Booker Honored by U.S. and Kazakhstan Governments

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Dr. John Booker of Ivy. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Ivy resident cleaned up nuclear waste in former Soviet countries

It’s been more than a couple of decades since John Booker of Ivy embarked on the difficult task of cleaning up nuclear waste for some strategic central Asian counties, but the people of the former Soviet Union republics have not forgotten him. Late last year, the government of Kazakhstan met him in Washington, D.C., and honored him with yet another token of appreciation. In a reception and dinner sponsored jointly by the U.S. and Kazakhstan governments, officials expressed their thanks and honored his diplomacy and resourcefulness in accomplishing the difficult and lengthy multi-million-dollar project. In preparation for the event, both governments had struck medallions commemorating the 25th year of his leadership in making life safer for both their citizens and the world.

Dr. Booker had previously been honored with Kazakhstan’s Medal of Freedom in 2012. 

Kazakhstan, part of which extends into Europe, had been the site of some of the first Soviet atomic bomb tests and also served as one of the isolated areas designated for the exile of dissidents. Booker also helped dismantle nuclear infrastructure in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan. 

“They had been anxious to rid themselves of all traces of their former nuclear programs,” he said of Kazakhstan. This sentiment was also held by U.S. and Russia, but the poor, landlocked country lacked the funds to accomplish it. 

Enter John Booker, who had retired after 30 years as a Navy cryptologist and joined the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He embarked on his mission in 1994 with an approach designed to respect the customs of his host country. He began, not with an army of bulldozers, but by assembling chemists and biologists. It was a daunting assignment, involving the physical destruction of submarines, launchpads and aircraft, and the disabling of test tunnels, which at that time were the largest in the world. He was also charged with cleaning up soil and buildings contaminated with radiation. 

Despite any widely held misconceptions about those who live in the sparsely-populated, isolated countries where he worked to remove the last traces of nuclear tests, Booker found the people welcoming, generous and peace-loving. He’d encountered personal racism growing up in the South, and institutional racism in the Navy, but never once in his years in Central Asia. “We were treated like royalty,” he said. 

He also found them more socially advanced than he’d anticipated. He was concerned that his foreign colleagues would not welcome nor take seriously the scientist running one of his laboratories, a highly trained woman chemist. “I ranted on and on through a translator about how her work should be respected, and how the full force of my authority was with her,” he recalled. It turned out that it was no big deal. His Belarusian counterpart responded that he had always thought it best to have women doing important jobs. 

He has other stories: At one gathering, he had the chance to observe both Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Russian leader, and a high-level American official, all of them there for different reasons. He was taken with the difference in their styles. “The general arrived with a lot of fanfare and expected it,” he said, “while Gorbachev spent a great deal of time talking to a woman with a mop in her hand.” Booker personally also found Gorbachev easy to talk to.

In Kazakhstan, many people were familiar with the devastating health effects of nuclear radiation. In at least one case, the Soviet government had deliberately tested in a populated area to observe the effects on humans. So the people enthusiastically embraced Booker’s efforts––which were also supported not only by a bi-partisan U.S. congressional mandate, but by concerned countries throughout the world. There are still people with lingering health problems in places, but Booker is proud of what he was able to do for them and for people in other formerly Soviet countries: “At least they’re free of it now, and have stayed free for 25 years,” he said. 

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