There have been many disasters which have had devastating impacts on vulnerable populations, yet most of them have received less international recognition and sympathy than Fukushima. Much of the outrage over Fukushima has implied, unintentionally perhaps, an outrage that it happened to people in an advanced nation, or that it threatens the west coast of North America with what some believe to be an apocalyptic wave of radiation. There has never been this much concern for the fallout that affected the inhabitants of the Bikini Islands, Christmas Island, Fangataufa, Lop Nor, or “The Polygon” in Kazakhstan—some of the sites where the US, the UK, France, China and the USSR tested nuclear weapons. One could add to the list dozens of eco-disaster zones where forgotten people have had to live with the imposed risks of chemical pollution.
Many decry the fact that there hasn’t been a wider forced and well-compensated evacuation of Fukushima, but this would come as no surprise to the inhabitants of the places mentioned above. The Evacuate-Fukushima-Now battle cry hasn’t been thought out too well because it fails to recognize the moral questions that arise when non-victims speak for the victims—thinking that it is their job to rescue people who have decided to stay and haven’t asked for help.
There has been criticism of anti-nuclear groups that says they have abandoned the victims, but at this point, almost four years after the meltdowns, it is hard to imagine what outside groups could do to force the national government to launch a wide-scale evacuation, or offer compensated voluntary evacuation. I can’t fault Japanese anti-nuclear groups for having abandoned this cause and chosen instead to focus on preventing future catastrophes.
In order to put Fukushima in a global and historical context of ecological disasters, the rest of this article will discuss the humanitarian and environmental catastrophes in Kazakhstan and the Southern Urals of Russia. These Central Asian catastrophes have never received the level of attention given to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, even though the environmental, health and social impacts have been far worse.
The region forms a triangle, with a point at the north in Russia’s plutonium factories near the city of Chelyabinsk, a point in the southwest by the Aral Sea, and another in the east by the Soviet nuclear test site at “the polygon,” near the town of Semey. For comparison, one could make a triangle of similar dimensions and proportions in America, with the nuclear sites of Hanford, Washington, Rocky Flats, Colorado and the Nevada Test Site as the points of the triangle. Each side of both triangles would be about 1,000 kilometers (660 miles) long.
Both of these fateful triangles could be described as places afflicted by the same suite of devastating ecological assaults. Both have been dammed (damned), mined, soaked with agrochemicals, and contaminated with nuclear fallout. However, the triangle in Central Asia outdoes its American counterpart by all standards of comparison.
The environmental damage was so much worse in the USSR because of its circumstances at the end of WWII. Millions of people had died in the war, the nation was materially devastated from two decades of Stalinist purges and war, and the thanks it got for holding off the Germans on the eastern front was being dumped as an American ally, losing the aid that had come through the lend-lease program, and feeling threatened with nuclear annihilation. This situation put the Soviets in panic mode as they rushed to rebuild the nation and construct an atomic arsenal that would deter their former ally. The Americans also scrimped on safety as they built their first bombs, but the Soviets took recklessness to new levels. They rushed to build a plutonium factory in a remote region of the Southern Urals near the city of Chelyabinsk, using soldiers and prisoners for the first few years before they could build a proper atomic city housing an elite corps of privileged scientists and engineers.
An explosion at the Maiak factory in 1957 released 2 million curies over an area that was 6 by 48 kilometers in area. By this time, the routine operations of the plant had also dumped 3.2 million curies in the Techa River before authorities took action. Massive evacuation programs were carried out, but not before damage had been done to the agricultural communities downwind and along the Techa. Victims are still fighting for recognition of the link between radiation and their illnesses, stillbirths, birth defects, and trans-generational genetic damage. The environmental devastation remained secret to wider Soviet society until the late 1980s. One reason for the large and rapid response after Chernobyl was that these earlier disasters had given the Soviet bureaucracy its know-how in nuclear disaster response.
There is further contamination in this area 500 kilometers southwest of Maiak at the Totsk nuclear test site.
|from The Defense Industries of the Newly Independent States of Eurasia. 1993 http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/commonwealth/dfnsindust-kazakhstan.jpg|
As well as an epidemic of babies born with severe neurological and major bone deformations, some without limbs, there have also been many cases of leukemia and other blood disorders, according to James Lerager’s 1992 article Second Sunset--Victims of Soviet Nuclear Testing. Lerager goes on to say: “The director of the Oncology Hospital in Semipalatinsk estimates that at least 60,000 people in the region have died from radiation-induced cancers; “officially,” the area has the lowest cancer rate in Kazakhstan. 
“There was also this doctor, Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, who thought that the only way you could sort out the birth defects common among this cohort of people—now 200,000 to 300,000 strong—with damaged genes from their parents who had been irradiated, is to genetically control who can have a child.”
-Anthony Butts, director of “After the Apocalypse” (2010),
a film about the modern-day victims of the weapons tests at The Polygon 
How dangerous is a Curie?
1 Curie (Ci) = 37,000,000,000 Becquerels (Bq), 1 Bq = 1 atomic disintegration per second.
After the Chernobyl disaster 29,400 square kilometers of the USSR were contaminated at levels above 185,000 Bq/square meter, from only cesium 137. As a crude comparison then, 1,000 Ci is enough to contaminate 200,000,000 square meters (or 200 square kilometers) at this level of 185,000 Bq/square meter, if it were spread evenly (37,000,000,000,
Aral Sea in 1960: 68,000 square kilometers (= 68,000,000,000 square meters), 2004: 17,160 square kilometers.
Assuming the flow of 1,000 Ci per year lasted for 40 years, this would total 1,480,000,
The flow of 1,000 Ci per year into the Aral Sea doesn’t create Chernobyl-level contamination, but it is getting way beyond natural background levels. It could be a significant inhalation hazard in the environment, depending on how it settled in the drying seabed then blew off in the wind. There would be synergistic harmful effects on health when radiation and chemical contamination co-exist.
For comparison with 1000 Ci per year: the Maiak disaster and the Techa River contamination dumped a total of 5.2 million Ci into the environment.
Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson and Richard W. Hazlett, The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 2008).
 Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2012).
 Brown, p. 239.
 James Lerager, “Second Sunset,” Sierra, Mar/Apr 1992, Vol. 77 Issue 2, p. 60.
 The Soviet Union’s Nuclear Testing Program, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO). http://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/the-soviet-unionsnuclear-testing-programme/
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 Chris Busby, “The ‘Forgotten’ Uranium Isotope—Secrets of the Nuclear Bomb Tests Revealed,” The Ecologist, November 4, 2014. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2619320/the_forgotten_uranium_isotope_secrets_of_the_nuclear_bomb_tests_revealed.html
 H.D. Passell et al., “The Navruz Project.” In Brit Salbu and Lindis Skipperud (editors), Nuclear Risks in Central Asia, 2008, p. 190-199.
 Thomas Johnson (director), The Battle of Chernobyl, Play Films, 2006. 01:18:30~01:21:30.
 D.S Barber et al. “Radiological Situation of River Basins of Central Asia Syrdarya and Amudarya According to the Results of the Project ‘Navruz,’” In N. Birsen, Kairat K. Kadyrzhanov (editors), Environmental Protection Against Radioactive Pollution, 2003, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 39. http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=XBZZSmxJca0C&pg=PA39&lpg=PA39&dq=aral+sea+radioactivity&source=bl&ots=uzTiBVHjMC&sig=4Cu75Mxx1evBgrDygi3yOKv4OG8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RXlYVOSIKYbp8gXR44DIBQ&ved=0CEQQ6AEwCjgK#v=onepage&q=aral%20sea%20radioactivity&f=false
 Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience, Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment.’ Table 3.1.5. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 2006. pp. 23–25.
 Christopher Pala, “Anthrax Island,” The New York Times, January 12, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/magazine/anthrax-island.html?src=pm&pagewanted=2&pagewanted=all
 Joan Trossman Bien and Michael Collins, “50 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown,” Pacific Standard, August 24, 2009. http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/50-years-after-nuclear-meltdown-3510/