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Semipalatinsk Test Site

  • Location
    East Kazakhstan Province
  • Type
    Nuclear-Test Site
  • Facility Status

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Between 1949 and 1989, the Semipalatinsk Test Site was one of the primary locations for Soviet above and below ground nuclear testing. The first Soviet nuclear weapons test, codenamed Pervaya molniya or First Lighting, took place at Semipalatinsk on 29 August 1949. In total, 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric tests, were conducted at Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities. 1

There were 4 major testing areas at the site, along with 2 research reactors, supported from then closed city of Kurchatov. 2 116 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests took place at the ‘Experiential Field,’ either detonated on towers or dropped from aircraft. After the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force in 1963, the Soviet Union carried out 340 underground nuclear tests in caves or boreholes at all four sites. Semipalatinsk also was the location of 9 of the Soviet Union’s peaceful nuclear explosions. 3 This program intended to use nuclear devices to create artificial lakes, aid in mining and other large scale infrastructure projects.

The last nuclear test conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site took place at Balapan in November 1989. 4 Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited the site. Russian scientists and security personnel quickly departed without leaving information for the Kazakh authorities about the location of many of the tunnels or boreholes. The Semipalatinsk test range was officially closed by Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev on August 29, 1991. 5 Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities are now under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which is involved in civilian activities and conversion of the site to non-defense uses. 6

There is no perimeter fence around the site, and in the 1990s only the Baykal-1 and IGR research reactor complexes were afforded dedicated security forces. Additionally, beryllium, coal, and gold are mined throughout the site and table salt is produced from a lake located near the main test field. 7 From 1997-2000, 181 test tunnels and 13 test shafts at Semipalatinsk were sealed as part of a joint US-Kazakhstan effort under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. 8 The site was subsequently declared safe by US authorities, and no further cooperative work planned. 9

However, a lack of economic opportunity for local workers and booming global commodities prices lead to the site being overrun by metal scavengers even before the initial CTR work was completed. Evidence of illegal scavenging operations in sensitive portions of the site, including around sealed tunnels known to contain easily recoverable plutonium, was brought to the attention of US scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory by their Kazakh counterparts. 10 Leveraging existing friendships with counterparts in Russia and Kazakhstan, Los Alamos scientists proposed “Project Amber,” a joint Kazakh-US-Russian project intended to provide further support to Kazakhstan to eliminate sources of weapons usable material at the test site. Different phases of the operation involved sealing boreholes used for subcritical plutonium testing, filling in large explosive chambers known as kolbas which were contaminated from past experiments with easily recoverable plutonium, and removing highly sensitive bomb components from some area of the site. 11

At the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March of 2012, President Obama, President Medvedev of Russia, and President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan officially announced the formally secret program of Trilateral Threat Reduction Cooperation and recognized the subsequent work carried out at Semipalatinsk for the first time publicly. 12 The official US estimation is that “a dozen” bombs worth of plutonium was secured at the site between 2005 and 2012, at a total cost of $150 million. The program’s efforts rendered the nuclear material on the site inaccessible except through a large-scale mining and recovery effort. 13

Archived Developments

On 12-14 February 2003, the Special Coordination Group (SCG) under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended that a comprehensive assessment of the former Semipalatinsk test site be developed. The SCG, consisting of IAEA experts and scientists from various countries, made this recommendation during its first meeting at IAEA headquarters. SCG members are developing IAEA recommendations to implement UN General Assembly Resolution No. 53, which calls for international cooperation to rehabilitate the environment and economy of the Semipalatinsk region. The second meeting of the SCG will take place in the fall of 2003 in Vienna. 14

On 6 February 2003, ITAR-TASS reported that a laboratory will be opened in the city of Kurchatov (Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast) to monitor the radiological situation at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site. The establishment of the laboratory has been undertaken by the Scientific Research Institute of Radiological Medicine and Ecology (RME), in cooperation with the Scientific Research Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology (RSE). 15 According to RSE Director Larisa Ptitskaya, the provision of Semipalatinsk with special status and transfer of site management to the Kazakhstani National Nuclear Center (NNC), which would coordinate research activities and security measures at the site, was under consideration as of February 2003. Ptitskaya noted that these measures are seen as a way of preventing theft of radioactive metals and weapons grade plutonium, which have been discovered at some parts of the site. According to NNC Director Shamil Tukhvatullin, the laboratory activities will be undertaken by medical doctors and physicists, who will research the entire region of Semipalatinsk, not only the former test site. 16

On 25 November, the 57th session of the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 101 on international cooperation for the humanitarian, ecological, and economic rehabilitation of the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan. 17 In keeping with the resolution, the United Nations is implementing 38 socio-economic and environmental projects to rehabilitate the region. 18 A report by the Secretary General will be made to the General Assembly at its sixtieth session on progress achieved in the region by these projects. 19

On 13 June 2002, Vadim Logachev, a representative of the State Scientific Center at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, revealed that radiological weapons were once tested at the Semipalatinsk test site. According to the Kazakhstani National Nuclear Center (NNC), this information was made public for the first time. During the tests, radioactive waste was packaged and dropped from an airplane or blown up with explosives on the ground. In 1958, radiological weapons were deemed unfeasible and the tests were halted. 20

On 29-31 August 2001 an international conference entitled “XXI Century: Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” took place in Almaty. This conference was dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Semipalatinsk test site closure. 21 At the conference, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev emphasized his country’s support for tightening international nuclear nonproliferation regimes and asked for international assistance to clean up the test site. 22 Nazarbayev noted that the cost of recultivation and cleanup of radioactive soil could total $1 billion. As of August 2001, Kazakhstan had received around $20 million in aid for cleanup efforts at Semipalatinsk. 23

According to Shamil Tukhvatullin, director of the National Nuclear Center, the first phase of clean-up at the former Semipalatinsk test site has been completed. The clean-up work was carried out under an agreement between Kazakhstan and Russia. From 1998 to 2000 one third of the test site territory was examined. Areas with radioactive contamination were covered with earth and fenced off with barbed wire. Testing equipment and technical components that were exposed to radiation during nuclear tests were mothballed in concrete bunkers to diminish the risk of spreading radiation into the soil. The clean-up work is to continue with the next phase commencing in summer 2001. 24

According to an 18 August 2000 Interfax news report, Kazakhstani geologists have discovered gold at Naimanzhal and Koskuduk on the territory of the former Semipalatinsk test site. The geologists estimate 60t of probable gold reserves in these fields. The Kazakhstani company FML Kazakhstan is planning to begin work at the gold fields in the spring of 2001. The governments of Kazakhstan and the United States have supported the project for developing the Namanzhal field, with the US Trade and Development Agency financing 50% of the project’s feasibility study. 25

On 29 July 2000 a conventional explosion equal to 100t of granulated TNT in gallery No. 160 of Degelen Mountain destroyed the last of the nuclear test infrastructure at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site. This final explosion completed a five-year Kazakhstani-US Cooperative Threat Reduction project to eliminate the site’s infrastructure. As part of this project, a number of calibrated explosions ranging from 5 to 25t were carried out in 1997-1998 at the Balapan area and 100MT blasts were conducted in the Degelen Mountain in August 1998 and September 1999. As in the previous two explosions at Degelen, the explosions were used by the international monitoring arm of the CTBT to identify nuclear explosions more precisely in the future and to distinguish them from earthquakes. Following the explosion, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Susan Koch signed an amendment to increase US funding from $26.5 million to $33.5 million for the Kazakhstan Weapons of Mass Destruction Elimination Initiative. Koch stated that funds will be used to eliminate other plants that manufacture weapons of mass destruction, in particular the former Stepnogorsk Biological Weapons Production Facility. 26 27

One week after the CTBT calibration blast, 12 international experts assembled at Semipalatinsk to test their ability to locate the epicenter of an unsanctioned blast. The experts covered 25 square kilometers in 10 days, and reported their results on 10 October 1999. In order to test the ability of experts to locate the blast epicenter, Semipalatinsk authorities did not inform international authorities of the exact blast location. The experts were able to find the blast epicenter, but concluded that future inspections should involve more experts with more equipment. (These tests are being conducted as part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty verification regime, see the CTBT Organization website for more information.) 28

An explosion with a yield equal to 100 metric tons (t) of granulated TNT was set off at the former Semipalatinsk test site (now the National Nuclear Center) on 25 September. It destroyed shafts and was also used to calibrate seismic equipment that distinguishes earthquakes from nuclear tests. 29 A future calibrating blast is scheduled for the year 2000. 30 For more information on previous CTBT network blasts, see the 9/21/98 entry, below.

More than 200 officials from 24 governments and 12 international organizations attended the Tokyo International Conference on Semipalatinsk on 6-7 September, including the co-sponsors as well as the World Bank, UNESCO, WHO, FAO, EBRD, EU, OSCE and NATO. Six international NGOs and 38 Japanese organizations, institutions, and agencies also participated. The conference addressed health, humanitarian, environmental, and economic issues, as well as the need to disseminate information about the effects of testing. 31 After the meeting, Japan promised $1 million for United Nations Development Program funds in Semipalatinsk. 32 According to Japanese State Foreign Secretary Keizo Takemi, 40 percent of the funds are intended to help women become economically independent, 30 percent will go to NGOs and the remaining 30 percent is intended for small businesses. The conference was also the first of its kind to discuss aid to victims of the nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk. 33

The former head of the Department of Radiation Safety and Environment at the Institute of Radiation Safety, Musin Zholdybayev, said at a news conference that a National Nuclear Center report which found that only 10 percent of the Semipalatinsk test site’s territory was contaminated is misleadingly low. Zholdybayev, who worked at the Institute of Radiation Safety from 1994-1998, believes that up to 50 percent of the site is contaminated and not suitable for economic development. Zholdybayev also believes that the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy is interested in misinforming the public in order to avoid compensating victims of nuclear tests. 34

According to international experts, at least $43 million is needed to decontaminate the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. The experts have defined 38 priority projects that will be submitted to governments of donor countries for consideration. 35 According to Anatoliy Miroshnichenko of the Ecological Center of Sustainable Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the assistance projects are divided into five sectors: environment ($7.8 million), health ($24 million), economic ($6.6 million), humanitarian aid ($3.3 million), and information exchange among experts in the aforementioned fields ($1.3 million). Half the funding will come from Japan, and a conference of donor states is scheduled to take place in Tokyo in mid-1999. 36 A UN NGO intends to allocate $5-7 million in financial aid. In early 1999 a trust company that will accumulate financial resources for the projects is to be set up by the Kazakhstani government.

On 16 November 1998, a draft resolution on the problems of the Semipalatinsk former nuclear test site was introduced in the UN General Assembly. Representatives of more than 50 countries signed the resolution containing an appeal to potential donor countries to aid Kazakhstan in the decontamination of the Semipalatinsk region. 37 Several UN agencies also submitted a report to the UN General Assembly based on the findings of international experts who studied the region for a year. The report was entitled “Situation Assessment and Priority Needs at the Semipalatinsk Region and Nuclear Weapons Testing Site.” 38 Kazakhstanskaya pravda reported that the international experts had concluded that the consequences of the nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk site are a thousand times worse than those of Hiroshima or Chernobyl and that the level of radioactive contamination poses a threat to neighboring countries such as Russia and China. 39 Nucleonics Week reported that thorough knowledge of the damage caused by the tests is difficult to obtain because of the conflicting opinions of different researchers. This is due to the difficulty of securing important measurements in the absence of sustained monitoring, a product of the Soviet culture of secrecy. The report calls the Semipalatinsk test site territory a “region in crisis.” Over one million people in the region remain affected, about 30,000 seriously. The report suggests a number of three- to five-year actions to respond to humanitarian needs and to reduce radiation risks. 40 (See entry for 12/14/98.) The estimated cost of meeting priority needs totals $43.4 million, including projects on health ($24 million), urgent humanitarian needs ($3.3 million), environmental remediation and protection (7.8 million), economic revival ($6.6 million), and dissemination of information ($1.3 million). 41 A US non-governmental organization has already announced its intention to contribute $5.5 million toward the minimum of $43 million necessary for decontamination. According to Kazakhstani Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Serikbek Daukeyev, the first two of the 38 priority projects defined by the experts–both public health projects–may begin in January 1999, as soon as Kazakhstan receives the first donor funds. Head of the UN mission to Kazakhstan Herbert Behrstock reaffirmed the UN’s intention to continue supporting Kazakhstan both financially and technically. 42

Kazakhstani Minister of Science Vladimir Shkolnik held a press conference on 21 September 1998 on the results of the 2nd International Conference on Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation, held in Kurchatov on 14-17 September 1998. Over 200 participants from Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States, Japan, and other countries discussed scientific, medical, and environmental problems; destruction of the nuclear infrastructure; and elimination of the consequences of nuclear tests. A CTBT network calibration experiment was conducted on site on 17 September 1998 with a conventional explosion in a shaft at the Semipalatinsk test site. The seismic waves were recorded by a global seismic network that includes over 60 stations. Data are being analyzed. According to Shkolnik, CTBT network calibration explosions do not harm the environment, are no different than mining explosions, and have a yield of 10t to 100t. Two more such explosions will be conducted in Kazakhstan and the United States by the end of 1998. A plan has been developed to completely shut down 200 shafts at the test site. Shafts and boreholes are being sealed, 150 shafts have been decontaminated, radioactive debris on the surface is being removed, and land rehabilitation problems are being addressed. 43

Since the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site, the population of the city of Kurchatov has decreased to 11,000 from its peak of 30,000, and the area has become economically depressed. While some areas at the site remain heavily contaminated, the Kazakhstani government lacks funds and modern equipment for treatment of radiation-related illnesses. Between 1949 and 1989, an estimated 1.6 million people in the city of Kurchatov and surrounding areas were exposed to radiation from tests at the Semipalatinsk range, some as part of experiments on civilians and livestock. In 1997, 488 of every 1,000 babies born at the prenatal center in the city of Semipalatinsk suffered from birth defects or other health problems, and 47 died. 44

According to a new IAEA report, there is no or little residual radioactivity over most of the Semipalatinsk test site. However, the IAEA identified two heavily contaminated areas: Ground Zero and Lake Balapan. Individuals visiting either area daily could receive an annual dose of approximately 10mSv. Permanent residence can lead to doses of over 100mSv/year. The IAEA recommends restricting access to the sites until remedial actions can be carried out. At present no intervention is necessary to reduce radiation exposure outside the test site. 45

A conference of representatives from donor countries and international organizations was held in Almaty on 25 May 1998 to discuss the implementation of the UN General Assembly Resolution “International Cooperation and Coordination of Activities for the Rehabilitation of the Population and Environment and the Economic Development of the Semipalatinsk Region in Kazakhstan.” The conference was co-chaired by Madina Dzharbusynova, director of the First Department of the Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry, and Herbert Berstock, head of the UN mission to Kazakhstan. Berstock said that the main task of the UN mission is to coordinate the work of the many different groups of experts who will collect data on environmental, economic, and social conditions at Semipalatinsk. 46 Berstock made an official visit to the Semipalatinsk test site on 5 June 1998, visiting radiation and oncology clinics and attending a meeting of city government departments and social organizations. The research conducted by the international specialists will be used to prepare a special report to the UN General Assembly, intended to make the case for international aid for environmental restoration and economic and social redevelopment of the Semipalatinsk region. 47 An international donors conference for this program will be held in Kazakhstan in 1999. 48

A seminar on the environmental and health effects of four decades of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk was held in Almaty the week of 6 April 1998. Sponsored by the Union for the Victims of Nuclear Testing, the Fund for the Humanitarian Development of Central Asia, and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the seminar brought scientists from Kazakhstan, Germany, and other countries together to share information on the environmental consequences of nuclear testing and appeal for aid from donor countries and international organizations. 49 Academician Saim Balmukhanov said at the conference that about 1.5 million people were exposed to radiation from tests at Semipalatinsk. In addition, Aitkhazha Bigaliyev, Director of the Kazakh Institute of Ecological Problems, said that over 10.5 percent of children born in the neighboring Karaganda region were born with deformities, and that cases of cancer, dystrophy, spontaneous abortion, and mental illness were two to three times more frequent around Semipalatinsk than elsewhere in Kazakhstan. 50

A conference of scholars, Kazakhstani government officials and specialists, and accredited diplomats to Kazakhstan from “nuclear club“ countries met in Almaty on 27 February 1998 to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the founding of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk international antinuclear movement. The conference discussed analyses of the environmental and health situation in the region and possible paths for the rehabilitation of the region’s environment and population. Statistics presented at the conference indicated that from 500,000 to 8 million people were directly affected by activities at the test site. Participants appealed to the United Nations and members of the “nuclear club“ to extend multilateral assistance to eradicate the consequences of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, demanded that the Kazakhstani government compile a complete register of victims of radiation in the nuclear test area, and called for the establishment of an international radiological and dosimetry center in Almaty. A number of the resolution’s points ended with a proposal to hold the 3rd International Congress of the Global Antinuclear Alliance during the 10-year anniversary of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement, scheduled for 28 February 1999. 51

The third meeting of a coordinating group of specialists from Russia and Kazakhstan, co-chaired by A. Shcherbina and Sh. Tukhvatulin, was held in Kurchatov in October (date unspecified) 1998. The group reviewed studies of environmental conditions and radiation safety in the Semipalatinsk region, adopted proposals on removing the nuclear testing infrastructure and improving the environmental situation at the Semipalatinsk test site, and discussed the technical aspects of work and environmental protection measures at the test range. Work on the mothballing of the Degelen Mountain site was completed and accepted by the commission with a rating of “excellent.” 52

Kazakhstanskaya pravda reported that a round table discussion was held in Almaty (date unspecified) on the criteria for evaluating the damage caused by the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground. The participants also discussed possible methods of “liquidating“ the continuing effects of nuclear testing at the site, as well as the importance of creating a database of information pertaining to Semipalatinsk and publishing the results of investigations. 53

It was reported that the Kazakhstani-US joint venture KK Interconnect has been set up in Kurchatov under the CTR program, uniting the Kazakhstan National Nuclear Center and the US-based Kras Corp. The joint venture will be involved in converting the Semipalatinsk test site. The first project will be to manufacture printed circuit boards and assemble electronic devices. Initial capital for the joint venture between Kras Corp. and the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan was provided through the Industrial Partnerships program of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. (A photo of the KK Interconnect facility is available from a presentation given by NNC Director Yuriy Cherepnin in September 1997 at the Semipalatinsk Test Site.)54 55

The Semipalatinsk State University, which was opened last year, introduced a new specialization in nuclear reactors for the 1996 academic year. Students will be taught by nuclear scientists from the Kazakhstani National Nuclear Center in Kurchatov. 56

The anti-nuclear movement Nevada-Semipalatinsk, the Kazakhstani Ministry of Science-Academy of Sciences, and the NGO International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War held a round table devoted to the Kazakhstani president’s 8/28/91 decree on closing down the Semipalatinsk test site. The Chairman of the Executive Committee of Nevada-Semipalatinsk, Myrzakhan Erimbetov, stated that Kazakhstan, as a non-nuclear state, has a right to claim compensation from nuclear states for the damage done by the nuclear tests conducted on its territory. President of the Kazakhstani Academy of Medical Sciences M. Aliyev announced the creation of a charity fund for the rehabilitation of citizens suffering from exposure to nuclear tests. 57 58

The Kazakhstani government adopted the resolution “On Additional Measures to Ensure the Functioning of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and Nuclear and Radiation Safety at Its Facilities“ in order to implement presidential order No. 2968, dated 30 April, 1996, “On Additional Measures to Ensure the Functioning of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan.” With the aim of attracting foreign investment to ensure safety at nuclear facilities belonging to the NNC, the NNC will act as the head organization in liquidating the nuclear weapons infrastructure at the Semipalatinsk test site in line with the 3 October, 1995 agreement between the US Department of Defense and the Kazakhstani Ministry of Science on liquidating nuclear weapons infrastructure.59 60

It was reported that the Russian State Duma ratified the Russian-Kazakhstani treaty on the legal status of Russian citizens permanently living in Kazakhstan. (The ratification process requires approval by the Federation Council as well as the State Duma.) The treaty is relevant to the status of Russian employees of the Kazakhstani National Nuclear Center (NNC) as it guarantees equal political, economic, and social conditions for Russians and Kazakhstanis living on each other’s territory. There has been a large outflow of Russian specialists from the Semipalatinsk test site; by 1996 Russians reportedly comprised a third of the staff of the Institute of Atomic Energy of the NNC. Russian specialists in Kurchatov also hope to receive special benefits provided by Kazakhstani and Russian governments to people suffering from the effects of nuclear tests. The Russian and Kazakhstani presidents signed the treaty on 20 January 1995; Kazakhstan ratified the treaty on 28 February 1995. 61

It was reported that a new medical center will be opened at the former Semipalatinsk test site. The center will focus on the medical effects of nuclear tests conducted in the area and will be financed by the Kazak government and through international humanitarian aid. 62

Tunnel No. 192 at the Semipalatinsk test site has been sealed using 1,300 kilograms of conventional explosive. It was the first such tunnel to be sealed under a US-Kazakhstani agreement to seal the Degelen Mountain complex. Two nuclear explosions of up to 20 kilotons yield were conducted in this tunnel in 10/75 and 11/79. 223 nuclear explosions took place from 10/11/61 to 10/10/89 in the Degelen Mountain complex. 63 On behalf of Kazakhstan, the National Nuclear Center and the small mining enterprise “Degelen“ have been contracted to execute the sealing work. The event was attended by representatives of the Russian Minatom and the Scientific and Research Institute of Technical Physics. Head of the International Affairs Department of the Kazakhstani Ministry of Science, Olga Tyupkina, said that work to seal the Degelen complex has been agreed upon with the Russian Minatom. 64 According to another source at a press-conference, Minatom official Anatoliy Matushchenko said that the presence of US colleagues in some tunnels would be undesirable due to issues of sensitivity. (See also the 10/3/95 entry, below.) 65

Residents of the village Sarzhal near the Semipalatinsk test site believe that an unexploded nuclear bomb was abandoned in Lake Chagan at the test site in 12/64. They also claim that above-ground tests at the site were conducted until 1/25/65. Village residents worry that radioactive gases, formed in tunnels where underground nuclear explosions took place, are now leaking from coal deposits near the village. Contaminated areas at the Semipalatinsk site are not fenced in or marked in any way, that would warn local people to avoid them. 66

It was reported that numerous intruders dug out contaminated cables on the territory of the Semipalatinsk test site searching for non-ferrous metals. In one case, 48 vehicles and 5 excavators were detained at the Opytnoye Pole site, the former epicenter of nuclear explosions. Local administrations make the illegal digging possible when they issue licenses for collecting non-ferrous scrap without indicating the permitted locations. The test site is unguarded and there is no a single owner or authority controlling the area. The territory of the Semipalatinsk site (about 1 million hectares) is divided between the Semipalatinsk oblast (517 thousand hectares), Pavlodar oblast (550 thousand hectares), and Karaganda oblast (24 thousand hectares). Though the State Land Committee decided to transfer jurisdiction over the Semipalatinsk site’s land to the National Nuclear Center, this proposal was protested by the Semipalatinsk oblast administration because of the coal, gold and semi-precious metals deposits found at the site. 67

Assistant US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the head of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Kasymzhomart Tokayev signed an agreement pledging $6 million in US assistance to Kazakhstan for closing the Semipalatinsk complex. 68

According to a US-Kazakhstani agreement, the United States agreed to extend up to $6 million in CTR assistance to seal the Degelen Mountain complex. 69 The agreement calls for two phases. First, commencing in 10/95, assessments will be conducted to determine the radiological and geological status of each tunnel. Then, after completing the assessments, the process of sealing the Degelen complex at the rate of 60 tunnels a year will begin. The project is to be finished in 1999. The agreement envisions the sealing of 186 tunnels where nuclear explosions took place; the fate of other tunnels not subject to nuclear explosions will be decided separately. 70 The tunnels will be sealed either by constructing concrete “stoppers“ or by blowing up the tunnel caps causing them to cave in. According to reports, intruders are getting into the contaminated tunnels in order to steam remaining nonferrous metals. The considerable size of the complex makes it difficult for internal troops to prevent such trespassing. In addition, one third of the tunnels reportedly have access to underground water sources. 71 The US Defense Nuclear Agency will execute the project on behalf of the Department of Defense, in cooperation with the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan. 72

In May 1995, in Tunnel 108, the last “nuclear device“ on Kazakhstan territory was destroyed by specialists from Russia’s VNIITF with the assistance of Kazakhstani experts from the Ministry of Ecology and Bioresources. The operation was conducted under an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan. 73 Boris Lebedev was in charge of the destruction. The explosion of the 0.3-0.4 kT undetonated device took place 425 feet below ground. (For more information on this explosive device see the 5/94 and 8/19/94 entries below.) 74 While preserving the classified nature of the technical specifications of the device, Kazakhstani scientists explained at a conference in 1997 that the device was not a bomb and not a warhead. It was a unique nuclear device constructed and placed in the Tunnel 108 in 1991. It was meant to be used within a few months after its emplacement. However, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, political considerations prevented the detonation of the device. Experts determined that if left unexploded, the device could eventually contaminate the water table. 75 As shipping the device to Chelyabinsk-70 for disposal would have been exceedingly dangerous, it was decided to destroy it in place using chemical explosives. 76

The small Kazakhstani enterprise Degelen, which consists of 20 highly qualified miners who formerly worked at the Semipalatinsk site, was contracted to access a nuclear device buried in the test site. The extraction work was conducted from 8/94 to 5/95. It was also reported that, due to the theft of telephone cables at the site, communications on the dismantling of the nuclear device had to be performed via satellite systems.77

The US GAO reports that $77,000 has been spent on studies of long-term radiation in Kazakhstan and Russia. Specifically, the US Department of Defense Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute has been examining the results of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk since 1992. The US project in Kazakhstan is under the direction of Academician Saim Balmukhanov. 78

According to some reports, there are in fact three nuclear devices at the Semipalatinsk test site in addition to the well-known 0.3-0.4 kiloton nuclear explosive device that has been there since 1991. One 150 kiloton device is supposedly located in a horizontal tunnel, and the other two, of undisclosed yield, are in vertical shafts at a depth of 500 meters. (No other sources have reported the existence of any additional devices.) 79

The fourth meeting of the coordinating group on dismantling the nuclear device installed in the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was held in Kurchatov (Semipalatinsk region). 80

The IAEA has told the government of Kazakhstan that the radiological situation today around the former Soviet Union’s nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk does not a pose a health risk to local populations. The advice, qualified as preliminary, is based on the findings of a 7/95 IAEA-led mission, during which French, Russian, US, and UK experts corroborated Russian and Kazakhstani data on contamination and made external dose measurements in the area. However, the IAEA noted that two areas within the 19,000-square-kilometer test site have high external dose rates and calls for administrative measures to ban access to them. 81

Work has begun on the removal of a nuclear explosive device buried at Semipalatinsk. 82 Radiation readings at the newly opened shaft where the device is buried do not exceed normal background levels, according to reports, and dismantlement work is proceeding on schedule. The Russian-Kazakhstani coordinating group that is overseeing work at the site met in Kurchatov on 8/15-20, and verified the radiation check. The group is expected to meet again by 9/19/94. 83

Russian and Kazakhstani specialists are working together to implement a plan for the removal of a nuclear explosive device that still remains buried on the Semipalatinsk test range, according to Anatoliy Matushchenko of Russia’s Minatom. The plan for removal of the device was designed by the All-Union Scientific Research and Planning Institute of Industrial Technology in Moscow and may take six months to complete. Expenditures, which will be covered by Russia, are expected to exceed 1 billion rubles. Moscow and Almaty have signed an agreement stipulating that anything recovered from the site is the property of Russia and that only Russians will be allowed to examine the explosive or monitoring devices. The article notes that this nuclear charge has been underground for an unprecedented three years, and so has in itself become a unique experiment. 84 85 86

The nuclear device was created in Chelyabinsk-70 and installed in gallery No. 108 in 5/91. The 0.3-0.4 kiloton charge was designed to test new types of weapons and military equipment for resistance to the destructive factors of an atomic explosion, specifically the impact of extremely high x-ray radiation, using special measuring devices which were buried along with the charge. Analysis of the results would then permit further refinement of military weapons technology. The nuclear charge was installed at the end of the gallery, which runs roughly 600 meters into the rock, at a depth 130 meters. Heavy cement was poured on the plug with a channel for the radiation to escape. The entry opening was sealed to keep reaction gas from escaping outside during the explosion. The nuclear device was guarded by Russian Interior Ministry forces until 12/93, when the test site’s military unit was disbanded by a decree of the Russian Minister of Defense. 87 88

All Russian scientists are expected to be out of Semipalatinsk by 7/94, according to a report on the Russian Television Network. At the time of this report, it is said that only 20% of the original staff are still in place, a number considered insufficient to maintain security at the site. 89

President Nazarbayev ruled out any possibility of resuming testing at the Semipalatinsk range, when he spoke at a press conference in Moscow. He did suggest ways in which Moscow and Almaty might cooperate to use the research facilities at the site, such as for civilian nuclear reactor safety or as a space training center. He also called for an international commission to help with assessment of the damage caused by testing in the region. 90

AFP, citing ITAR-TASS, reported that the head of the Semipalatinsk test range had been dismissed from his post on charges of selling equipment from the facilities located on the site. The report said that Kazakhstani authorities were conducting an investigation. 91 Contrary to some reports, Lieutenant General Yuriy Konovalenko was not arrested, but was “on leave“ from his duties. Because Konovalenko is a Russian citizen, Kazakhstani officials have no jurisdiction in his case, which will probably be handled by Russian authorities. He is suspected of embezzling and reselling some nonferrous metals, as well as particularly valuable equipment. 92 93

V. Vasilenko, chief of the council of experts for issues of social ecology, Nevada-Semipalatinsk International Antinuclear Movement, attacked the draft agreement reached by Moscow and Almaty on the future use of test sites, including the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range. Dr. Vasilenko claimed that the agreements were made without any public review of the various proposals, and without an independent ecological review by Nevada-Semipalatinsk’s experts. According to Dr. Vasilenko, Articles 40, 42, 48, 55, 59, 61, and 62 of the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan guarantee these rights. 94


Limited Test Ban Treaty
Also known as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water prohibits nuclear weapons tests "or any other nuclear explosion" in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. While the treaty does not ban tests underground, it does prohibit nuclear explosions in this environment if they cause "radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control" the explosions were conducted. The treaty is of unlimited duration. For additional information, see the PTBT.
Entry into force
The moment at which all provisions of a treaty are legally binding on its parties. Every treaty specifies preconditions for its entry into force. For example, the NPT specified that it would enter into force after the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (the Depository governments) and 40 other countries ratified the treaty, an event that occurred on March 5, 1970. See entries for Signature, Ratification.
Research reactor
Research reactor: Small fission reactors designed to produce neutrons for a variety of purposes, including scientific research, training, and medical isotope production. Unlike commercial power reactors, they are not designed to generate power.
Nunn-Lugar program
See entry for Cooperative Threat Reduction
Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) Program
A U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) program established in 1992 by the U.S. Congress, through legislation sponsored primarily by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. It is the largest and most diverse U.S. program addressing former Soviet Union weapons of mass destruction threats. The program has focused primarily on: (1) destroying vehicles for delivering nuclear weapons (e.g., missiles and aircraft), their launchers (such as silos and submarines), and their related facilities; (2) securing former Soviet nuclear weapons and their components; and (3) destroying Russian chemical weapons. The term is often used generically to refer to all U.S. nonproliferation programs in the former Soviet Union—and sometimes beyond— including those implemented by the U.S. Departments of Energy, Commerce, and State. The program’s scope has expanded to include threat reduction efforts in geographical areas outside the Former Soviet Union.
Weapons-grade material
Weapons-grade material: Refers to the nuclear materials that are most suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, e.g., uranium (U) enriched to 90 percent U-235 or plutonium (Pu) that is primarily composed of Pu-239 and contains less than 7% Pu-240. Crude nuclear weapons (i.e., improvised nuclear devices), could be fabricated from lower-grade materials.
Critical: A state where the number of neutrons in each period of time, or generation, remains constant. When a nuclear reactor is “steady-state,” or operating at normal power levels for extended periods of time, it is in this state.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.


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