REPORTER: KIM TRAILL

Gosman Kabirov has lived his life in the midst of a deadly secret.

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40km up-river from his village is the Mayak chemical combine – the main production facility for weapons-grade plutonium in the Soviet Union.

GOSMAN KABIROV: See those three matchsticks over there on the horizon? That`s the Mayak complex. It`s the most secret installation here in the Chelyabinsk region, maybe even in all of Russia. Now it`s the most contaminated place on the whole planet. There are 2.4 billion curies there. Buy comparison, at Chernobyl there were 50 million curies. That`s a difference of more than 200 times the concentration of radioactivity.

In 1957, just six months before he was born, a storage tank for highly radioactive waste exploded at Mayak. It ended up in this river, already heavily contaminated with radioactive discharge from the plant in the early `50s.

GOSMAN KABIROV: The radioactive waste was poured into this river, so we drank radioactive water. That sign there is a warning that this is a radioactive zone, but when we were kids we used to play down here and go swimming. All the people who lived and worked down here are already all dead.

REPORTER: Didn`t anyone warn you?

GOSMAN KABIROV: Well, they said we shouldn`t come here, but they didn`t tell us anything about radiation until 1991. Police stood guard over there and shouted “Go home”, but we didn`t know any more than that.

The secrecy has only caused harm. They haven`t killed a single enemy with their atomic bomb, but of our local population here in Muslyumova, a huge number have died, and are continuing to die.

42 years later, Mayak is still in operation – Russia`s sole reprocessing plant for nuclear waste. And Gosman`s village, Muslyumova, is now acknowledged to be the most radioactively contaminated village on earth.

Gosman has been testing radiation levels in the area for the past 10 years. He`s trying to prove that there is a link between the accident at Mayak and the deaths and diseases which followed.

GOSMAN KABIROV: You can see that the animals have been here and have been eating this grass. I want to show you how many microroentgens there are here. So the kids drink milk from the cows, and instead of getting calcium into their developing bodies, they get strontium and caesium into their muscles. And lots of plutonium ends up in their blood. It`s dangerous to even be in this place, let alone live here.

REPORTER: What should the reading be?

GOSMAN KABIROV: For a professional who works with radioactivity, 0.17; for a normal situation, 0.14 or 0.15. So you can see what kind of doses the local population here is receiving every day.

This measurement is over 80 times what is regarded as a safe level of radioactivity.

REPORTER: Are people afraid?

GOSMAN KABIROV: They`re afraid, but what can they do? No-one has any money, the collective farms are gone, the pensions are tiny. And people here receive `ecology` money – compensation for living in an irradiated zone. If they leave, they lose this compensation and don`t get anything at all. They live here voluntarily, but they are economically bound to stay here. They can`t leave. If they leave, they have to build a new house, and if they leave, they won`t receive free medicine or money. Our laws are so ridiculous that people are forced through economics to live in an environmentally polluted area.

And the compensation the villagers receive for living in Muslyumova is a mere 33 roubles a month – a little over $2. 43-year-old Rafid Magludtovich was Gosman`s classmate at school. He has already undergone four operations – three on his stomach, one on his spine. But he`s lucky to be alive. Many of their other classmates are already dead.

RAFID MAGLUDTOVICH: Edic definitely died from radiation – he had stomach cancer. Our neighbour Galya, she has stomach cancer. She is young – born in 1955.

GOSMAN KABIROV: Marat – he had skin cancer. It was a most terrible way to die.

RAFID MAGLUDTOVICH: We all grew up together. His mother died of cancer, his father too. They all did. And we just have a little time left, to wait until it`s our turn to die. Today, tomorrow. But we don`t want to. Of course we don`t want to.

Rafid`s wife Gulfira is 44. Last year, she buried seven close relatives.

GULFIRA MAGLUDTOVICH: This is my brother who died. His three daughters are left. He was 34 years old. His heart exploded. It became very swollen – it was enormous, 1.2kg.

This is four times the size of a normal human heart.

GULFIRA MAGLUDTOVICH: The doctor said it was from radiation. Radiation makes everything grow – that`s how it got so big.

By the time she reached the age of 30, the radiation had caused all Gulfira`s teeth to fall out. She, Rafid and all the villagers in Muslyumova now have false teeth.

GULFIRA MAGLUDTOVICH: The children are all sick. The eldest has problems with his kidneys. Our daughter also has a heart problem and kidney problem. The youngest is always sick. Always.

Both Gulfira`s parents died from cancer, but her grandmother is still alive.

GULFIRA MAGLUDTOVICH: She`s still around, but she`s buried all her children.

RAFID MAGLUDTOVICH: She`s very old now. She can`t even cry anymore.

GULFIRA: At the last funeral, she could only shake, from all these funerals.

Everyone who lived near the river, it`s the same terrible picture. Go to any family near the river and they will repeat my story. Every family – every family.

Over 1 million people in the Chelyabinsk region were exposed to huge amounts of radiation following the Mayak explosion. It took the Russian government 30 years to even admit the accident had happened. But in spite of the mounting evidence that the health of the population has been drastically affected, the government keeps details in strict secrecy.

In 1996, Gosman formed an environmental organisation called Techa, after the river which runs through the town.

GOSMAN KABIROV: I began my organisation out of anger towards Mayak. So many of my friends and relatives have suffered, my own health has suffered. Those people who rant on about the motherland, they are my personal enemies. They say they have saved us from war, from the whole planet.

Techa is trying to make the state accountable to the victims of the Mayak accident. They tried, without success, to sue Mayak for compensation.

GOSMAN KABIROV: When my organisation took Mayak to court, their lawyer said, “Well, what does it matter if two or three people died if we saved the world from war?” But understand those tow or three people, that is me, my family, my aunt, my brother, my mother.

The government has now put Gosman under state surveillance. Every demonstration is videoed by the police.

GOSMAN KABIROV: We had a protest on the River Techa – there were only seven of us, but at least 70 police. I also know for certain that since last November, the secret police have been listening to my phone, and my activities are noted.

They were noted in the West, too. Techa`s work won Gosman an International Soros Foundation Award. For this, the secret police and military accuse him of espionage.

GOSMAN KABIROV: When Shapirov skied to the north pole, he won the same award, but no-one accused him of espionage. But when we are working against the “nuclear mafia”, they accuse us of it, because the secret police, military and the nuclear industry are all in it together.

Gosman`s wife Milya is also involved in his quest for justice for the victims of Mayak. She has been trying to collect data on diseases and birth defects in the area affected by radioactive fallout. Local hospitals have been very reluctant to give out information. But recently she smuggled a dictaphone into the clinic at their home village at Muslyumova and secretly recorded official admissions of the scale of the disaster.

MILYA KABIROV: In the Agayarsk region, diseases of the central nervous system affect 72% of the population, diseases of the digestive system affect 50% and blood diseases affect 38%. Every fifth person is an invalid.

Gennadi Brukhin, the Professor of Embryology at the Chelyabinsk Medical Academy, has also carried out his own unofficial research. Over the past few years, he has collected a large number of aborted and miscarried foetuses from the region.

GENNADI BRUKHIN, PROFESSOR OF EMBRYOLOGY, CHELYABINSK MEDICAL ACADEMY: This is a relatively widespread mutation called an encephaly. They have a head, but no brain – the skull is open. This one is an extremely unusual foetus which we received two years ago. It`s like some kind of monster, literally – that`s its enormous head. The eyes are hidden, there is practically no stomach. We did a post-mortem, and there are very few organs and only one kidney.

No records have ever been kept of the number of deformities in the community. Miscarriages and abortions weren`t registered. Babies with mental and physical disabilities that survived were taken away from their parents to be kept out of sight in horrific state-run orphanages.

GENNADI BRUKHIN: This one they call a `mermaid` – the bottom end is joined up and the head is very large.

MILYA KABIROV: One like this was born in Muslyumova, to a friend of mine. She only just gave birth, and they took it away. It wasn`t that one, was it?

GENNADI BRUKHIN: It`s difficult to say.

Gennadi suspects the deformities are linked to radiation, but without a comprehensive study, he can`t prove it.

GENNADI BRUKHIN: This doesn`t just happen for no reason. Nature compensates for failures in the womb, the womb protects the foetus. But if such mutated children are born, it means there must be some reason for it.

Milya has sent the results of her investigation so far to the Ministry of Health, asking for a study of genetic problems caused by radiation. Years later, she is still waiting for an answer.

Rosa Kazantseva is also still waiting for a response from the state. She was a schoolteacher in Muslyumova for 17 years. In 1994, her young son died in his sleep. Her daughter Ksenya was born with cerebral palsy. After years of examinations, it has at last been officially acknowledged that Ksenya`s condition was caused by Rosa`s prolonged exposure to radiation during her time in Muslyumova.

ROSA KAZANTSEVA: This is the official verdict of the regional experts panel. Here they give the reasons for her condition. She has been diagnosed with “organic failure of the central nervous system, microencephaly, central paralysis syndrome, spastic paralysis leading to a flexion contracture of the hip joint, pyelectasis of both kidneys.” The reasons given were that her mother was exposed to radiation during the time that she lived in the zone polluted with radionuclides as a result of the Mayak accident.

Rosa and Ksenya moved from Muslyumova three years ago to a nearby village. Subsequently, they are now no longer entitled to compensation.

Today, the land around Mayak is still farmed. Here, people grow vegetables and wheat, raise cattle and pick mushrooms and berries in the forest. Most of the population are ethnic Tatars – Muslims with traditionally large families. But many of the generation who have grown up since the explosion are sterile.

Gosman`s own family is typical. His mother had 11 children, and was even honoured for her efforts.

GOSMAN KABIROV: See this – “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Heroine Mother”.

Gosman and Milya, on the other hand, were unable to have children.

GOSMAN KABIROV: You can see the difference. My mother had 11 children. My father was the youngest child in a family of 14 children. Our clan always had lots of children, but now there`s only one or two. Lots of us wanted to have children, but couldn`t.

Even more distressing for Gosman and the villagers is the belief that they have been used as human guinea pigs, forced to live in a radioactive area so scientists could study the effects of radiation on a captive population.

MILYA KABIROV: The accident happened in 1957 and the government already knew in the 1960s that it was dangerous to live there. Now it`s the new millennium, and that village is still in the same place.

GOSMAN KABIROV: Look. Here is Mayak. 40km away is the village of Muslyumova. All the other villages have been resettled. If they were to have resettled Muslyumova, then they would have to look all over Russia for us rabbits. They`d have had to pay a lot to bring us in to investigate us. And here they have a whole village where they can come and take blood and do analyses.

Shortly after the accident, a new research institute was opened in Moscow. Scientists from the Institute of Biophysics would arrive regularly in Muslyumova, taking blood and bone marrow samples from the villagers.

GOSMAN KABIROV: A whole institute works on us. The Institute of Biophysics, now the Ural Institute of Radiation Medicine, worked on humans, dogs, rabbits, sheep, mice and rats. For them, we are rabbits. Of this, I am 100% certain.

2,000km north-west of Mayak, on the Kola Peninsula, is the base of the navy`s northern fleet. But dozens of its nuclear submarines and ships lie scuttled in the icy waters along the coast, their nuclear reactors still on board, in danger of melting down, or leaking. There hasn`t yet been a catastrophe to rival that which occurred at Mayak, but with each passing year, the risk grows greater.

Sergei Fillipov is a Russian activist working for the Norwegian environmental monitoring organisation Bellona.

SERGEI FILLIPOV, ACTIVIST: There are between 150-160 subs with nuclear reactors and they all pose potential threats. Let`s hope to God that nothing happens – that they don`t leak radioactivity. They are still in the water and we can`t get the reactors out of them.

Sergei lives in Murmansk, just a few kilometres away from the northern fleet`s headquarters. This region has the highest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world.

SERGEI FILLIPOV: Today, of course, it`s a threat for all of us who live on the Kola Peninsula. We even joke that if something should happen here, then it won`t be our problem – we`ll simply disappear, and it will be an international problem – all will be affected. So if we have problems, we need to solve them jointly.

In total, 505 vessels carry nuclear weapons or are powered by nuclear reactors. 300 of those are ships, 205 are submarines. It`s the largest nuclear fleet in the world.

The United States is funding the decommissioning of many of Russia`s more modern submarines – those which pose a military threat. But it`s a long and painstaking process, hampered by a deeply secretive military and a corrupt bureaucracy. Out of 88 submarines earmarked for decommissioning, only two have been completely dismantled. And there is so far no offer of financial aid for the decommissioning of the older subs which pose the greater ecological threat.

Initially, many hoped that with the end of communism, the dangers could be overcome. But for the environment, much has stayed the same and a lot has got worse. The problem is that the nuclear industry is still seen as more of a security issue than an environmental danger. So here, too, people who try to expose the dangers aren`t seen as heroes, they`re seen as traitors.

Like Gosman, Sergei`s every move is shadowed by the post-communist successor to the KGB secret police, the Federal Security Bureau. Five years ago, the FSB accused Norwegian-funded Bellona of spying for the West.

SERGEI FILLIPOV: When the Bellona business began, our office was located right next to the FSB – that`s it there, behind those iron gates. They confiscated all our equipment, our computers and took them to that building. Then they took us in for the interrogation.

As Sergei and his colleagues were being questioned in Murmansk, a co-worker in St Petersburg, Alexander Nikitin, was arrested for treason. A former chief engineer on a nuclear submarine, Nikitin spent 10 months in a maximum-security prison without trial. Bellona eventually secured his release, but for the next four years, Nikitin fought a vicious legal battle against the military prosecutors.

His crime was to write a report for Bellona in which he detailed the dire condition of the northern fleet`s nuclear submarines. Not only did Nikitin`s report simply compile information that was already publicly available, a Russian law states that information regarding ecological dangers must be revealed. But the government portrayed him as a traitor to the motherland, a seller of state secrets.

Finally, last September, the FSB was forced to drop all charges. Nikitin is now back at work in Bellona`s St Petersburg office.

ALEXANDER NIKITIN, ACTIVIST: I think that it`s uncomfortable for them to have to deal with non-governmental organisations which work like Bellona and other such groups. And of course it`s uncomfortable for them to have people around who understand the issues, and whose positions don`t coincide with their own. They try to get rid of these people using those methods which they tried to use to get rid of me and other people. They don`t like this, and they openly state this.

Since former KGB spy Vladimir Putin came to power, he has further strengthened the hand of the security services. At the time of Nikitin`s prosecution, Putin was the head of the St Petersburg Federal Security Bureau. In July 1999, he advised his secret police to crack down on international environmental groups. Alexander Nikitin keeps a copy of Putin`s decree on his desk to remind him of how little has changed.

ALEXANDER NIKITIN: He stated “unfortunately, foreign intelligence services, under the guise of diplomatic missions, actively use environmental groups as covers for espionage.”

But the environmentalists are even more concerned about another of Putin`s initiatives. Last May, under the guise of reducing government bureaucracy, Putin abolished the only state environmental watchdog, the Committee on Ecology. This effectively gave complete freedom to the government to exploit the country`s resources. Activists held a mock funeral for what they saw as the death of any state commitment to protect the environment.

ALEXANDER NIKITIN: The government has its own interests which usually don`t coincide with the interests of non-governmental organisations. Our interests are to ensure that before projects are approved, the effects on the health of the people and environment are properly studied. The government has completely different interests. For them, the most important thing is money.

And lots of it. In December, parliament approved a law allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing in Russia. The contracts with several European and Asian countries are worth $39 billion. And the reprocessing plant which will take an estimated 20,000 tonnes of spent fuel over the next 10 years is none other than Mayak.

MILYA KABIROV: They say that we greens are unpatriotic. We are spies working at the command of the West. It`s because we`re an obstacle to them. If foreigners want to pay us to take their waste, they say “It`s additional income – it`s for the benefit of the people.”

In Chelyabinsk, the main city of the South Urals, downwind from Mayak, environmentalists have been alerting residents to the coming dangers. 2.5 million Russians signed a petition calling for a national referendum on the proposed import of nuclear waste. According to the constitution, if over 2 million signatures are collected, a referendum must be held. But the government declared only 1.9 million signatures to be valid.

GOSMAN KABIROV: They say “We`ll bring in waste from other countries, get money, and then we`ll help people.” But we think that first, they should move people from here, help them and then make decisions. First they have to pay off old debts. We don`t believe them, as again they will receive money, again it will disappear into the pockets of the officials, again they will send it to their foreign bank accounts, and again there could be a huge accident and everyone here could die.

And that almost happened just five months ago when an accident in a nearby power station left Mayak without electricity for over 20 minutes.

GOSMAN KABIROV: If the emergency generator hadn`t been turned on, there could have been a global catastrophe. They always said it couldn`t happen, but it happened. All the power systems were blocked and for 22 minutes, Mayak was without electrical energy. Our planet was on the verge of catastrophe.

Investigations found the near-miss to be a result of human error.

Mayak has all but destroyed a community whose ancestors have lived here for centuries. Just outside Muslyumova, the villagers have begun to plant a forest. They want it to be a living and growing memorial to the victims of radiation. But should Mayak become the dumping ground for the world`s nuclear waste, they fear another accident could destroy the people and land forever.

GOSMAN KABIROV: People used to live here, had children, enjoyed life. But now it`s abandoned. It`s sad, very sad. People struggled to build this place. Now they say to us “Let`s bring in more nuclear waste now from all the world!” I would like to say to all those countries who want to send their waste here – do you want thins to be even worse for us, and that we all die? Then send it to us, please. Our officials, our ministers, our President will sell anything for dollars. They`ve already sold us.

JANA WENDT: And Gosman Kabirov has recently learned that he, too, is suffering a life-threatening blood disorder attributed to massive radiation exposure.

Russia’s hidden nuclear catastrophe