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Radioactive hell on earth
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At first glance, the black and white photographs are deceptively charming. There are fat-faced farmers standing in their fields, children playing happily in a kindergarten classroom, generations of family members gathering together to have a portrait taken.

But stand quietly and study the photographs for a while and a darker truth emerges. One of the farmers is standing on crutches to support his twisted frame, while the children’s eyes are frighteningly vacant. The shadows of decades of grief and horror are etched on the faces of the family members.

Then the pictures get worse. There is a teenager who is shrunken and disabled, despite his youth. And, perhaps most horrifying of all, jars containing grotesquely deformed stillborn babies.

These images are from Mayak, a Russian nuclear site that is considered the most polluted place on earth. The region is the subject of a photographic exhibit, Half Life: Living with the effects of nuclear waste, by Dutch photographer Robert Knoth.

The exhibit, which takes its name from the fact that plutonium has a half-life of 250,000 years, is sponsored by Greenpeace International and will be displayed June 4-15 at the Starland Center of Contemporary Art. A slide lecture and educational forum are timed to coincide with the exhibit, which is in turn timed to coincide with the G8 Summit.

The opening for the exhibit will take place June 5 from 6-10 p.m. at 2428 Bull St. during First Friday. A lecture about the exhibit will be presented at 7 p.m.

On June 8 at 7 p.m., an educational forum will be presented during No Nukes Night at The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave. Cold War-era movies will be shown during the event.

Sara Barczak, Safe Energy Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Savannah, has seen the legacy of Mayak first-hand during an October 2002 trip to Chelyabinsk, a small city in the Mayak region.

“It was my first trip to Russia, my only trip.” Barczak says. “It’s a very industrial location. They made tanks and had a nuclear weapons facility. It was a secret city, so a lot of people did not know what went on there.”

There is a comparable facility located in the United States, and it is just upriver from Savannah. Like Mayak, the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site had five plutonium production reactors with an enormous amount of radioactive waste produced.

The difference between the two sites is that the waste plutonium was contained in steel tanks at the SRS. In Russia, it was dumped into a lake that was used by locals for drinking water, irrigation and recreation.

Tom Clements, senior advisor to the nuclear component of Greenpeace International, says the Savannah River Site has more radioactive materials than any other site in the U.S. “The Savannah River Site made about 40 tons of plutonium for the weapons program,” he says. “It is highly radioactive.”

But Mayak’s level of contamination is the worst in the world. “They can detect radiation all the way down the river into the Arctic Ocean,” Clements says.

Ever since the dumping of the radioactive material, the women of Mayak have been required to give birth in a state-run health center. If a baby is stillborn, it is carried away and the mother never sees it.

Every child in one kindergarten center has severe physical and neurological problems that can be attributed to radiation exposure, including one girl who was born with five major heart defects. People who were required to clean-up around the dump site have developed a disease that has twisted and gnarled their bones, and there are very high numbers of cancers and other severe health problems that can be attributed to radiation.

Under the Soviets, a vast bank of health records was compiled, suggesting the government knew exactly what was happening as a result of the plutonium dumping. “I think it was a combination of things,” Clements says. “The military industrial complex thought they could get away with it.

“And they didn’t care,” he says. “It was the expedient thing to do. There is a belief among the people around the area, who are mostly peasants, that they were subjected to a nuclear experiment to see what the effects of radiation would be downstream on the environment and the people.”

Barczak says the difference in the U.S. and Russian economies also may have been a factor. Russia simply didn’t have the money to store the plutonium, or chose to spend it elsewhere, and dumped the material in the lake.

Even today, the region is desperately poor. “When I was there, they had had no running water for six months,” Barczak says.

“The living conditions were awful. There were roaches, and some type of worm that came out of the tap. The streets were all torn up because of plumbing needs.”

Russian public officials, even high-level ones, are willing to discuss the issue, Barczak says. “People were much more aware of the importance of this,” she says. “They asked us for any help we could provide.”

The doctors at Mayak began collecting deformed organs and fetuses to document what was happening. That collection can be seen in a museum, but Barczak could not bring herself to go.

However, the full horror was brought home to her when she saw photos of the exhibits taken by others in her group. “These doctors knew these health problems were related to radiation,” she says.

Although the SRS has experienced none of the horror seen at Mayak, there are many parallels between the two sites. Today, both sites have been selected for plutonium fuel factories.

At these factories, weapons-grade plutonium would be converted into fuel for commercial nuclear plants. This would be done by mixing plutonium oxide with uranium oxide to create mixed oxide fuel, or MOX.

Both the U.S. and Russia agreed to convert their plutonium stockpiles in a 2000 agreement. Fear that terrorists could steal the plutonium to create dirty bombs is a key concern.

Congress has appropriated money to fund the SRS MOX facility. However, Russia does not have the money to construct a MOX plant and is hoping the G8 nations will help with the cost, so the issue is on the agenda of the upcoming G8 Summit.

The photo exhibit is not just for local residents. Clements is hoping it will catch the attention of the nearly 3,000 international journalists who will visit Savannah during the G8 Summit.

“We are looking at creative ways of getting our message out,” he says. “We are trying to tell the journalists who are coming to town that there is a nuclear site right up the river.”

Mayak is not Russia’s only problem area. “There are a couple more plutonium sites in Russia,” Clements says. “They injected a high level of waste into the ground and are now having problems with groundwater.

“At the Savannah River Site, they dug some deep wells to explore the possibility of injecting the waste, but the wells were capped off,” he says. “They did not, as far as we know, deep-inject any waste there.”

Clements is a native of Savannah who obtained a master’s degree in forestry resources at the University of Georgia. “I was always interested in the environment,” he says.

“I realized nobody ever talked about the Savannah River Site,” Clements says. “There were five nuclear reactors there that were not very well-designed and there was a huge volume of nuclear waste. It was a revelation to me.”

Savannah activist Cheryl Jay is organizing the photo exhibit and events. “The G8 is supposed to be working on the issue of proliferation and plutonium disposal,” she says. “Both the U.S. and Russia have way more plutonium than they will ever use.

“The U.S. government was following the policy of immobilization,” she says. “They were taking plutonium and turning it into waste that could be used and stored. Once the plutonium industry got involved in it, they have talked the U.S. government into taking the plutonium and turning it into commercial reactor fuel. That makes it something that still could be available to terrorists and it’s a huge rip-off to the taxpayers.”

MOX will cause more problems than it will resolve, Jay says. “It is a dirty and dangerous process,” she says. “The taxpayers have to pay to clean up the waste produced by it.”

The MOX fuel will be used to fuel a Duke Energy nuclear power plant in North Carolina. “The DOE will give it to Duke to sell back to rate to their rate payers,” Jay says.

“Right now, the U.S. government is trucking in plutonium for processing,” she says. “This will create even more waste. We are the people who are living down river of this weapons production plant and reprocessing center,” Jay says. “This photo exhibit shows what might happen if there is an accident or spill.”

Half Life: Living with the Effects of Nuclear Waste will be displayed June 4-15 at the Starland Center of Contemporary Art. The opening for the exhibit will take place June 5 from 6-10 p.m. at 2428 Bull St.