Dispatch

Glowing Greens

Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? Scientists in Kazakhstan may be close to an answer.

SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakhstan — By most accounts, the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk is unfit for life. Across roughly 7,000 square miles of barren Kazakhstan steppe, there are hardly any people. Even animals and birds, it seems, intuitively know they should stay away. Decades-old craters pockmark the earth, remnants of the more than 450 nuclear explosions that took place here between 1949 and 1989. Broken vodka bottles scattered in the grass near "Ground Zero," the site of the area's first nuclear test, hint at the dread associated with Semipalatinsk: Vodka, some nearby residents believe, can guard against the effects of radiation exposure. Visitors are warned to cover their shoes with protective plastic before stepping onto the soil, and to shield their faces with masks.

But in this poisoned place, on a small patch of land near a few downtrodden trailers, there's an unexpected hint of vitality: bright yellow sunflowers, clustered together near rows of corn, and a barn full of plump sheep. Here, scientists from Kazakhstan's Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a governmental organization that studies the medical and biological interaction between radioactivity and the environment, have developed an experimental farm. Their goal is to measure the transference of radioactivity from contaminated soil into edible crops, and from those crops into the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat them.

The farm is an attempt to answer a question with far-reaching implications: Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the question provokes both scientific interest and deep public anxiety. The researchers at Semipalatinsk, which is only slightly smaller than the state of Israel and has some of the world's worst nuclear contamination, want to quiet fears with data and inspire new agriculture, while also providing evidence that could jumpstart farming in other places exposed to radiation. "This territory is very huge, and we think most of it is clean," said Zhanat Baigazinov, the head of the project's Farm Animal Radioecology Group. "But before we give it to farmers, we have to prove that it is safe."

Seminpalatinsk's nuclear legacy began in 1947, when Lavrenti Beria, the political director of the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project, chose it as a site to experiment with nuclear weapons. Beria claimed the region was "uninhabited," but he was wrong: Roughly 700,000 people lived in nearby villages, cities, and nomadic communities. Over the next four decades, hundreds of above- and below-ground nuclear tests contaminated the soil and poisoned residents, causing birth defects and increased rates of cancer that plague the area to this day. (Precise statistics about population change in Semipalatinsk during the nuclear-testing period are impossible to determine, in no small part because the test site officially did not exist. But it's safe to assume that most residents of nearby villages did not have the option to move far away.) After President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's post-Soviet leader, closed Semipalatinsk in 1991, the government outlawed farming in the area.

But scientists at the experimental farm find the prohibition excessive and based on assumption rather than fact. The farm launched four years ago, after several local residents petitioned authorities to investigate the safety of the area. Ten people now live semi-permanently on the site, gathering data about the radioactive qualities of crops they grow and animals they raise at a cost of about $500,000 per year. Experiments have been conducted both at the farm and in different areas of the former test site under a wide variety of circumstances. According to Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, preliminary research results indicate that at least 80 percent of the land (roughly 5,800 square miles) at Semipalatinsk could be used to grow food for human consumption. They anticipate that, within the next few years, they will have collected enough data to try and persuade the government to end the ban on agriculture. The scientists are so confident in their findings thus far that they have eaten vegetables and meat from the farm.

Generally speaking, radioecological agriculture is a hotly contested topic. Some experts, for instance, have argued that agricultural production around Chernobyl should be completely banned for at least 200 years. What makes the Semipalatinsk project all the more intriguing -- and controversial -- are the uniquely highly levels of plutonium and other transuranium elements in the soil. Most radioactive isotopes found in contaminated areas around the world, such as cesium and strontium, have relatively short half-lives: Both cesium-137 and strontium-90, for example, have half-lifes of roughly 30 years, which means that half the radioactive isotopes will have naturally decayed and stabilized by the end of that period. But the soil at Semipalatinsk is contaminated with plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. "The plutonium will stay in this soil forever, basically," Lukashenko said.

"In scientific literature, there is no exact data about the transference of radioactive isotopes, especially transuranium elements, from soil to plants," he added. Lukashenko emphasized that because people are already exposed to small amounts of radiation every day through aspects of modern life, such as flying in airplanes, the farm hopes to determine what amount of radiation humans who live and work in Semipalatinsk, or eat food grown there, can safely tolerate.

According to Lukashenko, roughly 5,000 semi-nomadic people (who aren't necessarily aware of Semipalatinsk's radioactivity or exact borders) already illegally farm on or near the test site or allow their animals to graze there. A 2008 report from the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation confirmed that there has been "limited resettlement in the area, mostly by semi-nomadic farmers and herders," and that "there is some evidence they have grazed animals" in the region, including the most "heavily contaminated" areas. If the experimental farm can convince the government to reopen the entire area, or even a large part of it, Lukashenko estimates that the number of Semipalatinsk farmers could skyrocket to more than 20,000. (It is too early to speculate whether food grown in the area might be sent to other areas of Kazakhstan or exported.)

The farm's results could also influence or reinforce similar projects in other parts of the world. In Japan, for example, researchers have recently focused on radioactive cesium-137, the isotope that primarily contaminated the area around Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake. In a study published earlier this year, scientists measured the transference of radioactivity from soil near Fukushima into potatoes, cabbage, and other root vegetables. They found only "extremely small" to undetectable amounts of radioactive cesium in the food samples. Based on those results, some researchers have called for a "revival of agriculture in Fukushima." Similar results in Kazakhstan could give a boost to this proposal and comparable ones around the world.

However, Tomoko Nakanishi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who studies radiation's effects on plant physiology, was careful to note in an interview that the different isotopes, agricultural methods, and crops associated with various areas of radioactive contamination make it hard for researchers to generalize. Neil Hyatt, a professor of nuclear materials chemistry at the University of Sheffield and an expert on radiation damage, echoed this view. "[Semipalatinsk has] some parallels with Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the nature and extent of the contamination is different and so will require different intervention strategies," he said. However, Hyatt noted that studies in places such as Semipalatinsk and Fukushima can still have a global impact: They "will be helpful in developing national emergency plans to respond to a radiological or nuclear incident," largely by providing data that could be useful for determining how to safely rebuild agricultural economies.

For now, as the researchers at the farm in Semipalatinsk conduct their work, they are balancing hopes for the influence of their study with more immediate concerns -- most notably, skeptics and public opponents of the project. "Opening the land for grazing and other land use will be an unforgiveable mistake," said Leonid Rikhvanov, a professor at Russia's Tomsk Polytechnic University, in a 2010 interview with the Telegraph. "If the plutonium gets into the biological chain it could cause a cytogenetic catastrophe that will backfire on the health of our children and grandchildren." Many people living near Semipalatinsk feel similarly. "Fear of radiation is a very deeply ingrained idea, both in people and in the government," Lukashenko said.

Indeed, as the researchers at Semipalatinsk look toward the future, they must contend with a devastating history, the evidence of which is all around. It is in the silence hanging over Semipalatinsk, in the yellow painted signs with red radioactive hazard symbols planted on the grounds of the farm, and in the hollow skeletons of bombed-out Soviet test buildings that stand nearby. This history could be the farm's downfall -- but it may also be its greatest asset. "For people working in this field, Kazakhstan is the best country because we have everything ... that can be dangerous from a radioactive point of view," Lukashenko said. "Why would I live anywhere else?"

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Barcode Nation

Why some Indians are still fighting back against the country's new biometric ID system.

CHENNAI, India — The Unique Identification (UID) system is one of the most enterprising social programs in India today -- and probably the most controversial. In a country that lacks a comprehensive identification system, more than 400 million mostly rural Indians have no way of authenticating who they are. This leaves them locked out of public services like banking, social benefits, and even recognition of citizenship. By providing a nationally recognized identity for every citizen and resident, the UID system, known as Aadhaar, is taking a major step forward by establishing a foundation for inclusive institutions that India's bloated bureaucracy is seriously lacking.

Supporters of the program see special use for UID as an efficient tool for the government to distribute established social services like cash transfers, subsidized food, and kerosene to poor citizens. They say that UID's technology is necessary to ensure that aid actually reaches the needy. But owing to the prevalence of the same corruption that aid workers are trying to combat, there are strong concerns over privacy and the potential for fraudulence.

The program works by assigning a 12-digit number to each of the country's 1.2 billion people. Connected to the number are a photograph and two biometric indicators: fingerprints and iris scans. The innovation of using biometric indicators helps by not only creating a truly unique identity, but because it also serves the many illiterate people who never obtained other forms of ID like the PAN Card used for taxes, or a driver's license. Since rolling out the July 2009 pilot project in the state of Uttar Pradesh, UID has enrolled over 380 million people nationwide and plans to bring that number up to 600 million by the end of 2014.

As enrollment increases, state governments intend to primarily use UID as the linchpin of India's highly expensive and suspiciously leaky social safety net system. It is intended to improve programs like the Fair Price Shops (FPS) ration card system. In this arrangement, low-income Indians have access to FPS locations in their respective districts to purchase food and goods that the government subsidizes well below market prices. Under the current system, ration cards are given to families living below the poverty line. The cards are intended to entitle these families to FPS benefits, but they can also be used (often fraudulently) as identification cards.

Apart from the likelihood that politicians themselves abuse and indulge in these corrupt activities, the FPS ration card system has a number of other problems. On one hand, many eligible families are not enrolled; on the other, there is a sea of fake cards floating around which middle-class (and even rich) families use to buy cheap goods. The bogus cards are a drain on the system and reduce the amounts of food and kerosene available for the intended recipients. FPS owners are also known to siphon off their heavily subsidized inventory to make a killing on the black market.

Once UID is introduced, Indians who visit an FPS will have to provide their UID number before collecting their allocated quota of subsidized goods. Not only will this create an accountable inventory and offer a new method for collecting secure data on the demographics and needs of the poor, the high bar of personal information required to make purchase should help to prevent the leakage that is estimated to make up as much as 35 percent of the Public Distribution System (PDS) budget. Changing this could have a profoundly positive effect on India's endemic corruption.

Critics of the UID program, however, question its legitimacy on many counts. Research conducted by New York University Professor Arun Sundararajan and University of Maryland-Baltimore Professor Ravi Bapna seems to validate the effectiveness of the UID program in targeting needy people, but stops short of saying whether it will actually reduce corruption by the significant margin that the organization behind UID, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), seems to promise.

The real opposition, however, comes from parties who strongly criticize the program's lack of proper oversight. A standing committee within India's Parliament made strong queries about the legal legitimacy of the UIDAI's plans based on the fact that, to date, no bill has been passed authorizing UID's implementation. The project has gone ahead with government approval in the form of an executive order (which provides the authority to implement a program without Parliament's approval), but the bill in question still needs to be passed by Parliament to have complete legislative authority.

Usha Ramanathan, an eminent lawyer, activist, and known critic of the UID system, also contends that using biometrics is a flawed approach in an economy as labor-intensive as India's. The fingerprints of the poor are frequently unrecognizable, she points out, since they are worn down by a lifetime of harsh labor.

There is also the concern that, given India's comparatively weak data privacy laws, the UIDAI grants the state too much power. Ramanathan asserts that UID "would make every citizen transparent to the state including basic information about health, work, bank transactions, and migration via the UID number." Privacy activists are worried that the government could use this data to monitor all the transactional activities of its citizens, especially those who are hostile to the government. In a country known for pervasive corruption and poor governance, this is not an idle concern.

Ramanathan goes on to mention that the identification system could be misused to benefit commercial ventures. Private banks, for example, might be interested in purchasing citizen data in order to promote insurance and banking operations. Politicians, too, might be tempted to use UID applications to covertly send bribes to mass numbers of potential voters, a gimmick that many already partake in through other means.

Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of UIDAI, responds by reminding critics that "criticism of a technology platform on the basis of criticism of an application is unfair and ill-conceived." UIDAI argues for its reliability by referring to the data-sharing policy that it is bound by, which prioritizes protecting the identity of individuals enrolled in the system. But this is not enough. With a rapidly emerging middle class, India and the world are bound to be concerned by data theft, especially without robust legislation from Parliament first to approve and legitimate UID, and then to enhance support systems such as data privacy regulations.

And in addition to this, the technological effort involved in undertaking such a complex project is immense. Projects similar to UID have been on the rise in numerous countries like Malaysia, Germany, Estonia, and Belgium. While some of them have been a success (such as Malaysia's), others (like the British identification project) were abandoned due to the complexity and cost issues.

The UIDAI team has been prompt in addressing the technological aspects, but real difficulties in coordinating state-level implementation of national-level policy remain. The data collection process is experiencing immense logistical hassles at every level, from awareness outreach to managing the documents that are needed to add individuals. "While we are coordinating the centers, there are issues popping up due to scale. We are also not trained enough to handle this," said an official who did not wish to be named. A 40-year-old daily wage laborer, who gave me only his last name of Muthukumar, spent almost half a day waiting in line to register at a center in Tamil Nadu. "I am not sure of what is going on here but I am told this will make government subsidies reach me faster, so I came here," he told me.

People seem to appreciate the benefits the project could provide, but have little knowledge of its mechanisms. The limited public awareness of the concerns raised by activists and opposition parties means that there is little grassroots opposition to UID.

The open source nature of the UID project allows it to be used for many purposes, but given opposition to the bill and the fact that general elections are slated to take place in 2014, it seems unlikely that Parliament will grant approval in the next year. UIDAI claims that it has responded to all queries posed by the parliamentary committee and that it is confident the bill will pass through the upper and lower houses.

To provide a specific number to every citizen, especially in a country as large as India, undoubtedly involves many challenges and concerns. If it is successful, though, it could enable more efficient delivery of public services, while reducing corruption in turn. The challenge now lies in conducting this project in an inclusive manner, responding to public concerns, allaying the concerns of the critics, and helping deliver identity to the common man on the streets of India.

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images