Nuclear-Free Future

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10 April 2011

Nadezhda Kutepova und Natalia Manzurova

Where could an organization by the name of “The Planet of Hope” be located? In the midst of a blooming landscape of terraced, organic gardens? In a model community with no carbon footprint thanks to renewable energies?

No, The Planet of Hope (Planeta Nadezhd) has its offices in a remote region contaminated with radioactivity some 600 miles south of Moscow within the so-called ‘Closed City’ of Majak. There, in 1957, the failure of a cooling system for a tank storing thousands of tons of nuclear waste caused an explosion that released some 2 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Untold numbers of people from the region have since died of leukemia, lymph node cancer, and other maladies caused by the widespread contamination. Now classified as a Level Six disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the catastrophic event was kept secret until 1992.

Nadezhda Lvovna Kutepova, 40, who has lost a number of close family members to radiation-related diseases, founded the Planet of Hope in 1999. From its very beginnings, this self-help organization’s main purpose has been to inform those who live in the region about radiation doses and corresponding health dangers – and about their rights as Russian citizens. Planet Hope has entered into partnerships with international activist groups and environmental organizations, has created a victims parliament, and facilitates for people across the Urals access to specialist radiation knowledge. Despite intimidation from authorities, the group has conducted analyses of probes from the prohibited zone, as well as taken its protests for justice, openness, and human rights to Moscow’s Red Square.

“I don’t know how many years I have left ahead of me. But I want to tell the people about Chernobyl for the rest of my life!”

Nadezhda’s fellow campaigner, the radiologist Natalia Manzurova, 59, is one of the few ‘liquidators’ who survived a stint of duty in the radioactive region bordering Chernobyl. Natalia suffers from lymph node cancer; her neck carries the “Chernobyl necklace” – as veteran liquidators call it – a sign that half of her thyroid gland was removed. Manzurova told representatives from Women in Europe for a Common Future: “I don’t know how many years I have left ahead of me. But I want to tell the people about Chernobyl for the rest of my life! It is not my life and my life story, but the story of our entire land.”

Recently, Natalia, who must conserve her energies, wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel seeking to undo a business deal that would freight German nuclear waste to Majak.

Kutepova and Manzurova tell us about another creeping source of danger in the region, one that is ignored, as usual, by the authorities: the lakes and rivers are drying out. Receding waterlines expose to the atmosphere sediment contaminated with radioactivity. Almost more unsettling is the advice from the government meant to keep people calm. A regional official told Manzurova on the phone: “Citizens have nothing to fear, the authorities are closely monitoring the situation.”

Ecologists say that immense wildfires, like the ones that rocked Russia and occupied world headlines for weeks on end in 2010, were by no means one time disasters. Global warming works as a giant dehumidifier in forests and on moors, reconstituting the nuclear catastrophes from the sediment of yesteryear. Radioactive particles from trees and other types of vegetation burnt by summer fires in the Majak and Chernobyl fallout area can be carried hundreds of miles by wind.

Although every corner of the world is connected by a web of over-information, it is the solitary early warnings from people like Kutepova and Manzurova that give our planet reason for hope.

– Claus-Peter Lieckfeld
English translation : Craig Reishus