ASTANA – The territory of the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Eastern Kazakhstan is best known for having been poisoned for decades, but some experts are now hoping the area can yield new life.
Scientists from Kazakhstan’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology (IRSE) have been operating an experimental farm on the test site for the past four years to learn whether some of the area land can once again be used for agriculture.
Farming in and around the site was banned when the site was closed in 1991. Now, however, researchers are testing a variety of agricultural products already being produced in the region surrounding the testing area, said Sergey Lukashenko director of the IRSE. They include rye, barely, wheat, oats, pepper, eggplant, radishes, beets, potatoes, onion, corn, sunflowers and more. Cows, horses, sheep, pigs and chickens are also being studied.
Researchers are investigating what leftover radioactive material makes its way from the land into the fruit, meat, milk and eggs produced on it. Different nuclear materials linger for different lengths of time. Some nuclear leaks and accidents release materials with relatively short half-lives (the amount of time it takes for about half the radioactive atoms in a sample to decay) and naturally decay within human-scale time frames. Semey, however, was the site of explosions, and much of the land is contaminated with a type of plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years.
The researchers assess the levels of radioactive materials in their crops, checking limitations against Kazakhstan’s food safety regulations. Humans are frequently exposed to small amounts of radiation in daily life; during long-haul flights, for example.
What they’ve found at the farm, Lukashenko told The Astana Times, is reason for cautious optimism. “In general, the results of research into the possibility of growing agricultural crops have shown that for most of the STS [Semipalatinsk Test Site] territory, it is possible to raise products safe for humans, according to radiation parameters.” This excludes heavily contaminated areas where the tests were actually conducted.
Unfortunately, Lukashenko said, their results aren’t understood by a population still justifiably horrified by what happened at Semey. “In our opinion, society mostly doesn’t understand the current radiation situation at the territory around the former test site very well. The flow of negative information after closing the test site created an incorrect understanding of the radiation situation in the region and the consequences of nuclear tests.”
The IRSE attends conferences, publishes its results and provides information about its work on its website. “However, IRSE efforts are not enough to help the general public understand the current condition of the test site and territories around it,” Lukashenko said. “We need to have a government programme to address the actual radiation situation … and the impact of the test site on the environment.”
Not everyone is optimistic about the possibility of farming around Semey. Professor Leonid Rikhvanov of Russia’s Tomsk University has said the catastrophic possibility of plutonium entering the biological chain means the land should be kept off limits. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given its approval to the return of some areas of the STS for normal use and continues to inspect and work with IRSE researchers at the farm. IAEA experts visited the farm earlier this year to review the research and the methods being used and will submit a report of their findings by the end of the year, Lukashenko said.
According to IRSE’s research so far, Lukashenko reported, 4,900 square kilometres of the land around the test site can be used “for business activities, without limitations.” They plan to investigate the rest of the territory by 2021. Next year the IRSE will begin complex investigations on territories adjacent to the test site, where they believe high concentrations of radioactive material exist.
Areas where nuclear tests actually occurred, Lukashenko said, will have to be monitored for a long time to come and are not expected to be used for anything in the foreseeable future.
“The test site territory is a unique natural laboratory,” Lukashenko said. Investigating how radioactive material is distributed around the landscape in the Semey region provides data that could be used to predict what might happen in other circumstances and make more informed decisions about other nuclear events. The movements of some nuclear materials, like caesium and strontium, in agricultural processes have been well studied, but the STS provides an opportunity to collect data that has never been collected before about plutonium, americium and other materials and how they move from soil and water into crops and animals. Researchers from the IRSE collaborate with international partners and take part in joint training programmes, frequently through the IAEA.
One of the biggest problems at the STS is the contamination of water sources, like the Chagan river, that flow from the test site to other sources. The Chagan is a tributary of the Irtysh river, which flows northwest and feeds the Ob river. Tritium, a type of radioactive hydrogen, has been found in the Irtysh river in amounts that exceed some definitions of safe levels. “We think it necessary to investigate character and mechanisms of the radioactive contamination of the Chagan river and develop corresponding measures to limit radionuclides’ entry into the water basin of Irtysh river,” said Lukashenko.
Another project Lukashenko hopes to start is a gamma survey of the entire test site area. Some areas of the former STS are still profoundly contaminated; the gamma survey would allow them to be identified and perhaps have the entire ground of those areas moved to somewhere safer.
Test site land is already being reclaimed, Lukashenko said. “It is not a secret that even at the test site, business activities are being performed, like exploration and mining, and in some parts, cattle pasturing and hay-making for the winter. Production activities on this territory do not pose a radiological hazard for producers or consumers.” Clearing more land in the roughly 18,500 square kilometre test area will be an economic boon to Eastern Kazakhstan and the country as a whole, said the scientist.