The nuclear program of the Soviet Union began shortly after the end of World War II. Tests were carried out in many remote areas, for example on Novaya Zemlya archipelago, in the Urals and in the steppes of the North-Eastern Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, people continued to live in some of those places.
One of the main test sites was the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site with area of 18 thousand square kilometers, which was also called a “Polygon”. It is located to the south of the Irtysh river valley in Kazakhstan. Just 150 kilometers east of the test site, Semipalatinsk was located (later renamed as Semey) with a population of more than 100 thousand people. Hundreds of thousands more people lived in numerous small villages 80 kilometers around the test site.
The nuclear arms race during the Cold War was so strong that the authorities dismissed any doubts about the health of the local population and the possible harm to the environment. There is also a possibility that people were specifically made part of experiments to study the effects of radiation.
From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests near Semipalatinsk. The experiments were carried out on the surface, underground and in the air, 116 of them were atmospheric tests. From time to time, failures led to the dispersal of radioactive particles and radioactive gases leaking into the environment.
Sometimes, the residents of nearby villages were warned about the upcoming tests. They were recommended to stay outside during the explosion, so as not to die under the rubble when their homes are destroyed. Many residents, who were children at the time, remember that the explosions broke windows in houses and strong tremors were felt at the time of testing.
In just a few years, there was a dramatic escalation of cancer, impotence, leukemia and birth defects. Children were born with severe neurological defects and severe bone deformity, sometimes without limbs. According to the director of the Semipalatinsk Oncology Hospital, at least 60 thousand people in the region have died from cancer caused by radiation exposure. There are still many people affected by the nuclear tests living in Semey, formerly Semipalatinsk.
The Soviet authorities kept the tests in secret. US military intelligence was certain that the USSR examines the beam weapons rather than nuclear. Only in the mid-1980s, the Kazakh activists began asking questions about the true nature of the tests and launched a campaign calling for the closure of the test site.
Buildings, bunkers, tunnels and other infrastructure is still located in the territory of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. The most prominent are rows of concrete towers, which were at different distances from the zero meridian and accommodated various measuring equipment. Some towers cracked. There are visible bumps on the others, which might have appeared when the heat of the explosion melted the concrete.
Radiation levels at the test site is now generally low, but there are some areas of high radioactivity.
The memorial to the victims of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site named “Stronger than death” was unveiled in Semipalatinsk in 2001.
Radioactive Chagan Lake on the edge of the Semipalatinsk Test Site.