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


Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
1 days ago

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
21 hours ago

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
16 hours ago

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
3 hours ago

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.