After The Apocalypse: The Polygon Tests
As the fourth anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome approached, I looked back at an example of pro-nuclear spin that appeared in the media in the spring of 2011. Ironically, the pro-nuclear message discussed here is in a film about the horrors of atomic weapon blasts in The Polygon, the sacrifice zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs.
As the film was released in the spring of 2011, shortly after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, the director expressed views that were surprisingly similar to those of the nuclear energy sector—an industry that had a public relations campaign in full force during those months before TEPCO admitted having concealed that three core meltdowns had occurred in the first days of the crisis.
“After the Apocalypse”  is a one-hour documentary that takes place in Semipalatinsk, a town in north-eastern Kazakhstan where the USSR detonated 456 nuclear weapons, many of them large-yield megaton hydrogen bombs. The camera goes to radioactive craters where herders still take their animals to graze. It goes to a museum where the pickled corpses of deformed babies sit in jars.
However, the horror show of the past is not the main attraction. The film concentrates on the fierce struggle that still goes on today over the reproductive rights of the Kazakhstan hibakusha. The director, Antony Butts, follows a pregnant woman, Bibigul, whose wide-set eyes suggest chromosome damage. She wants to give birth despite the protestations of Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, a doctor who talks of the deformed, and too often abandoned, babies in the region as “monsters.”
When the film begins, the viewer gets a sense that Dr. Nurmagambetov and his staff have made humane and heroic efforts to care for the severely deformed children abandoned to their care, and so we can somewhat sympathize with the stern and drastic positions they have adopted about the need for genetic passports—legal restrictions on who is allowed to reproduce.
The doctor is well aware of the historical precedents in ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany. He knows his position is extreme, but outsiders who would judge him haven’t spent years looking after the doomed and abandoned infants in his infirmary. His belief is that genetic passports are genocide when applied to ethnicities, but sound medical practice when applied to individuals and diseases.
Siding with Dr. Nurmagambetov becomes more difficult as the film follows Bibigul through her pregnancy. She is determined to have her child, and she knows how avoid the clinic until it is too late to have a safe abortion. She also refuses to have amniocentesis to check for Down Syndrome while there is still time to terminate the pregnancy. The film ends with the birth of her apparently healthy and un-deformed child.
While most of the film is a narrative of Bibigul’s pregnancy, it also has segments that are straight documentary reporting. The director gives legitimacy to the controversy over whether the birth defects in the region really were caused by atomic bombs. For most medical professionals and inhabitants of the region, denying the effects of the bomb blasts is a cruel joke, but one wouldn’t know this by viewing “After the Apocalypse.”
Deniers cloud the issue by suggesting that in the pre-atomic era the region was known for a high rate of birth defects caused by vitamin deficiencies in the local diet.
The controversy is presented through interviews with two scientists, Dr. Sergey Lukashenko from the Institute of Radiation Safety and Boris Gusev from the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. As one might suspect by the name Institute of Radiation Safety, Dr. Lukashenko seems to have his job because his views assured he would fulfill the institutional mission to speak to the public of such a thing as “radiation safety.” In his short interviews he states:
At that time they were studying the after-effects of shockwaves and different types of damage caused by nuclear weapons, but now we only study things to do with radioecology. This place is the cradle of the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons research program. They did everything here. 456 bombs were tested … Kazakhstan is not a nuclear country. We don’t know any nuclear secrets. (9:00~)
His statement that Kazakhstan is “not a nuclear country” is true only if one accepts the political opinion that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have nothing to do with each other. While renouncing nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan has made a very determined effort to be one of the world’s leading uranium suppliers, yet Dr. Lukashenko’s expertise in radioecology seemed to take no account of the substantial hazards left behind by decades of uranium mining.
Later in the film he performed a classic example of the radiation expert waving the “magic wand” to divert the public’s attention from the actual means by which organisms and ecosystems are affected by radiation. During a tour of the radiation museum he waves a Geiger counter at a piece for granite from ground zero of one of the Soviet bomb detonations. The Geiger counter screams when held close, but drops off to safe levels a few meters away because of the inverse square law. He tells the camera:
If the background level is 15 to 20, then 15 times higher than normal is not a lot. The existence of these objects [radioactive rocks and buildings at the sites of detonation] cannot be the cause of all the horrors that they show on TV—I mean the deformed people and so on. There is no way it can account for it. It cannot be the reason because the radiation is too low. (32:30~)
He speaks with an angry and insistent voice, saying “cannot be the reason” about a point which no one really disputes. He refers here to a scientific model of the effects of radiation that has been questioned for many years because it has consistently ignored the effects of internal contamination, as well as the chemical, as opposed to radiological, effects of nuclear wastes in the environment.
Dr. Lukashenko’s rant is meant to deflect attention from these concerns, and it does so by stating a point that his opponents would not dispute. When he speaks about gamma radiation falling rapidly at a distance, he’s referring to some basic high school science—the inverse square law—that really is beside the point. Nuclear opponents don’t dispute that that low, temporary doses of gamma rays present little danger.
The issue of main concern is the damage caused at the time of the bomb blasts to the genomes of all creatures in the ecosystem. These were times of intense irradiation and heavy metal chemical and radioactive fallout. They damaged the cells of people alive at the time, and because some of these cells were reproductive cells, the damage was passed on to future generations. Thus it is a distraction to draw attention to the fact that people are in no danger from the radioactive rubble at the old bomb sites. It is a deflection of attention from the real concern, made out of a deliberate wish to deceive, or out of incompetence.
The more authoritative voice in the film was that of the veteran scientist of the Soviet radiation research project, Boris Gusev of the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. He stated:
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.
When the director asked him if he felt guilty about the role he played, Dr. Gusev goes on to say:
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. (19:00~)
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.” (46:18~)
The director inserts a text onto the screen after this statement, citing no source to support the claim, in order to cast doubt on what Dr. Gusev has just stated:
The vast majority of scientists do not believe that radiation damage in humans can be passed down the generations. But in Semipalatinsk many believe that radiation can cause ‘genetic instability’ in later generations.
The same distortion of the “controversy” occurs in other parts of the film. Another text inserted into the film asserts, again with no citation:
There is no reliable evidence that nuclear testing caused the area’s higher than average birth defects. It could not have caused Bibigul’s appearance: her mother has the same facial characteristics and she was born before the [nuclear] testing started. Despite this, many in the medical profession in Semipalatinsk believe that women with “suspect genes” should not have children. (36:50~)
In spite of what is stated above about the age of Bibigul’s mother, Biken, the precise ages of the two women are never stated. Nuclear explosions first occurred in The Polygon in 1949, and Bibigul appears to be about 30 years old at most when the film was made shortly before 2011. If her mother had been born before 1949, she would have been over 30 by the time she gave birth to her daughter.
In any case, even if Biken avoided genetic damage in the womb of her mother, Bibigul certainly could have been born from an ovum that was exposed to radiation, one that was in her mother in the 1950s during her childhood. Biken herself recounts (3:15~) how she witnessed the bomb explosions at the age of six and became ill from them. “It was definitely the nuclear effects,” she says, so there is no reason to discount the possibility that her ova (ova exist in the female fetus even before birth) were damaged by radiation.
Another curious aspect of this issue is that in this film, which is ostensibly about the effects of nuclear weapons, the director focused on this outlier, a person with a serious genetic abnormality who was born before the weapons were detonated. Then he chose to save this information as a big reveal late in the film after the viewer has been led to believe that the abnormality was caused by nuclear bombs. Was Biken a cherry-picked research subject in this film? It would have been easier to find younger three-generation lineages that started in the post-nuclear era (for example, three generations born 25 years apart in 1955, 1980, and 2005).
Antony Butts sometimes uses his subjects to support his view, but contradicts them and bends their stories at his convenience in order to dismiss the conclusion of medical professionals who have long and deep experience with the local situation. Even if the non-effect of radiation on this one family could be proven, it would be only one family. It would prove nothing about genetic damage in all of The Polygon hibakusha (who all have official documents identifying them as victims of nuclear explosions), yet Butts is willing to imply that he has untangled the mystery by filming the story of one pregnancy.
One would think that a film about The Polygon would be the ultimate anti-nuclear film, yet it seems a nuclear advocate took up the topic as a challenge: What if we could show that even in the worst place imaginable no harm from radiation could be proven? But it failed to find an audience among either the pro or anti-nuclear crowd. This occurred perhaps because its conclusions are too pro-nuclear to gain sympathy from anti-nuclear audiences, but its images are too horrific for it to serve the purposes of the pro-nuclear lobby.
In spite of an apparent attempt at objectivity, the pro-nuclear bias becomes more obvious by the end. Dr. Nurmagambetov ended up looking like a heartless fascist, while the birth of Bibigul’s apparently healthy baby was used to imply that all is well in Kazakhstan. Antony Butts might have chosen to keep his own views hidden and let the film speak for itself, but in an interview in New Scientist  at the time of the film’s release, he stated some views that were straight out of the nuclear industry’s talking points. He showed that he agreed with Dr. Lukashenko, while he seemed to have not accepted what the veteran Soviet scientist had told him about the confirmed existence of 250,000 people with inherited genetic defects. He told the interviewer:
I was very surprised that the radiation did die off as much as it had. They tested 456 bombs—20,000 times the explosive power of Hiroshima—on this area. You go to the craters and sure, they’re radioactive. But if you’re a kilometer away from them, it’s nothing. It’s background level. When you have a nuclear war it’s actually quite habitable afterwards, so in one sense it’s not as scary as it’s been made out to be. Yet in another, there’s this other kind of fear—of long-term genetic damage.
The radiation is concentrated around the craters, but elsewhere there’s not enough radiation to cause these birth defects. So what is the reason? That’s where we get into controversial science. The epidemiological data that the Institute of Radiation Safety has isn’t perfect, but it suggests that children of the cohort that got irradiated live on average five to seven years less than those from a comparable socioeconomic group in an area that wasn’t irradiated. Is that due to the psychological stress, or, alternatively, could it be because of this obsession the locals have of protecting themselves from radiation with vodka?
There is this elevated level of birth defects; there’s no getting around it. There is a folic acid problem there—the whole area has a lack of greens and folic acid deficiency is linked to birth defects. But the scientists and doctors I spoke with said that folic acid deficiency could not account for so many birth defects, especially now as they’ve begun giving out supplements to little effect. This is where the science gets difficult … I think this is crucial to nail down.
Yuri Dubrova, a geneticist at Leicester University, has a freezer full of blood from all of these generations from Semipalatinsk, down the line. It’s just sitting there waiting to be defrosted and analyzed when the time is right—and when the funding is there. I think the time is right now.
I think Semipalatinsk is particularly relevant [after Fukushima] because it explores the harrowing consequences of radiation exposure … All forms of energy creation are going to kill people. Coal kills millions of people per year with particulate pollution. Before we get really scared about radiation we need to understand the science and make an analysis. Do we go nuclear power or not? Instead of the debate being idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear, we should honor these people and let their deaths and lives mean something.
There are two main points I hope to make. One is about a post nuclear-war world—and why nuclear weapons are bad. The second is how paranoid people are about something they know nothing about. In the absence of knowledge, fear thrives. This is especially important because we must choose a new form of energy, and a lot of us are writing off nuclear power because of fear. We have this golden opportunity to say, well how scary is it? Let’s give grants to these scientists and find out. Then we can choose to be frightened or not.
One wouldn’t expect a filmmaker to return from the Soviet Union’s nuclear test site speaking like a public relations man for the nuclear industry, but these comments have a remarkable similarity to the talking points that repeatedly appeared in editorials written by nuclear advocates in the weeks after Fukushima. The theme of fear is found throughout, along with the Chernobyl tropes about illness and death from fear, stress and vodka.
Such talk suggests the main concern should not be eliminating an environmental hazard but rather managing our fear of it. Antony Butts then trots out the canard about deaths from coal, as if there were no other energy alternatives besides nuclear. Somehow he knows that the debate is “idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear” and not based on a solid half-century of research by numerous scientists who concluded nuclear technology was to be avoided (see the reading list below).
The most dubious point is the suggestion that more research is needed, as if we shouldn’t believe what Dr. Gusev stated in the film about sixty years Soviet and Kazakh research leading to the discovery of 250,000 people with inherited genetic damage. Supposedly, we have to wait until the finding can be confirmed by a proper British researcher with a freezer full of blood from people of Semipalatinsk.
The additional problem with this faith in British research is that it too would be dismissed by nuclear advocates who would say again, “This is where the science gets complicated. We just don’t know.” Yet for people who have followed the nuclear question over the decades, it is well known that no amount of unfavorable research findings will ever convince the nuclear lobby to quit its game. It is always a matter of “we just don’t know” or “further research is needed.”
Antony Butts’ ignorance on these matters points to a general pitfall of documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker might be an expert in his craft, but not in the subject of his film. We shouldn’t expect him to be an expert on a topic just because he spent a few months making a film about it.
However, directors are often given the opportunity to speak as authorities, while the experts who have devoted their careers to the topic go ignored. Most directors attempt to be objective and not tell the audience what they are supposed to conclude about the topic, but the rule to go in with an open mind doesn’t mean that one has to proceed with an empty mind. It’s alright to read some books before turning on the camera (see the reading list below).
These comments that Antony Butts made before the debut of his own film raise serious questions about his pre-existing motives or who was out to influence him before, during and after the film’s production. Did he do any research? Did he learn anything about alpha and beta particles and the mechanisms of internal radioactive contamination? What about bioaccumulation in the ecosystem? These topics were never mentioned in the film. A commenter on the New Scientist website summed it up: “None of his points are relevant and it smells like propaganda from the nuclear industry.”
Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland
The director himself, or people who had his attention, may have thought it would be a great challenge to spin the worst nuclear horror story of all in a way that would leave audiences doubting whether radiation is really the cause of poor health in the populations around The Polygon. The film may have been made as a counter to the much more comprehensive and historically contextualized film on the same topic released a year earlier: “Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland.” [3,4]
Though “After the Apocalypse” seems to have been made with the intention to neutralize The Polygon as rallying point of the anti-nuclear movement. In the end, the film was quickly forgotten in the days just after the Fukushima catastrophe, probably because, firstly, its subject matter was too grim for most people spend an hour with. Secondly, it could satisfy no one. For nuclear opponents it smelled of propaganda, while the nuclear industry had nothing to gain in encouraging people to see its disturbing images.
 Tiffany O’Callaghan. ”The Human Cost of Soviet Nuclear Tests,” New Scientist, May 11, 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/05/the-aftermath-of-nuclear-war.html
 Gerald Sperling, “Silent bombs for the Motherland,” Al Jazeera, July 25, 2010.
Every year on February 28th, Kazakhstan celebrates the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement which arose in 1989 was a major factor in the national independence that came soon after.
Rosalie Bertell. ”No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth,” (Book Publishing Company, 2000). http://www.ratical.org/radiation/NRBE/.
Christopher Busby and Mireille Escande de Messieres, “Miscarriages and Congenital Conditions in Offspring of Veterans of the British Nuclear Atmospheric Test Program,” Epidemiology 4:4, September 29, 2014. http://omicsonline.org/epidemiology-open-access-abstract.php?abstract_id=30829.
Helen Caldicott, ”Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.” (The New Press, 2007).
Benjamin Dessus & Bernard Laponche, “En finir avec le nucléaire: Pourquoi et comment” (Seuil, 2011). (Finishing with Nuclear: Why and How).
Gordon Edwards, “Consideration of Environmental Impacts on Temporary Storage of Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation,” Docket ID No. NRC-2012-0246: submitted by The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, http://www.ccnr.org/CCNR_NRC_2013.pdf.
Ian Fairlie, “A hypothesis to explain childhood cancers near nuclear power plants,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 133, July 2014, Pages 10–17. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265931X13001811.
John Gofman & Arthur R. Tamplin. “Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Before and After Three Mile Island” (Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1979) http://www.ratical.org/radiation/CNR/PP/.
Gayle Green, ”The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation” (University of Michigan Press, 2001).
Ernest J. Sternglass, ”Secret Fallout: low-level radiation from Hiroshima to Three-Mile Island“ (McGraw-Hill, 1981). http://www.ratical.org/radiation/SecretFallout/.
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