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Michael Beleites | In the Traces of Uranium Mining


Radioactively Contaminated Landscapes, a Contaminated Atmosphere Since the end of World War II until the last years of the GDR, the state-owned mining company Wismut under great secrecy devastated and contaminated entire stretches of countryside to provide 231,000 tons of uranium for the Soviet atomic project. In Saxony and Thuringia, 500 million tons of radioactive waste were left behind at 3,000 dumps and 20 sludge deposits. From the dried edges of the sludge deposits, radioactive sandstorms regularly blew across the countryside. Thousands of miners became ill and died from bronchial carcinomas caused by radioactivity, 10,000 suffered from silicosis. Wismut employed 300,000 to 400,000 people, and nonetheless the issue was taboo.

The word uranium was strictly avoided—not just to hide the connection to the production of atomic weapons, but also to conceal the dangers to health and environment linked to the radioactivity of the mined material; the mined material was always euphemistically referred to as "ore" or "metal." In the third largest uranium mining area in the world, uranium itself was never mentioned. For those of us in the church-affiliated peace movement, ethical questions initially stood at the foreground. When it came to the issue of peace, we were moved by the danger of an atomic war in Europe, which the younger generation in particular saw as an existential threat. We knew the pictures of the charred victims of Hiroshima. We feared the death of city residents in a nuclear inferno. At the same time, we participated in the debates about Nazi crimes and the questions that raised: didn't everybody know? Why did so many participate? Weren't they aware of their own responsibility?

And then we heard about the 1983 Vancouver declaration of the World Council of Churches. The statement read, "The production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity." In our situation, this had to be translated to the question of whether participating in uranium mining was to be considered collaboration in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons: whether working at Wismut meant taking part in a "crime against humanity". The issue of the radioactive dangers for the environment first came to the foreground when Chernobyl's reactor exploded in April 1986. In the West, the public response to my underground text Pechblech [Pitchblende] from 1988 was enormous. Beginning in 1990, even Western journalists could travel to the site and report about it. Until 1991, a quick series of reports appeared about Wismut, which enjoyed a wide distribution. Beside considerable and excellently researched contributions, many of the articles published were also exaggerations. After that, the public interest in Wismut and its consequences ebbed.

There is today no public debate about how to approach the Wismut legacy. Not even death due to radioactivity, to which around 300 Wismut miners have succumbed each year since 1990, is given any public attention, nor has the fact that research on uranium's health risks and the recognition of job-related illnesses has changed little since the end of the GDR. All that has been studied until now has been the frequency of bronchial carcinomas among uranium miners. Studies about the frequency of other forms of cancer among the miners or the health conditions of the surrounding population near the uranium refineries und sludge deposits still wait to be done. Do we need a visible memorial to Wismut, which so marked this region for decades? Is the content for such a monument to be found from the perspective of the affected region itself, where almost everyone was in some kind of way a beneficiary or a victim of Wismut? There are various perspectives on the Wismut story: those who seek to honor the tradition of Wismut want a monument to the achievements of the miners and the company.

The company Wismut would like to focus attention on the engineering achievement of the clean up after 1989. And Ronnenburg's Kirchliche Umweltkreis would like to erect a memorial commemorating the harmful results of uranium mining with a chapel and a bell tower, a memorial to commemorate not only the destroyed landscape, but also the dead miners and the suffering of their families. In 1992 I suggested that in considering how to memorialize Wismut history the places where radioactivity from Wismut uranium destroyed distant lands and people—Kischtym, Nowaja Semlja, Semipalatinsk, and Tschernobyl—should also be kept in mind. But as long as indoctrination from the past and a resistance to ethical questions still mark the climate, this will remain difficult. This makes the necessity for artistic engagement with the Wismut question more urgent than ever.

(Michael Beleites  |  In the Tarces of Uranium Mining)

// Octocer 2006
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