Kazakhstan’s little-known sacrifice at Chernobyl22 april 2011, 12:23
I read with interest the news coverage of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s appearance at a conference in Kiev marking the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
It had to be a poignant moment for Nazarbayev, who ordered nuclear explosions halted at the Semipalatinsk test site in 1991 and who presided in the next few years over the elimination of nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev has often talked about his anger over the testing at Semipalatinsk, which the Kremlin’s leaders foisted off on the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic without Kazakhstan having a say in it.
The testing, which spanned 42 years, killed some villagers living near Semipalatinsk outright, mowing them down with shock waves. Many more died over the years of radiation-related illnesses such as cancer.
I knew about the Semipalatinsk toll because I had talked with survivors of the blasts and doctors who had treated many of those with testing-generated illnesses.
But a Chernobyl-related statistic that Nazarbayev mentioned at the Kiev conference surprised me. The president said the Kremlin ordered 32,000 Kazakhs to Chernobyl to deal with the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
“Many of them sacrificed their health and lives,” Nazarbayev said in a speech at the conference.
Altogether, he said, the Krelin dispatched hundreds of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union to deal with Chernobyl. Given that Kazakhstan has only 16 million people, its dispatching of 32,000 first responders, decontamination and clean-up personnel to the disaster site was probably the biggest commitment per capita of any Soviet state.
Until I heard Nazarbayev’s speech, I thought Kazakhstan had suffered only a double nuclear whammy – the Semipalatinsk testing and the nuclear arsenal on its soil. Now I realized it has suffered a triple whammy, with Chernobyl being the third.
Last August I met a Kazakh in Semipalatinsk who was sent to Chernobyl during the 1986 crisis. His name is Benjamin Slednikov, and his life has been a nuclear story.
Benjamin, who is 64, grew up near a nuclear test site in Naryan-Mar, Russia. When he was a teen-ager, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent him to Kazakhstan under the Virgin Lands Program, whose objective was to convert large swaths of Kazakhstan’s steppe to agricultural production.
Benjamin ended up in Semipalatinsk, only a few dozen miles from the world’s biggest nuclear test site, which the Soviet government opened in 1949.
Perhaps because he lived far enough away from the site, he developed no health problems while living and working in the Semipalatinsk area. He had dodged two nuclear bullets – one at Naryan-Mar and one at Semipalatinsk. Then came Chernobyl.
Dozens of first responders to the disaster – police and firefighters, for example – died of radiation exposure within months. Altogether, Chernobyl claimed 47 lives within a few months and left at least 4,000 people with cancer, experts have said.
When Soviet leaders considered the disaster under control, they sent in clean-up teams. Slednikov, then 39, was in one of them.
“We destroyed the abandoned homes,” he said. “We broke up and carted away the asphalt paving in the area.” All the material was radioactive.
Slednikov knew the work might catch up to him.
“Every day, 15 minutes after arriving at the clean-up area, we began experiencing excruciating headaches,” he said.
He wondered what the long-term impact on his body would be.
Within a few months the clean-up work his crew had been assigned was finished, and he was back in Semipalatinsk. But a few months is far more than needed for a person to develop a radiation-related illness. Benjamin’s health began deteriorating.
When I talked with him last August, he declined to say what his health problem is. But there’s no doubt, he said, that it’s a result of Chernobyl.
“In fact, the only thing keeping me alive is treatment that I get from specialists in Almaty twice a year,” he said.
I thought of Benjamin when I read Nazarbayev’s speech at the Kiev conference.
“It seems obvious that the safety of nuclear power plants and other civilian nuclear facilities should be recognized as a major component of global nuclear security,” Nazarbayev said.
Benjamin Slednikov would agree.
So would the 32,000 other Kazakhs whom Soviet leaders dispatched to Chernobyl . The ones who are still living, that is.