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Soviets Leave Germans a Radiation Disaster

Massive slag heaps contaminate the southeast region after 40 years of uranium mining

By Girard C. SteichenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 1991


WHEN the wind blows hard from the west, a swirling ocherous cloud descends on Oberrothenbach. Within minutes, a layer of fine-grained sand covers the hamlet's roofs, courtyards, roads, and cabbage fields, sifting through window sills, doors, and ceiling boards.

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"It gets into everything," says Charlotte M138>nnel, pointing to dust trails gusting off the slope of a vast slag heap and sludge pond 300 yards behind her home.

"You can feel it grit between your teeth when you eat. When it rains, the rainwater runs milky around the house," she says.

The ubiquitous dust is contaminated with Radium 226 and toxic chemical wastes.

For more than 40 years, Oberrothenbach, a cluster of houses just north of the industrial city of Zwickau, was a dumping ground for radioactive wastes produced by Wismut, a now-defunct Soviet-East German mining conglomerate.

Wismut's mining operations spanned dozens of other villages across a sprawling area in the south of eastern Germany, stretching 70 miles from just outside Gera to the Czechoslovak border to the southeast.

The extent of the environmental damage caused by Wismut has stunned officials in Bonn, who have just finished a preliminary review of conditions in the region. The area will be the biggest single cleanup job in all of eastern Germany, they say. The effort will take decades, they add, and require the decontamination of scores of buildings and thousands of acres of soil and lakes laced with uranium wastes, heavy metals, arsenic, and other toxic compounds.

Moscow signed over its share of Wismut to the German government in May, ridding itself of any ecological liability. Officials say cleanup could cost more than 15 billion marks ($9 billion).

"There was really no hope of ever getting the Soviets to help share the costs of the cleanup," said a high-ranking Economics Ministry official, after the German government agreed to shoulder all costs for the shutdown and conversion of the mines.

The Soviet Union began a crash program to match the United States nuclear capability after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It ordered a massive effort to dig uranium out of rich lodes in occupied East Germany.

Between 1945 and last January, East German workers mined uranium for Moscow. At Wismut's giant mines, some with shafts up to 5,900 feet deep, the laborers extracted 220,000 tons of uranium ore for Soviet nuclear production. The ore was processed and train loads of the resulting "yellow cake" were regularly shipped to the Soviet Union.

Only mines in Canada and the United States have produced more uranium ore.

About 300,000 Germans, many of them forced laborers (refugees from the eastern territories, prisoners of war, and Nazi officials), worked at Wismut's mines in the first years after the war. The mines were run directly by the Soviet Defense Ministry until Communist East Germany was given a 50 percent share of Wismut in 1954.

Entire villages fell victim to widespread strip-mining operations. People in many of the towns that survived intact have since learned that tons of soil from the slag heaps frequently used in village construction and grading projects are contaminated with radium. Ground water supplies in many areas have also been polluted.