Interview with Professor Masaharu Hoshi: 60 years since the first nuclear test in former Semipalatinsk

by Junichiro Hayashi, Staff Writer

August 29 of this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the first nuclear test in the city of Semey, formerly Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan, by the former Soviet Union. By 1989, the Soviet Union held more than 450 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and underground and it is believed these nuclear tests exposed over 1 million people to radiation. The Chugoku Shimbun spoke with Masaharu Hoshi, 61, radiation biophysics professor at Hiroshima University Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine in Minami Ward, Hiroshima, who has investigated the damage caused by the radiation in Semey for nearly 15 years. Professor Hoshi, who left for Semey on August 25, explained the current state of the “affected areas” that were a consequence of the Cold War between East and West.

Are the nuclear tests still responsible for serious effects in these areas?
Now that 20 years have passed since the last nuclear test, there is little immediate harm due to the radiation they released. However, in the case of one nuclear test, a village located 100 kilometers east of the test site was bathed in radiation that was more than 100 times the annual dose people are exposed to from the natural environment. This is because radioactive materials raised up in the air were carried by the wind and assailed the surrounding villages. As the direction of the wind varied each time a nuclear test was conducted, the affected areas expanded accordingly.

Since 1995 I’ve been working with research institutes and other entities in Semey to shed light on the dangers of radiation to the human body by measuring the radiation levels of the earth and of buildings and making inferences about the areas that were exposed to radiation. The residents of the former Semipalatinsk still feel insecure about the damage that has been done to their health through successive generations, just as people in Hiroshima do 64 years after the atomic bombing.

What is the reality of this damage to their health?
According to local doctors, there is a high incidence of cancer and leukemia. However, the correlation between these diseases and the nuclear tests cannot be clearly drawn. Many residents complain of a sense of fatigue, a symptom observed in atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, too.

In terms of the damage, just the tip of the iceberg has begun to be revealed through this research. The radioactive materials that fell over a number of areas have contaminated the soil and water of these sites. How much have these radioactive materials affected the health of the people who took these materials into their bodies? To answer this question, we need to conduct research on their internal exposure to radiation.

Is progress being made in Semey in terms of the care for the victims of the nuclear tests?
As far as I know, the care is still lacking. Although medical equipment for health checkups was delivered from Hiroshima, the local people seem unable to use the equipment effectively unless a doctor from Hiroshima is helping them. Improving the technical capability of local doctors as well as training researchers who can illuminate the reality of the radiation exposure is an important issue.

What sort of role can the A-bombed city of Hiroshima play?
First and foremost, Hiroshima should promote the exchange of experts. As Kazakhstan has many uranium mines, more people are possibly being exposed to radiation. It’s vital to enhance radiation protection measures while making the best use of the know-how on medical care developed for the A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima.

In July of this year, we established the Hiroshima-Kazakhstan Friendship Association, its tentative name. I would like to fulfill my responsibility as a representative of this group so that experts from Japan and Kazakhstan can join hands and make good use of the results of the research in order to support the affected areas. This support can hopefully be increased, too, by working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Hiroshima International Council for Health Care of the Radiation-exposed (HICARE), a body formed by Hiroshima University, Hiroshima Prefecture, the City of Hiroshima, and other entities.


Semipalatinsk nuclear test site
The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was the largest nuclear test site of the former Soviet Union. The site had an area of roughly 18,500 square kilometers, about the same size as the island of Shikoku. The Soviet Union held its first nuclear test with a plutonium bomb on August 29, 1949. The nation, until October 1989, repeatedly conducted nuclear tests in the atmosphere and underground. In March of this year, the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty for five Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, went into force. The treaty prohibits these nations from developing, producing and possessing nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on August 26, 2009)