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Kazakhstan: Baikonur Continues Launches Despite Toxic Accident

Russia's Baikonur satellite launch facility in Kazakhstan is once again launching rockets that use toxic fuels. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan looks at why launches continue to occur despite the dangers of accidents.

Prague, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, a Proton rocket was fired from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. That would not, on the face of it, seem to be an extraordinary event, as Baikonur has been launching satellites on Proton rockets since 1965, first for the Soviet Union and then for Russia. But Kazakhstan had been enforcing a ban on Proton launches since an accident on July 5.

On that day, a Proton rocket launched from Baikonur exploded in the air. Rocket fuel and parts rained down over 500 hectares. No humans were reported killed, but a giant piece of wreckage weighing over 200 kilograms came down in the yard of a private house.

It could have been worse. But this was far from Kazakstan's first Proton crash. Paul Beaver of Britain's Jane's Information Group told RFE/RL that the Proton rocket program has less than an 80 percent success rate.

What makes accidents particularly dangerous, he said, is the type of rocket propellant the Protons use. The fuel is called hepthil, and Beaver says it is toxic to humans. "Quite frankly, there's a real concern that what is called the olage in these fuel tanks -- in other words, the unburnt particles -- if they do fall to earth, it also means there's a problem with them being flammable, but also that they could well be carcinogenic."

Launching such rockets in landlocked countries such as Kazakhstan carries added risks, Beaver said. And Kazakhstan is not the only vulnerable area. Beaver explains:

"What everyone is concerned about is that -- the Russians and the Chinese have both been culpable of this -- they have been having problems with launches where the remains have gone down into habited areas [where people live]. And there's been fire, there's been chemical spillage, which has resulted in a risk of something carcinogenic, in other words, cancer-forming. The Americans don't have this problem; the French don't have this problem. They launch over seas. So if there's a problem, it goes elsewhere."

But despite their dangers, satellite launches are big business for developing countries. Beaver says Russia earns up to $80 million for each satellite launch. And Kazakhstan gets a share of that money, because the launch facility is on its territory. With rocket launches so profitable, Kazakhstan has an incentive to downplay safety considerations.

In reparations for the July crash, Russia agreed to pay Kazakhstan $270,000. It also said it would put in place emergency rescue crews at Baikonur. But neither of these measures addresses the continued environmental and safety risks posed by the Proton and its toxic fuel.

Beaver says the apparent negligence of countries in the space business causes distress among the international defense community.

"There's a concern with countries like Russia and China and India who want to get into this business. Quite frankly, they don't follow the same safeguards. They don't have the same safeguards in many of their industries, even in their aviation industry. And there's a concern that at the end of the day...they are not going to support this properly [pay for the necessary safety measures] and there could be problems -- environmental problems, safety problems. And the other thing, of course, is information. We just don't know enough about what goes on there."

The environmental damage from the Proton accident comes to a country already suffering from the effects of years of pollution from Soviet projects. In Kazakhstan's northeast is the severely polluted Semipalatinsk, the former open-air nuclear testing site. And two southern oblasts border the desiccated Aral Sea, one of the world's biggest environmental disasters. The Soviets also destroyed their old missiles on Kazakh territory.

Beaver says it is difficult to assess the real environmental costs of the current satellite launches because authorities disclose little information. But he said he was surprised to hear that just two months after the Proton explosion, Kazakhstan allowed another Proton launch.