Nuclear waste a disaster for German town


OBERROTHENBACH, Germany -- The tiny town and the area surrounding it in the far eastern part of what used to be East Germany are home to the deadliest legacy of the Cold War.

Until last month, Oberrothenbach was part of a top-secret Soviet uranium project. Now it is the center of Europe's largest environmental disaster area, and the cleanup will take 10 to 15 years and cost at least $10 billion.

With at least 5,000 deaths directly attributable to the project, many experts already consider it the largest peacetime radioactive catastrophe next to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986.

That is not news to Dr. Karl Braun, the village's 52-year-old family doctor.

"I've got it. Every other family has got it," he says. "It's just called 'the sickness.' We don't bother saying cancer anymore."

Cancer may be largely unspoken, but it is the word that inevitably comes up as people try to explain what it is like living in the middle of one of the world's largest radioactive uranium waste dumps.

"People always got it, but we could, from 1Anever talk about it. Everyone knew," Dr. Braun said.

When the weather is dry, the wind deposits a cover of thick dust on Oberrothenbach.

"We were always told that the dust was harmless," Town Councilor Ingo Peters said. "What we didn't know is that it is radioactive. We ate the vegetables that were covered in the dust. The animals ate the grass."

The dust has blown through the area for more than 40 years from an artificial lake that engineers of the Soviet-East German uranium corporation Wismut built to accommodate mountains of uranium slag from a uranium-processing plant.

The plant, built in neighboring Crossen after World War II during the Soviet rush to nuclear capability, processed uranium "yellow cake" until last year. Pipes carried the waste slag through Oberrothenbach and into the man-made lake.

In the 1950s, engineers decided to pump the muddy slag into the valley here, but they built a 150-foot-high earthen dam to prevent the slag from running into the town.

The lake, which now holds 50 million tons of uranium slag, lies above the village behind the dam. In hot weather, it shrinks, the shore turns dusty, and the dust blows into the town.

"You can't escape the dam. It is there all the time. The waste just sits there above our heads," said Gerd Meyer, Oberrothenbach's environmental commissioner.

In addition to the dust, several million tons of mud and more than 20,000 tons of arsenic -- a byproduct of the discarded ore -- have seeped into the earth and poisoned the ground water.

Water is piped in, but officials worry that the water contamination is spreading.

Strangely, the area looks anything but disastrous. Most of the mud has settled to the bottom, and the lake looks almost pristine. The dam has sprouted grass and trees, and it looks like a forest that gently slopes up from Oberrothenbach.

"We have a hard time convincing strangers that it's radioactive. But the radium in the mud won't decay for 1,620 years," Mr. Meyer said.

Residents have been worried since 1961, when the dam burst. Within minutes, the entire town was covered in mud. The next day was one to remember in gray East Germany: Authorities sent trucks into town to dole out bananas, a sure sign that the government was worried about something.

"We knew something wasn't right. After that, all the wells were closed," Mr. Peters said.

Since united Germany took control of the plant and waste site on May 16, more detailed information has been released about the effects of the mud and dust.

According to a study completed by the Office for Energy and Environment in Munich, Oberrothenbach and Crossen have 750 locations with abnormally high radiation. The office reported readings of up to 7,000 becquerels of radiation per cubic meter. The normal reading in Munich is 19.

In addition, the office estimated that one-fifth of the ground in both villages -- including the sites of the sports center, the soccer field and the children's sandbox -- has been contaminated by the dust and careless handling of the uranium.

To make matters worse, there is another uranium processing plant 50 miles away in Seelingstaedt. And buildings throughout the region are contaminated because East Germany used the radioactive waste as construction material.

In all, more than 500 million tons of radioactive mud and slag are lying open at the two main processing sites and at 3,600 other small sites throughout the densely populated eastern regions of Saxony and Thuringia, officials have estimated.

It is estimated that about 1 million tons has been used in construction, primarily in southern Saxony.

Martin Joensson, the former director of the Worker's Hygiene Department at Wismut, says that safety never was a high priority.

In the mines, for example, newly released files show that 5,237 miners, many of them German prisoners of war forced to work by Soviet officers, died of radiation poisoning. An additional 15,000 regular workers died from dust inhalation in the mines, where wooden clogs, cotton clothes and a pickax were all the equipment carried underground until the late 1950s.

"I feel it was a kind of reparation for World War II. German workers paid a heavy price for the Soviet A-bomb," Mr. Joensson said.

Next to the United States and Canada, East Germany was the world's largest uranium producer. Between Wismut's founding in and the closing of its last mine in 1990, more than 200,000 tons of uranium was sent to the Soviet Union.

As a key strategic industry, Wismut's forced laborers were replaced by well-paid miners. At the same time, however, Wismut developed into an ultra-secret state within a state with its own Communist Party structure and secret police.

Nearby residents received none of the benefits and were forbidden to talk about the project. Dr. Braun, for example, recalls a dentist who in 1976 reported to the health authorities that an unusual number of her patients had gum cancer. The secret police called on her the next day, and a year later she was expelled to West Germany, Dr. Braun said.

As a result of the secrecy, the actual cancer rate remains difficult to determine. More than 15 health studies, including one financed by the United Nations, are under way.

Ingo Stiegert, a researcher with the federal Health Ministry in Berlin, said the cancer rate in the mining areas is more than 10 times the East German average and reflects Wismut's sloppy health standards.

Dr. Braun, who is the family doctor for Oberrothenbach, Crossen and other neighboring villages, said every family has had at least one case of cancer over the past 20 years.

In most cases, such as Dr. Braun's, the patients come down with intestinal or stomach cancer. Dr. Braun said that he has no records, however, because cancer victims were taken away by Wismut, which also did the autopsies.

By his own reckoning, dozens of his patients from Oberrothenbach died, and the population has dropped from 700 after World War II to 370 today.

"The one thing that is clear is that the 45 years of Wismut was the greatest radioactive catastrophe since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only Chernobyl probably has more victims," Mr. Joensson said.

Although the scale of the problem is becoming clear, there is no agreement on how to clean up. Residents think they have been cut out of the planning and point out that the Wismut officials who created the mess are being given the money to carry on as environmentalists.

"They may have the expertise, but we should be able to hire a lawyer or expert to check up on them. Where's their credibility?" Oberrothenbach Mayor Carsten Schick said.

Yet none of the affected villages has enough money to hire experts. The Office for Energy and Environment in Munich, which conducted the most recent study on Oberrothenbach and Crossen, has been donating its time and expertise. In the future, however, the villages will have to find the money.

Immediate plans call for the exposed mud to be covered with clay and earth to prevent it from blowing into town. The pumping system and processing factory in Crossen are being disassembled.

But long-term proposals floated by Wismut, such as covering the lake with earth and building a golf course on top, have convinced some in Oberrothenbach that the cleanup will be as inept as the operation that led to the contamination.

Some officials have suggested that the residents should move. But few want to do that.

Mr. Peters said, "even if I want to move, where would I move to? Who would buy my house? Where would I get the money? We'll never be able to leave here. We're stuck. We have to learn to live with this mess."

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