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

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization inspectors camp at Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk Test Site during an inspection exercise in 2008. A sense of quiet and barrenness now pervades the enormous testing grounds that once hosted hundreds of nuclear device detonations during the Cold War (AP Photo/Andreas Persbo). Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization inspectors camp at Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk Test Site during an inspection exercise in 2008. A sense of quiet and barrenness now pervades the enormous testing grounds that once hosted hundreds of nuclear device detonations during the Cold War (AP Photo/Andreas Persbo).

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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