Reporter 408, 20 October 1997

Shedding light on the Cold War's deepest secrets

A University professor was among a Christian delegation from Leeds that discovered one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War – a huge uranium mine in the former East Germany.

Haddon Willmer, Professor of Theology, was one of a seven-strong group that ventured five kilometres into a now unused mine on a visit to Zwickau. He was shocked to discover that between 1947 and 1990 some 220,000 tons of radioactive uranium had been extracted from an area covering more than 14 square miles.

The mine was run by WISMUT, a joint East German-Soviet organisation and the third largest uranium producer in the world after the USA and Canada. Uranium extraction was ruthlessly carried out, a small spa town was destroyed in the process and beautiful countryside was littered with waste dumps the size of Otley Chevin. More than 6,000 miners died or are still dying from lung cancer, ground water was polluted with a lethal mixture of radioactivity and toxic chemicals and radon gas remains high in many places.

Following the reunification of Germany in 1991 the mining stopped and WISMUT was charged with making safe the land it had devastated. Contaminated soil has been removed to allow houses to be built and waste heaps to be transformed into green hills.

"Whether the area has been made safe for ten, 100 or 1,000 years is still disputed," said Professor Willmer.

Delegates also heard of a new threat to the environment, this time from the quarrying of rock. Churches are supporting local resistance to the destruction of homes for quarries. The Leeds group compared the situation in Zwickau with the opposition of many Yorkshire communities to the effects of opencast coal mining.

After the visit, Dr Martin Schweiger, the Leeds Medical Officer for Environmental Health, said: "Pollution is a global problem. We all breathe the air, drink the water and live in the world. The complexity of the issues has not stopped the people of Zwickau from working to improve the situation, neither should it stop the people of Leeds."

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