Fifty Years After Above-Ground Blasts, A Sense of Calm at Kazakhstani Nuclear Site

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 3, 2013, 7:02 a.m.

SEMI­P­AL­AT­INSK, Kaza­kh­stan — It’s been a half-cen­tury since the last at­mo­spher­ic nuc­le­ar test was con­duc­ted at the Semi­p­al­at­insk Test Site. In the years since, the grass has grown back to cov­er craters cre­ated by the ex­plo­sions. There are even some wild­flowers.

But the des­ol­ate beauty and quiet sense of peace here is be­lied by the real­ity that ap­prox­im­ately 10 per­cent of the al­most 11,200-square-mile site is still too con­tam­in­ated by ra­di­ation for cattle to graze safely, ac­cord­ing to Sergey Lukashen­ko, dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute of Ra­di­ation Safety and Eco­logy at Kaza­kh­stan’s Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter.

The en­vir­on­ment­al de­grad­a­tion and health ef­fects caused by the nuc­le­ar tests have lead the Cent­ral Asi­an na­tion to take on a glob­al role in ad­voc­at­ing for the quick entry in­to force of the Com­pre­hens­ive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all nuc­le­ar weapons tests.

The So­viet Uni­on’s first nuc­le­ar test was car­ried out in 1949 at Semi­p­al­at­insk, which is also known as “the Poly­gon” due to its shape and is loc­ated in north­east­ern Kaza­kh­stan. In all, there were 456 atom­ic tri­als at the test­ing grounds, in­clud­ing 340 un­der­ground-device det­on­a­tions and 116 at­mo­spher­ic tests. The last above-ground test was con­duc­ted in Decem­ber 1962 and the fi­nal sub­ter­ranean test was in Novem­ber 1989.

Vis­it­ors to Ground Zero — the most heav­ily con­tam­in­ated part of the Ex­per­i­ment­al Field — must wear dis­pos­able breath­ing masks if they want to avoid in­hal­ing ra­dio­act­ive dust. They also must care­fully wrap their shoes in plastic, to pre­vent track­ing con­tam­in­ated pebbles and soil in­to vehicles when they leave. The Ex­per­i­ment­al Field is the part of the test­ing grounds where above-ground nuc­le­ar det­on­a­tions took place.

“When you come there and you see this vast, massive land, which ba­sic­ally looks very peace­ful, you don’t un­der­stand the mag­nitude of the tragedy,” Kaza­kh­stani For­eign Min­is­ter Er­lan Id­ris­sov said in re­marks in As­tana, the Kaza­kh­stani cap­it­al.

However, “when par­tic­u­larly you see the vic­tims of those nuc­le­ar ex­per­i­ments, you are com­pletely dev­ast­ated,” the min­is­ter said, speak­ing at a Q&A last month with a group of vis­it­ing U.S. journ­al­ists, whose trip was or­gan­ized by the In­ter­na­tion­al Re­port­ing Pro­ject.

The ex­act num­ber of Kaza­kh vil­la­gers that lived near Semi­p­al­at­insk dur­ing the peri­od of at­mo­spher­ic nuc­le­ar tests and suffered health ef­fects and even death from the en­su­ing ra­di­ation will likely nev­er be known, due to poor So­viet re­cord-keep­ing. Lukashen­ko said gov­ern­ment ef­forts are on­go­ing to find all vil­la­gers that ex­per­i­enced severe ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure from the nuc­le­ar test­ing.

He es­tim­ated that, at max­im­um, there are roughly 10,000 people still alive today who suffered ra­di­ation pois­on­ing from the test­ing. Lukashen­ko spoke to re­port­ers dur­ing an even­ing tea he set out in the canteen trail­er used by sci­ent­ists when they camp at Semi­p­al­at­insk.

The ra­di­ation re­search­er would like to see key parts of the Poly­gon de­clared a World Her­it­age Site by the United Na­tions. That would en­sure the test­ing grounds al­ways will be pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to vis­it and learn about the real-life im­pact of nuc­le­ar weapons. On Aug. 29, the United Na­tions com­mem­or­ated the 22nd an­niversary of the per­man­ent clos­ure of Semi­p­al­at­insk with its fourth ob­serv­ance of the In­ter­na­tion­al Day Against Nuc­le­ar Tests — an an­nu­al event that is used to build sup­port around im­ple­ment­ing a glob­al ban against atom­ic ex­plos­ive tests.

For the Com­pre­hens­ive Test Ban Treaty to go in­to ef­fect it must be rat­i­fied by the United States and sev­en oth­er coun­tries: China, Egypt, In­dia, Ir­an, Is­rael, North Korea and Pakistan. The treaty has already been rat­i­fied by 159 na­tions

All at­mo­spher­ic nuc­le­ar tests are banned un­der the Lim­ited Test Ban Treaty, which went in­to ef­fect in Oc­to­ber 1963.

Many na­tions, in­clud­ing the United States, have ob­served an in­form­al morator­i­um on un­der­ground nuc­le­ar tests since the 1990s. Some oth­er nuc­le­ar-cap­able states, though, have con­tin­ued to test, with the most re­cent ex­ample be­ing a North Korean un­der­ground tri­al blast in Feb­ru­ary.

In light of its role as a glob­al lead­er on nuc­le­ar-weapon is­sues, ac­ces­sion by the United States to the test-ban ac­cord is seen as ne­ces­sary for prod­ding oth­er hol­d­out states to fall in line.

However, some pun­dits as­sess that pro­spects ap­pear slim that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will at­tempt to get the treaty passed dur­ing the cur­rent le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, largely in part due to con­tinu­ing Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion to the White House arms-con­trol agenda.

“Kaza­kh­stan has a mor­al core to go non-nuc­le­ar. There­fore, our call to the U.S. gov­ern­ment is to rat­i­fy the [CT­BT ac­cord] as soon as it is pos­sible without polit­ic­al gain,” said Id­ris­sov, who pre­vi­ously served as Kaza­kh­stani am­bas­sad­or to Wash­ing­ton. “That’s the need of the times. We will per­severe with that call to the United States.”

In a nuc­le­ar-policy speech in Ber­lin in June, Pres­id­ent Obama re­newed to the world his strong de­sire for Con­gress to rat­i­fy the CT­BT ac­cord.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhan­ova, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate with the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton, was born in Kaza­kh­stan. As a child dur­ing the last years of the So­viet Uni­on, when a lot of in­form­a­tion was first com­ing to light about formerly top-secret So­viet op­er­a­tions, she re­mem­bers be­ing shocked to learn about the ef­fects of the test­ing at Semi­p­al­at­insk.

“What was most out­rageous is that cer­tainly no one asked the Kaza­kh people who lived in the Se­mey area for per­mis­sion to con­duct nuc­le­ar test­ing on their land,” Mukhatzhan­ova said in an e-mail to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, re­fer­ring the re­gion where the Poly­gon is loc­ated. “No one warned them, no one pro­tec­ted [them].”

She ad­ded that that was the same case in oth­er areas were nuc­le­ar weapons were tested, in­clud­ing in Nevada and abroad, in Al­ger­ia and the South Pa­cific. “Loc­al pop­u­la­tions were not con­sul­ted; they had to suf­fer the ef­fects.”

Ana­sta­cia Kysel­eva, an 86-year-old Kaza­kh wo­man liv­ing in a state-fin­anced nurs­ing home in the city of Se­mey, re­called for journ­al­ists what it was like to live through the at­mo­spher­ic test­ing dur­ing the 1950s. “We just heard the sound [of the nuc­le­ar blast] but we didn’t know it was harm­ful,” she said through a trans­lat­or.

Kysel­eva, speak­ing with some dis­tress, re­called a par­tic­u­lar test in Oc­to­ber 1956 in which, for the first time, So­viet sol­diers dir­ec­ted vil­la­gers to leave their homes and go out in­to the field. The vil­la­gers were split in­to two groups that were sep­ar­ated by a river.

The test pro­duced a large mush­room cloud that could be seen from the fields, she re­membered.

“On our side, people didn’t fol­low the mush­room cloud, but on the oth­er side, they star­ted run­ning after it to see where it would go down,” Kysel­eva said. “Those people that fol­lowed it either they died or they couldn’t walk af­ter­ward.”

“Since that year, a lot of people star­ted dy­ing in the vil­lage and that’s how we real­ized [the test­ing] was very bad,” she re­coun­ted.

Mukhatzhan­ova said that even though it is un­likely the United States will ever re­sume nuc­le­ar test­ing, “fail­ure to rat­i­fy the CT­BT sends a mes­sage that it is keep­ing the op­tion open and im­pli­citly le­git­im­izes those who may yet de­cide to test nuc­le­ar weapons.”

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