Fukushima: in the shadow of the Semipalatinsk mushroom cloud

As Japan struggles to contain the Fukushima nuclear crisis, comparisons are being made with the Chernobyl disaster, which happened on 26 April, 1986, when an explosion and fire at the Ukrainian power station released enormous quantities of radioactive material across Russia and Europe. Deaths due to the contamination have been put close to a million.

But it is Semipalatinsk that demonstrates the truly destructive potential of nuclear, and its ability to wipe out humanity through the gradual generational degradation of DNA, rendering life as we know it unviable and so, ultimately, extinct.

Semipalatinsk was the site of the Soviet Union’s foray into the future, with the detonation of almost 500 nuclear bombs. As I found when I made the long journey as a correspondent for The Australian a few years ago, it is one of the bleakest places on the planet, on the northern Kazakh steppe near the borders of Siberia and Russia. Since 2007 it has been called Semey.

The Semipalatinsk Test Site, also known as Ground Zero, was secret until the USSR’s collapse in 1991, though of course the Soviets could not hide the fact that they were exploding nuclear bombs. They just kept denying it.

The people of Semipalatinsk were not warned about the 340 underground and 116 atmospheric bombs exploded between 1946 and 1986. They could only wonder why the sky regularly turned red, the roofs of their houses blew off, and massive mushroom clouds hid the sun.??

Nor did they know why their children and their farm animals were being born with two heads, or their legs on backwards, or no legs. Or with their spines exposed. Or with tiny heads. Or with huge heads. Or when their kin became psychotic. Or when their headaches became so unbearable they could only bash their heads against the wall. Or when lesions grew on their bodies and faces, making them look like a casting call for The Elephant Man.?

Old glass cabinets in a university laboratory overlooking a garden strewn with toppled Lenin statues display hundreds of specimen bottles, each containing a pickled foetus – some species indeterminate — hidden from the Soviet authorities, who made it illegal to preserve deformities such as these.??

The most horrific is a baby boy. He’s huge, perhaps 10 pounds, and bonny, the baby any mother would be thrilled to hold. Except for one thing: in the middle of his forehead is just one, huge eye. This is Cyclops.?

Three generations in Semipalatinsk are witness to the true fallout of radioactivity. A lovely woman with bad skin took me to orphanages and hospitals and rehabilitation centres,  introducing me to the deformed, to doctors, to women’s groups fighting for help from their government, to scientists trying to patch together what knowledge they could from the documentation that had not been destroyed by the fleeing Soviets.

I said that she seemed lucky to be in good health. She looked at me with incredulity. I have 15 different types of cancer, she said. You can’t see my illness, but that doesn’t mean I am not suffering. No one has escaped.

Japan has had Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Japanese scientists and charities are active in Semipalatinsk. As they struggle with Fukushima, the Japanese are perhaps the only people on earth who truly understand the extent of the horror they are battling.