ROMANIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, GERMANY – The Soviet Union mined uranium across its empire for decades, leaving a legacy of environmental damage, social breakdown and widespread health issues. In the first of a two-part investigation, we reveal how the devastating effects are still being felt in Germany, Romania and the Czech Republic.
“We live here, with radon [radioactive gas] across the road and with chalk dust from down in the valley – God damn it – it will kill us all,” says 53-year-old Vasile Mocanu, a former miner.
He is describing how his life has been trapped between two sources of pollution – a uranium mine and a chalk mine. Baita Plai, an ex-Communist workers’ colony built by the Soviets in the 1950s, lies on the edge of the Transylvanian countryside, 500km north-west of Bucharest.
The Soviets exploited uranium at this site – one of the richest reserves in the world – as reparations after World War II, during which the Romanians fought against the USSR. The uranium was first extracted from two surface pits, before the mine moved underground.
“For us it was dangerous work,” says another former miner, 74-year-old Florian Covaci. “We travelled an hour to the pit on a bus, then by train underground for 8 km. We were working wet to the skin to make holes in the rock with water. It was like in a labour camp.”
Beginning in 2000, the mine slowly declined. The workers left, either voluntarily or were pensioned off. Today most of the apartments in the four blocks in Baita Plai are empty. Just 100 people live there now, but only four are former miners. Nobody wants to live near to slag heaps and noxious mines.
In this area, 4.6 million litres of radioactive waste has been deposited. Romania’s track record of cleaning up its uranium legacy is a history of decay, abandonment and ignorance. (There will be more about the multiple failures of public authorities to deal with the issues in the second part of this investigation.)
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