Staunton, September 15 – Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of a horrific tragedy in which the Soviet government tested a nuclear weapon on its own people at a military base in Orenburg Oblast, a tragedy which continues because the Russian government has not been willing to face up to what happen or provide effective help to the victims.
Instead, the Bellona organization says, this horrific event “continues not only in the fates of the witnesses still living but in the fate of their children and grandchildren. Over these 60 years, a very great deal has changed, but what has not changed is the impermissible attitude of the state towards its own citizens.”
On September 14, 1954, the Soviet authorities exploded a nuclear device of between 10 and 40 kilotons, approximately twice the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in an area where some 45,000 to 60,000 Soviet citizens were living in order to test the effectiveness of the weapon, the environmental activist group says.
There was not at the time or has there been since much “objective official information” about what happened. One ethnic Latvian, who was in the USSR military at the time, said that the underground test shook the ground and then exploded into the atmosphere, causing people to flee in all directions. His report appeared only in January 2001.
Other survivors say that the Soviet authorities evacuated only some of those nearby, and consequently, they left many others to be exposed to potentially lethal levels of radiation. Investigations in the 1990s found that residents of almost 500 villages were exposed to excessive radiation and have suffered as a result.
Bellona reports that soldiers fled leaving their irradiated equipment. “But local residents quickly returned to their regular lives. They used their customary water supplies and engaged in their traditional agriculture … They did not know anything about the invisible danger [from the radiation] … and suddenly as if out of nowhere people began to die.”
During the Soviet period, the authorities did little or nothing for these people. “The first serious attempt to shed light on the consequences of the explosion was the work of scholars of Orenburg Oblast who at least demarcated the limits of the Totsk test range radioactive area.” But after they did so, the Russian government cut off their funding.
The fate of “more than 10,000 people” who suffered as a result “did not agitate the state then and it does not do so now. Those few who have survived to this 60th anniversary of the atomic explosion are not receiving compensating, cannot use any benefits and cannot show the connection of their illnesses with the impact of radiation.”
That official attitude helps to explain horrors which continue to this day from the large to the small. It provides an insight into the reasons why Vladimir Putin can speak so casually about using nuclear weapons, and it explains why the Russian government continues to neglect the health and wellbeing of its own citizens.
Not only has Moscow cut back on healthcare and ensured that many will suffer by imposing an embargo on medicines produced abroad that Russian firms do not produce in the country, but its own officials pointed out this week that eight cities in the Urals are now unfit for human habitation.