Sebastian Pflugbeil, German Society for Radiation Protection

“It’s downplayed over and over again”

Sebastian Pflugbeil is the president of the German Society for Radiation Protection. As a medical physicist, he worked intensively on the effects of radiation in uranium mines in the GDR. As a member of the East German grassroots movement New Forum and a minister without portfolio in the transitional government under Hans Modrow, he campaigned for the immediate closure of East German nuclear reactors. In 2012 he was awarded the Nuclear-Free Future Award for his life’s work.

“In the unification treaty of 1990, East Germany assumed the entire legal system of West Germany for all intents and purposes. With one exception: radiation protection. GDR law continued to apply to a specific region in Saxony and Thuringia. To this day. This was no accident because a severe nuclear accident (known as a Super-GAU) took place on East German soil slowly over time: the uranium mine in Wismut, a gigantic Soviet-Germany state-owned company, which also happened to provide uranium for the Soviet atomic bomb. Tens of thousands of miners suffered severe damage to their health, and the legacy of the mining activities and uranium processing were gigantic. The far less stringent East German laws came in handy during the settlement. Had West German radiation protection law been applied, remediation would have been unaffordable. In this way it was possible to limit clean up to the bare minimum and thus accept that the flooded shafts pose an ongoing threat to the drinking water supply even today.
The sick miners fought largely in vain for compensation in court. Instead of examining the people, the courts relied on highly questionable statements made by Wismut radiation protection experts, who sought to make sure that everything ran in an orderly fashion. The court’s hair-splitting refusal to recognise occupational health damages is simply unfair as no one actually seriously doubts the catastrophic working conditions underground.
The case is significant for me when dealing with radiation damage. It’s downplayed over and over again, minimised and lied about. The reports from international bodies on Chernobyl and Fukushima are the most extreme examples of a policy that is ultimately guided by the interests of the industry. Even when the disastrous consequences are obvious to everyone, there are those who will pretend that they have the situation under control.”

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