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Kazakhstan: Nuclear Past Looms Over East

  • Merhat Sharipzhan

Almaty, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Eastern Kazakhstan is one of those regions of the earth which has been harshly treated by the works of man.

An area of great natural beauty, it features varied landscapes of lakes, deserts, steppes and mountains. It also contains an enormous range of natural resources, and during the Soviet era it was subjected to much hasty and ecologically-unsound industrialization.

East Kazakhstan produces lead, zinc, copper, gold, silver and a series of rare metals including titanium, nephrit and berillium. It has coal mines and its industry features steelworks, machine-building factories, silk production, furniture manufacturing, and food plants.

More ominously, the area lies sandwiched between two nuclear blast test sites, the much-used Soviet-era test range at Semipalatinsk in East Kazakhstan itself and the Lop Nor range across the border in China. Above-ground atom tests were held at both these sites in previous years.

The results of years of exposure to the consequent environmental pollutants of all sorts can be read in the sad official statistics: cancer rates are above the national average, and the East Kazakhstan Oblast is a region in which the death rate exceeds the birth rate. Apart from the factor of shortened life-expectancy, emigration from the area sharpens the population decrease.

With the general decline in economic activity in Kazakhstan, the big Soviet-era industries are now dying. Local authorites are seeking ways to give the area a new lease of life, and one thing they want is more reliable energy sources. Although the east of the country has the widest range of energy facilities -- namely two conventional power stations on the Irtish River, plus three heating and electricity supply centres, and other facilities -- it is plagued by unreliable supplies of electricity, heating and hot water.

One of the ideas which has recently re-surfaced has a sinister-sounding ring for the local population -- namely the building of a nuclear power station.

Just before the collapse of the USSR a group of experts spent some days in Ust-Kamenogorsk city, at the center of Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast, and researched the outskirts of the city. The group concluded that a nuclear power station on the site was feasible. But in 1991 when Kazakhstan announced its independence, the matter was forgotten, along with everything else connected with the former U.S.S.R.

However an RFE/RL correspondent reports that the power station idea has surfaced again in various newspapers and magazines. This time it's suggested that the facility be built at Leninogorsk town, about 100 kilometers north of Ust-Kamenogorsk.

Leninogorsk is the site of one of the first Soviet hydroelectric power stations, which was built in the 1920s, and operated until the late 1980s. The huge and impressive facility was under repair when the end of the Soviet era came, but the work was never finished and the plant died with it.

Our correspondent reports that the local population, fearing a possible new source of radiation, is not in favour of a nuclear power plant on their doorstep.

The measure of the suffering caused to the population of Kazakhstan by fallout from nuclear weapons testing can be seen in a special exhibition which has just been staged at the Parliament House in Almaty. A member of the Kazakh Senate, Engels Gabbasov, organized the exhibition, which features photos of women embracing their deformed children. There are also pictures of deformed animals.

Copies of official documents on display include the results of research into radiation levels. Gabbasov told RFE/RL that he staged the display to make the legislature pay more attention to the problems associated with two old nuclear test fields in West Kazakhstan, Azgyr and Kapustin Yar. The local population still suffers health troubles linked to fallout from the secret tests carried out there years ago.