A Brief History of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS)
The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was built by Kazakh prisoners as commissioned by Joseph Stalin from 1947 to 1949 near a town formerly known as Alash kala[i] and presently as Semey. The SNTS was a vast eighteen thousand square kilometers and was the site of 456 known nuclear weapons tests between its opening and its closure in 1991. Prior to being the home of the most active Soviet nuclear test site, Alash kala and its neighboring city of Karaganda were the home of a burgeoning literary and academic scene due to its role as a destination for Soviet exiles. Dostoevsky’s literary career started during his time in Semipalatinsk, and its people are featured in Crime and Punishment. The area is also well known as a native land of Abay Kunanbay uly, father of modern Kazakh poetry.
The climate has a dramatic range between -40 degrees Celsius in the winter and can reach over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summer. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests and the closure of the site, Russian scientists declared that they did not follow protocols to bury and protect nuclear material as they could not imagine that anyone would be in the area (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Yet it is difficult to imagine that the placement of this project which they wanted out of sight was coincidentally neighboring the village where political dissidents had been sent, and its remoteness circumspect as it has been determined that over 1.3 million people were impacted by the nuclear tests conducted at SNTS (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013).
Photograph from the first expedition of foreign interns to visit the sites at Kurchatov and Semey (2019) with the Center for International Security and Policy. Photo credit: Oleg Butenko.
From the execution of the first test, the destructive impact of conducting a nuclear test was apparent. The town the Soviets created as a test site was leveled and the live animals they brought there had all died or were burned and in shock (Kassenova, 2017). Between 1949 and 1963 with the implementation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, at least twenty-five tests were conducted on the ground and eighty-six in the air, with the last two occurring immediately prior to the treaty signing and in public recollection citizens were only evacuated for one test (Vakulchuk et al, 2014) and otherwise people were informed by radio, or in towns in which there were no radios civilians were informed by letter (Kassenova, 2017); however then like now, many could not afford to relocate or evacuate. From 1963 until the closure of the site in 1991, two hundred and one were conducted tests underground which led to the contamination of ground water and the alteration of the surface ground in the area, yielding an explosive energy release equivalent to more than four-hundred Hiroshima bombs (Vakulchuk et al, 2014) and the creation of a new lake known as “Atomic Lake” and to this day unknown consequences in the atmosphere (Kassenova, 2017).
The Soviet government commissioned secret reports on the health and welfare of those within the vicinity of blasts, however when the health of this population became a topic of public debate, the Soviets attributed illnesses and conditions to poor hygiene and diet. A Kazakh institute was founded to further investigate the symptoms and impacts of radiation exposure on the population, and eventually coined “Kainar Syndrome”, named for a village in Kazakhstan where the people had been exposed to radiation due to the tests conducted at SNTS and were deficient in Vitamin C (Atchabarov, 2015). The early symptoms of this syndrome are hemorrhaging of orifices and internal organs, changes in skin, mucus, hair, nails, and extreme fatigue (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). In a report commissioned published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, authors Vakulchuk, Gjerde, Belikhina and Apsalikov categorize the symptoms into acute and early effects (one to ten years post-tests), early-long term (ten to twenty years post-tests) and late long term (twenty or more years post-tests); the early effects most prominently were infant mortality, malformations of the face and nervous system in infants and a doubled rate of leukemia. The early to long term effects include more than thrice-fold increased mortality from cancer, chromosome aberrations which debilitate the body’s ability to fight disease, early onset cardiovascular disease and thrice-fold malformations at birth. The long term effects which are in some cases experienced presently are thrice-fold rates of lung, bronchial and breast cancer and decreased life expectancy (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). This report also included a study conducted by Japanese researchers in Kazakhstan from 2002 to 2004 based on studies they conducted in communities near Hiroshima, and their report concluded that more than ninety-percent of persons within two hundred kilometers felt impacted by the tests, they were told the tests were military not nuclear, and seventy-percent recognized the impact on their community’s health (Kawano and Ohtaki 2006). These issues continuously impact the mental health of the population who while suffering from current known ailments continue to fear for the future unknown effects.
While some of the land used for the nuclear test site may be restored, large swaths are unlikely to be revitalized and the continuous impacts of the contamination of the Shagan river are unknown (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Numerous academic and media sources have expressed surprise at the lack of barriers to entry in these contaminated spaces which are both unsafe and have been looted for the leftover metal.
The lake created in 1963 on the Polygon as a result of an explosion that used 20 tons of conventional explosives (an imitation of a nuclear explosion) Photo Credit: Oleg Butenko, retrieved from Voices on Central Asia, “Humans of the Polygon: Travel Notes from the Land of Abai. Karaul, Znamenka (Kokentau), Sarzhal” by Togzhan Kassenova, published 10/9/2016.
In 1989, a movement since named the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement in reference to the Nevada movement for denuclearization in the United States was launched by a Kazakh writer, Olzhas Suleimenov, in his national television announcement about leaks from the Semipalatinsk website (Cabasso, 2016). He called on Kazakhstanis to protest, and the following day it is reported that approximately one million people took to the streets in response. The Kazakhstani Soviet Socialist Republic government pled and negotiated for the closure of the site, and the USSR regime agreed to a slowing of testing limited to a few tests every few years (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Upon the fall of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s independence, the Kazakh president closed the site and cancelled the two tests planned in 1991. Since that time, Kazakhstan has led a charge for global denuclearization and has been recognized for its efforts on the global stage. However, independence and the closing of this site in no way represented an end to its destructive power and the undue influence of the Russian government in the site’s management and the nation’s governance.
The Cleanup of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Remediation for the Effected
The closing of the site occurred in a pivotal moment for the new nation which became a nuclear free country and established with neighboring countries a nuclear free zone in Central Asia (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Kazakhstan returned the nuclear weapons to Russia; however, they did not have the resources to do so immediately, and so the Russian government de facto maintained nuclear sites in Kazakhstan until the weapons were repatriated in 1995. In addition to not having the resources to return or secure remaining materials, the Kazakh government did not have resources to care for the effected citizens. They created a program with the goal of providing assistance to the estimated 1.323 million persons within the vicinity of the site assigned “radiation passports” which have allowed them to access lump sums, high salaries, salary increases for government workers, additional paid leave, extended maternity leave, and free healthcare for the children of those effected. There are established judicial proceedings for those whose compensation does not meet their needs and thus far the cases have a 79.7% rate of success. However, the Kazakh government was not able to fulfill these obligations for years after they were made, and this compensation is not available to anyone who moved to the area after 1991 for the considerable industrial development here and in neighboring towns. Further, the site was not secured, and it is known that people have walked in and out of the area.
A faded radiation warning sign near a nuclear crater. Photo Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Semipalatinsk in Pictures”, by John Mecklin 10/9/2016. Photos Copyright Magdalena Stawkowski.
The Project Managing the Atom (within Harvard University’s Belfer Center) released an extensive report on the cleanup process detailing a tri-lateral deal between the U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia (eventually and reluctantly), funded almost entirely by the United States. The Kazakhstanis conducted the fieldwork, and the Russian counterparts were needed as the experts on the facility, however refused to participate unless the Kazakhstanis agreed to not discuss the level of destruction publicly. The Russian government refused to repatriate all materials recovered and thus they were encased in cement and remain buried in Kazakhstan; the site will never be fully restored to nature and the contract to secure the area was awarded to a Russian company [ii] who is now reaping economic benefit from the continued contamination and lack of security of Kazakh land.
In The Right to Maim, social theorist Jasbir Puar describes the purposeful debilitation of bodies through injury, malnourishment, deprivation and exclusion of those deemed expendable or undesirable by the perpetrators. For example, the state’s refusal to address and remedy the water crisis in Flint, Michigan which resulted in sickness in the population is a deliberate maiming of that population. In maiming bodies, and destroying the landscapes those bodies reside in (spacioside) perpetrators avoid the rancor that comes with killing while continuously weakening and controlling a population. Puar posits the following points worth consideration in understanding the SNTS: first, environmental toxins as the result of imperialism, and second, and de facto settler colonialism as an ongoing debilitation (2017). The environmental toxins released into the society and remaining in the Kazakh land have led to the ongoing debilitation of an entire region. The effects may continue to be experienced for generations to come. Securing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear project has led to an ongoing security contract in which Kazakhstan pays a Russian security contractor to secure and surveil the only secure portion [iii]of the site essentially paying the perpetrator of this catastrophe and inviting them to surveil their former territory. The Kazakhstanis have not publicly rebuked the Russian state for the creation of the site, nor in public record asked for financial assistance in handling the consequences of the nuclear tests.
Further, in the creation of the nuclear site and the use of prisoners as laborers, we see a revival of the activity that Marx ascribed to the early days of capitalism being implemented in the state conceived theoretically by Marx’s design. In Capital, Marx describes the criminalization of poverty as a mechanism to create a prisoner class available for labor in the post-Feudal era, the poverty which resulted from the shift from a Feudal economy to an industrial capitalist economy. In the case of the former USSR, under land collectivization plans the implementation of an authoritarian regime Kazakhs whom had previously owned land and subsisted through agriculture were stripped of their land and in their critique of this system became criminals ripe for exploitation. These prisoners constituted the labor that built the nuclear site many of whom died in the process (Kassenova, 2017). This exploitation continued as the laborers who remained, and those occupied the area as merchants and service providers of the scientists the USSR moved to the area were subjected to the effects of the nuclear blasts, and in the case of the one evacuation, were asked to stay behind (Kassenova, 2017). Semipalatinsk and the surrounding region were similarly turned into a laboratory as to those who maintained control, it also appeared remote and the outcomes of the test subject were not only of no import, but on occasion embodied a perceived enemy.
Heating Plant, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery. Photo Credit: Business Insider, “These Are The Secret Sites Where The Soviet Union Exploded Atomic Bombs And Tested Radiation On Unsuspecting Russians” by Harrison Jacobs, 9/19/2014
Kazakhstan finds itself at another pivotal moment. Their second president since independence was appointed then elected and the legitimacy of the results are questioned. The first election and all of those thereafter in which Nazarbayev was on the ballot were not considered free or fair by the international community, but in those first moments he responded to the desires of protestors and of a movement. Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear site, cancelled the two remaining tests, and positioned Kazakhstan as a force in geopolitics through leadership in denuclearization. It is one of the only known instances of public Kazakh rebuke of Russia since independence in no doubt enabled by the auspices of the revolutionary moment. Yet as Kazakhstan is on the precipice of another new era, the opportunity of the occasion is in danger of passing. Tokayev has come to power, a savvy politician who as interim president chose Russia as the destination of his first official visit. Now that his presidency is official, Tokayev has an opportunity to strengthen alliances with other partners, and open up opportunities for the future of the Kazakh people. Through elevating new equitable relationships he can project strength and a commitment to future prosperity.
Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones provided crucial revisions to this piece.
This work would not have been possible without the crucial feedback and support provided by Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones. The author also wishes to express her gratitude for the photos kindly provided by Oleg Butenko.
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[i] Alash kala was the capital of the autonomous state Alash autonomy, governed by Alash Orda who allied themselves with the Bolsheviks. The unrecognized existed from 1917 to 1918 in Karaganda and Semey on the territory of the current Republic of Kazakhstan.
[ii] Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman, “Plutonium mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing,” (Cambridge, Mass.: The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, August 2013).
[iii] Only one-fifth of the site is secured, the rest is open and accessible by the public. (SRB interview with Magdalena Stawkowski https://soundcloud.com/srbpodcast/nf02)