Findings from Mayak, Chernobyl and Semipalatinsk: How Soviet-era Secrecy Enabled Research in Trans-generational Genomic Instability

“The pollution of the atmosphere by radioactive particles almost completely disappeared. We had been paying for our nuclear testing with thousands, even tens of thousands of human lives. And [in 1963] we stopped paying.”

- Andrei Sakharov, Russian nuclear physicist,
lead scientist in the development of 
Soviet nuclear weapons, Soviet dissident,
and activist for disarmament, peace and 
human rights, speaking about the US-Soviet 
agreement to halt atmospheric nuclear tests.

At the end of August 2016, Kazakhstan hosted the international conference “Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World,” marking both the 25th anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and the UN International Day Against Nuclear Tests (Aug. 29). The social, environmental and human health consequences have been reported elsewhere [1], but one aspect of these effects doesn’t seem to receive as much attention as it should; that is the question of whether nuclear weapons tests had lasting, inherited effects on the genome of living things touched by the fallout. The question is often treated as a big unknown, or a fear-mongering worry of anti-nuclear activists for which no evidence has ever been found.

One reason evidence was never found, in some countries, was that no one wanted to know. If scientists in the civilian and military nuclear sectors found that there was trans-generational genetic damage from radiation, the results could not be kept secret in an open society and they would be very bad for the continued expansion of the industry.  However, in the Soviet Union, scientists were able to pursue this line of research because they were confident the results would remain top secret. No one ever expected that everything would be in the open after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Ironically, the research was done most freely in the society that had the least freedom in access to information. This fact was illustrated by Kate Brown in her book Plutopia, in the chapters in which she described the data kept on the rural inhabitants who lived downwind of the Soviet Mayak nuclear fuel factory, where both disasters and regular operations have contaminated the environment for decades. [2] Research done on the British and New Zealand atomic test veterans have also demonstrated inherited effects on the children and grandchildren of the veterans (see previous post on this topic).

As for Kazakhstan, the subject of inherited damage was explained by Dr. Boris Gusev of the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. He has been involved in research on the effects of the nuclear detonations in both the pre and post-Soviet era. He spoke in two documentary films made in recent years, and his comments in them have been transcribed below.


Dr. Boris Gusev speaking in

The whole territory was sacrificed. Why Kazakhstan? The USSR was a huge land with millions of possibilities and the Polygon could have been located somewhere in the mountains or some other place where there were no people, nobody. So please go ahead, explode as you wish [somewhere else]. But no. It was done there. Kazakhstan was an important satellite back then. Everyone was quiet. No one dared utter a word in protest.

It was called Anti-Bruscellosis Dispensary #4. It was a cover up of course, the brainchild of the KGB. The institute was highly secretive. Everybody who was hired that year, and years before, had to sign a document prohibiting them from revealing any information. That was very serious because if you didn't follow the rules, you would go to prison for a long time.
Treatment was not the objective. Do I acknowledge that? Yes, I do. Those people in the hospital received almost no treatment. We were only examining them.

The existence of a local population must be part of any nuclear war scenario. What do the people do? How do they behave? Who died? And so on. That was the scenario played out here, I think. So the man who compared himself to the laboratory rabbit was absolutely right.

All organs have somatic cells. In natural conditions about one in a million mutates, but those are from natural causes and they are destroyed by the immune system. But under the influence of ionizing radiation and other components such as heavy metals, a process called somatic mutation occurs. As it turns out, somatic mutation appears to be 100% inheritable.

Dr. Gusev elaborated on this topic in another film made in 2011 called  After the Apocalypse:

We reported directly to Moscow. These are the records of illness. These [records] are from the most seriously affected villages next to the Polygon. We observed and analyzed the population. We investigated which were the main illnesses that were linked to exposure from radiation. We compiled them into risk groups and so on. All this data was top secret. When I was a doctor, a neuropathologist, back then all our life was on the road. We observed the population, we returned for a quick wash and shave, and then we were back out again. On the first floor where the hospital is now we had an enormous laboratory which processed this work. We knew precisely where the radiation was. We knew precisely how much of the different types of radiation people were being exposed to, what dose the population was receiving. That is, we were not idle. We knew everything.

But the most important thing was that willingly or unwillingly the people living in the regions of the Polygon had been pulled into this game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union played the worst role, of course, because it allowed its citizens to live through the most real type of nuclear war. They were thinking about a preventive nuclear war—that if there was going to be one, then they had to know what would happen to people. And, therefore, no one was evacuated. Instead, they were observed to see how many would die, how many would become ill and so on.

Do you feel a little bit guilty that you took part in the Soviet Union’s experiment?

My good man, how far we are from one another. From a moral, ethical point of view and in knowledge of that time you ask this question—and are probably correct in doing so—but there is no answer to this question. Simply, there isn’t one. I can’t explain it. And you will never understand what the former Soviet Union was. You will never understand this in your lifetime.

Over the last 15 years we have thoroughly analyzed all the material in the archives. We have made our conclusions and published our research. And at the same time we have continued our planned research on the population. Now a huge group has appeared, of 250,000 to 270,000 people. These are the children of parents who have been irradiated. We thought that everything would go smoothly, that chromosomal damage and genetic effects would be confined to only the generation of people who were irradiated, and they could not be inherited by future generations. But it turned out this was wrong.


One final point, which is obvious but seems to be seldom mentioned, is that what is true for humans is true also for every other species that was exposed to the nuclear bomb detonations, and the effects might in fact be much worse. There are many open questions now which perhaps no one wants to pursue. For example, there have been many reports on the “mysterious wave of antelope deaths” on the plains of Kazakhstan, [3] but no one seems to have pursued research on one of the obvious possible causes. One report briefly mentioned a study that looked at present radiation levels but didn’t pursue the issue any further:

The large geographical area over which die-offs occurred suggests that a single environmental contaminant is not particularly plausible, and soil, water and air analyses completed are largely within normal ranges for detectable radiation and known contaminants and pollutants… Since at least the 1950s saiga [antelope] die-offs have been recorded in Kazakhstan. [4]

The first Soviet nuclear bomb explosion in Kazakhstan occurred in 1949. Perhaps the die-offs occurred before then but were never recorded in the absence of modern state institutions that could keep the records. In that case, however, surely there would have been some local knowledge of such events held by the elders of the local population. The fact that present levels of radiation are within normal ranges means little when the inherited effects would be linked to the exposures suffered by organisms in previous generations, both transient levels of external doses and longer-lasting internal doses. These trans-generational effects are still so poorly misunderstood that it would be impossible to dismiss radiation exposure as an ultimate cause of the weakened immunity that may be linked to the proximate cause of this mass death by infection.
In an article in The Ecologist, Dr. Christopher Busby explains that what is at issue is not just a few genetic mutations, which would fade away over time in the population. The phenomenon being observed is trans-generational genomic instability, which he explains thus:

If a cell was damaged, it somehow switched on a mechanism that communicated to its descendants a signal to randomly mutate... it also transmitted the same signal to other cells around it... This effect has been seen now in many systems and the trans-generational genomic damage switch has been shown to operate in Chernobyl studies where in some rodents (bank voles) there are measurable effects even after 20 generations. This is scary stuff indeed. No one knows the reason for such a process but it has been suggested that it favors the survival of a population at the expense of the individual. [5]

In the case of the saiga antelope, radiation could be a single cause, a partial cause or not a cause at all, but it is striking that it is not being considered more seriously in the scientific inquiry. But then again, we must remember that the secrecy of the Soviet era is gone. Some lines of research will not be pursued because, you know, what if we found something?


[1] Aiman Turebekova, “Astana to Host Major Nuclear Disarmament Conference,” Eurasia World, August 24, 2016.

[2] Mike McCormick, interviewer, Plutopia: Interview with Kate Brown on Talkingstick TV. January 18, 2014.

[3] Rory Galloway, “Scientists probe mysterious wave of antelope deaths,” BBC News, June 1, 2015.

[4] Update on the saiga antelope tragedy in Kazakhstan, Saiga Conservation Alliance, September 4, 2015.

[5] Chris Busby, “Bomb Test Veterans’ Grandchildren Suffer Health Effects,” The Ecologist, October 16, 2014.

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