Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: For related stories see "Healing in Chernobyl's Shadow" about the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and "Russia's Nuclear Stockpile Rusting" about ongoing safety concerns.]

1950's Soviet A-Bomb Tests Still Claim Victims

by Andrei Ivanov

(IPS) MOSCOW -- A nuclear weapons test conducted at the Totsk test site in the Urals on Sep. 14, 1954 is still having serious health and environmental effects 42 years later, says Russian deputy minister for emergency situations Vladimir Vladimirov.

He says studies of long-term effects of the Totsk blast should be continued and their findings used to develop an emergency management program.

Meanwhile people living in the blast region remain exposed to ionizing radiation, with soil levels of plutonium-239 and 240 up to five times normal levels with high levels of caesium-137 contamination also recorded.

"We were nothing more than guinea pigs"

A conference earlier this month in Orenburg on the medical and environmental impacts of the Totsk explosion heard that the region's population suffers shorter life expectancy and a death rate 1.8 times higher than in other similar areas, a high infant mortality and a high rate of physical retardation in children.

The incidence and type of genetic disorders in adults and children are similar to those seen in the Russian Bryansk region, downwind of the 1986 explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The 1954 experiment was kept secret for many years. Those involved had to sign documents undertaking not to speak about it for 25 years. Some 45,000 troops took part. They were dressed only in their uniforms, rubber boots and masks to watch a 40 kiloton atomic bomb explode nearby 350 metres above their heads.

They then embarked on several hours of war games as two "opposing armies". The aim was to see how men and equipment coped under conditions of nuclear attack. Today less than one percent of these men are still alive and those who remain are ill.

The test was not at one of the main tests sites but in the Arinbuk region of Totsk in the southern Urals. It was watched -- from a safe distance -- by leaders from other East bloc countries.

"We were nothing more than guinea pigs," says Shamed Shaimikhamedov, of the Committee for Special Risk Veterans which was set up in 1991 . "Most of us were in the open without any kind of shelter."

Directing the operation was Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, a hero of the Second World War and briefly defence minister under Nikita Khruschev. The exercise is described in the third part of his biography. The aim was to measure the destructive impact of the bomb, says biographer Vladimir Karpov.

"Fortifications and military vehicles were put in place and houses were specially built," he says. "But the most important aspect of the exercise is that troops were sent into the target area."

The troops were only told at the very last minute that "some exercises were to be held".

Shaimikhamedov says a bomber dropped the bomb about three kilometres away. "We watched through our gas masks and visors.

There were two explosions and a shock wave -- a very hot wave -- passed over us and then came back again in the other direction. Afterwards there were no tests for radiation. But we were given new uniforms as a reward. We kept wearing them for months."

"Only a few of us have survived at all"

The Committee for Special Risk Veterans was set up has 6,000 members who once took part in making nuclear weapons or monitoring nuclear tests at the test sites of Semipalatinsk, now in independent Kazakhstan, and Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic, as well as at other lesser known sites.

Since 1989 they have enjoyed some protection in Russia -- identity cards and token compensation. But it is not enough.

Shaimikhamedov says 90 percent of the committee members are invalids and many thousands of veterans have already died. "We won the chance to get some social protection only after 40 years," he says. "We no longer feel human. Medicine cannot restore our health."

Nuclear veterans are not just in Russia but throughout the CIS. Those in Russia are lucky. In Kazakhstan there are just 300 still alive. Kazakhstan Committee head Melgis Alkenovich Metov says his members have many different diseases.

Most of them worked at the Semipalatinsk test site. He himself took part in every test conducted in 1962 -- the last year before atmospheric testing was stopped.

"Only a few of us have survived at all. I get letters from everywhere. There are many cases of suicide. Veterans not only have their own problems but problems of sick children and grandchildren."

But the veterans may get more recognition of their problems now it is clear that the general population living in the Totsk test area is also suffering. Totsk suffered only one explosion while the veterans took part in many.

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Albion Monitor November 19, 1996 (

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