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Review: an apocalyptic nuclear film with a strangely pro nuclear spin

After the Apocalypse: The anti-nuclear film that wasn’t, Nuclear Free by 2o45? by Dennis, 27 Feb 15 

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 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. I’m timing this article to also commemorate the birth of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement which is marked every year in Kazakhstan on February 28th.

After the Apocalypse [1] 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 journalism. The director gives legitimacy to the scientific 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.” ……..

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…….

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~)……

In spite of an apparent attempt at objectivity, the pro-nuclear bias becomes more obvious by the end……

t is possible that there was no deliberate plot to shape the bias of the film. Antony Butts may have just worked independently and met a few people like Dr. Lukashenko along his way and found them, for reasons unstated, more convincing than the detailed and articulate explanations given by the Cold War veteran neuropathologist, Dr. Gusev. In the end, the film was quickly forgotten in the days just after the Fukushima catastrophe 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 it.


February 28, 2015 - Posted by | Kazakhstan, Resources -audiovicual

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