Glowing Greens

Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? Scientists in Kazakhstan may be close to an answer.


SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakhstan — By most accounts, the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk is unfit for life. Across roughly 7,000 square miles of barren Kazakhstan steppe, there are hardly any people. Even animals and birds, it seems, intuitively know they should stay away. Decades-old craters pockmark the earth, remnants of the more than 450 nuclear explosions that took place here between 1949 and 1989. Broken vodka bottles scattered in the grass near "Ground Zero," the site of the area’s first nuclear test, hint at the dread associated with Semipalatinsk: Vodka, some nearby residents believe, can guard against the effects of radiation exposure. Visitors are warned to cover their shoes with protective plastic before stepping onto the soil, and to shield their faces with masks.

But in this poisoned place, on a small patch of land near a few downtrodden trailers, there’s an unexpected hint of vitality: bright yellow sunflowers, clustered together near rows of corn, and a barn full of plump sheep. Here, scientists from Kazakhstan’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a governmental organization that studies the medical and biological interaction between radioactivity and the environment, have developed an experimental farm. Their goal is to measure the transference of radioactivity from contaminated soil into edible crops, and from those crops into the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat them.

The farm is an attempt to answer a question with far-reaching implications: Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the question provokes both scientific interest and deep public anxiety. The researchers at Semipalatinsk, which is only slightly smaller than the state of Israel and has some of the world’s worst nuclear contamination, want to quiet fears with data and inspire new agriculture, while also providing evidence that could jumpstart farming in other places exposed to radiation. "This territory is very huge, and we think most of it is clean," said Zhanat Baigazinov, the head of the project’s Farm Animal Radioecology Group. "But before we give it to farmers, we have to prove that it is safe."

Seminpalatinsk’s nuclear legacy began in 1947, when Lavrenti Beria, the political director of the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project, chose it as a site to experiment with nuclear weapons. Beria claimed the region was "uninhabited," but he was wrong: Roughly 700,000 people lived in nearby villages, cities, and nomadic communities. Over the next four decades, hundreds of above- and below-ground nuclear tests contaminated the soil and poisoned residents, causing birth defects and increased rates of cancer that plague the area to this day. (Precise statistics about population change in Semipalatinsk during the nuclear-testing period are impossible to determine, in no small part because the test site officially did not exist. But it’s safe to assume that most residents of nearby villages did not have the option to move far away.) After President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet leader, closed Semipalatinsk in 1991, the government outlawed farming in the area.

But scientists at the experimental farm find the prohibition excessive and based on assumption rather than fact. The farm launched four years ago, after several local residents petitioned authorities to investigate the safety of the area. Ten people now live semi-permanently on the site, gathering data about the radioactive qualities of crops they grow and animals they raise at a cost of about $500,000 per year. Experiments have been conducted both at the farm and in different areas of the former test site under a wide variety of circumstances. According to Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, preliminary research results indicate that at least 80 percent of the land (roughly 5,800 square miles) at Semipalatinsk could be used to grow food for human consumption. They anticipate that, within the next few years, they will have collected enough data to try and persuade the government to end the ban on agriculture. The scientists are so confident in their findings thus far that they have eaten vegetables and meat from the farm.

Generally speaking, radioecological agriculture is a hotly contested topic. Some experts, for instance, have argued that agricultural production around Chernobyl should be completely banned for at least 200 years. What makes the Semipalatinsk project all the more intriguing — and controversial — are the uniquely highly levels of plutonium and other transuranium elements in the soil. Most radioactive isotopes found in contaminated areas around the world, such as cesium and strontium, have relatively short half-lives: Both cesium-137 and strontium-90, for example, have half-lifes of roughly 30 years, which means that half the radioactive isotopes will have naturally decayed and stabilized by the end of that period. But the soil at Semipalatinsk is contaminated with plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. "The plutonium will stay in this soil forever, basically," Lukashenko said.

"In scientific literature, there is no exact data about the transference of radioactive isotopes, especially transuranium elements, from soil to plants," he added. Lukashenko emphasized that because people are already exposed to small amounts of radiation every day through aspects of modern life, such as flying in airplanes, the farm hopes to determine what amount of radiation humans who live and work in Semipalatinsk, or eat food grown there, can safely tolerate.

According to Lukashenko, roughly 5,000 semi-nomadic people (who aren’t necessarily aware of Semipalatinsk’s radioactivity or exact borders) already illegally farm on or near the test site or allow their animals to graze there. A 2008 report from the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation confirmed that there has been "limited resettlement in the area, mostly by semi-nomadic farmers and herders," and that "there is some evidence they have grazed animals" in the region, including the most "heavily contaminated" areas. If the experimental farm can convince the government to reopen the entire area, or even a large part of it, Lukashenko estimates that the number of Semipalatinsk farmers could skyrocket to more than 20,000. (It is too early to speculate whether food grown in the area might be sent to other areas of Kazakhstan or exported.)

The farm’s results could also influence or reinforce similar projects in other parts of the world. In Japan, for example, researchers have recently focused on radioactive cesium-137, the isotope that primarily contaminated the area around Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake. In a study published earlier this year, scientists measured the transference of radioactivity from soil near Fukushima into potatoes, cabbage, and other root vegetables. They found only "extremely small" to undetectable amounts of radioactive cesium in the food samples. Based on those results, some researchers have called for a "revival of agriculture in Fukushima." Similar results in Kazakhstan could give a boost to this proposal and comparable ones around the world.

However, Tomoko Nakanishi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who studies radiation’s effects on plant physiology, was careful to note in an interview that the different isotopes, agricultural methods, and crops associated with various areas of radioactive contamination make it hard for researchers to generalize. Neil Hyatt, a professor of nuclear materials chemistry at the University of Sheffield and an expert on radiation damage, echoed this view. "[Semipalatinsk has] some parallels with Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the nature and extent of the contamination is different and so will require different intervention strategies," he said. However, Hyatt noted that studies in places such as Semipalatinsk and Fukushima can still have a global impact: They "will be helpful in developing national emergency plans to respond to a radiological or nuclear incident," largely by providing data that could be useful for determining how to safely rebuild agricultural economies.

For now, as the researchers at the farm in Semipalatinsk conduct their work, they are balancing hopes for the influence of their study with more immediate concerns — most notably, skeptics and public opponents of the project. "Opening the land for grazing and other land use will be an unforgiveable mistake," said Leonid Rikhvanov, a professor at Russia’s Tomsk Polytechnic University, in a 2010 interview with the Telegraph. "If the plutonium gets into the biological chain it could cause a cytogenetic catastrophe that will backfire on the health of our children and grandchildren." Many people living near Semipalatinsk feel similarly. "Fear of radiation is a very deeply ingrained idea, both in people and in the government," Lukashenko said.

Indeed, as the researchers at Semipalatinsk look toward the future, they must contend with a devastating history, the evidence of which is all around. It is in the silence hanging over Semipalatinsk, in the yellow painted signs with red radioactive hazard symbols planted on the grounds of the farm, and in the hollow skeletons of bombed-out Soviet test buildings that stand nearby. This history could be the farm’s downfall — but it may also be its greatest asset. "For people working in this field, Kazakhstan is the best country because we have everything … that can be dangerous from a radioactive point of view," Lukashenko said. "Why would I live anywhere else?"

Jillian Keenan is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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