even, one explosion, one calamity resulting from short-term carelessness, but the effects of a long term policy of skewed priorities, the film also illustrates the dangers of allowing a government to put military secrets above its people.
Finally, it is a story about the dangers of nuclear power and the production of nuclear weapons.
Nobody knows anything about us.Chernobyl happened, but that's Europe.The pollution reached Europe, and the whole world was upset.But us, out here in the backwoods of Russia?Nobody knows about it, nobody in the world cares about the fate we've sealed for ourselves here. - Farida Shaimardanova, Muslyumovo teacher