The continuing danger of Semipalatinsk

By Magdalena Stawkowski | October 6, 2016

During the Cold War, the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear weapons testing ground. Between 1949 and 1989, more than 450 nuclear bombs were exploded above and below ground on its once secret, 7,000-square-mile territory. In the post-Soviet period, Kazakhstan has attracted much international praise for its “extraordinary leadership” and “courage” in closing Semipalatinsk, for giving up its nuclear weapons stockpile, and for helping to create a nuclear weapon free zone in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has also been celebrated for having an extraordinary record in advancing nuclear security and thus was judged to be perfectly suited to host an international fuel bank for low-enriched uranium. The Obama administration has described Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as “really one of the model leaders in the world” on non-proliferation and nuclear safety issues.

These commendations are perhaps overly enthusiastic. They exaggerate Kazakhstan’s commitment to nuclear safety; actually, Kazakhstan’s leadership has done little to address pressing humanitarian issues at Semipalatinsk, failing to provide adequate funding for environmental clean up and adequate security for the site itself. How can the world talk about nuclear safety in Kazakhstan when it is the only place on Earth where thousands of people still live in and around an atomic test site? How can there be safety, when residual radioactivity and environmental damage are a normal part of life for people who live there? Nuclear security should mean more than the physical protection of nuclear materials. Nuclear security must also mean the physical protection of individual citizens from radioactivity.

Today, most of the abandoned Semipalatinsk territory is accessible to anyone who wishes to enter. Except for a 37-mile area “exclusion zone” at the Degelen Mountain complex, guarded by drones and other surveillance equipment, few signs indicate radiation danger. For the thousands living nearby, it is no secret that the former nuclear testing area is poorly secured. I have been conducting anthropological fieldwork in the region since 2009, living in Koyan, a remote village on the nuclear test site’s border. I know first hand the ease with which people make use of the territory. (“Koyan” and “Tursynbek,” the name of an ethnographic interlocutor mentioned later in this article, are pseudonyms, used to protect village residents and the interlocutor following the convention of confidentiality spelled out in the American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics on professional responsibility).

Koyaners, like most everyone else living in and around Semipalatinsk, use the test site in a number of ways: They drive across the dusty steppe during warmer months to visit relatives in nearby villages. In July and August, men, women, and children come back from the site, buckets brimming with wild strawberries they have picked from its shallow valleys. Many graze their herds of sheep, goats, horses, and cows on the Semipalatinsk pastures, sometimes near craters formed by underground explosions. Many of these places are known to contain radioactive “hot spots,” but since the area around Koyan is mostly unmarked, no one in the village is certain where the hot spots are. Koyaners are not privy to this information, because no one in the government shares it with them.

On a hot, sunny day in July 2015, Tursynbek, a burly stockbreeder and miner in his mid-50s, decided we should go out and measure radiation on our own. As we got in the car, he complained that when he has had a chance to ask scientists, who occasionally do research in the area, if there is radiation, they dismiss his concerns by saying, “There is nothing here; no radiation.” I made sure to bring my Geiger counter on this trip, and a short car ride later I was looking down from the rim of a nuclear crater, trying to hear the Geiger counter readings Tursynbek was shouting. His camouflage jacket was barely visible on the steep pitch, among the tall grasses; a rather sizeable water hole was beyond, inside the crater. He scanned the ground for radioactivity, his white paper sanitary mask pulled down under his chin, rather than over his mouth. The sanitary mask was meant to protect against small particles of plutonium or other radioisotopes that are dangerous when inhaled but can be stopped by a sheet of paper. But Tursynbek was not afraid. Tursybek knows this area well; he was born in Koyan and has decades of experience raising livestock, sheep, goats, cows, and horses, which includes grazing them on the test site.

Still, he had never been here on this kind of mission. As he climbed out, he eagerly used the Geiger counter to check the wreckage of the atomic landscape: trenches, mangled barbed wire enclosures, scattered cement blocks with clusters of electrical cables jutting from them. The frantic clicking of the Geiger counter disturbed the otherwise calm summer afternoon. Not far from us, Kazakhstan’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology (IRSE) wazik (van) carrying “geologists,” as the scientists are known to Koyaners, passed by. “They have never shared any of this information with us,” Tursynbek said motioning to the van and pointing at the .700 milliRem per hour reading displayed by the counter.

Normal background is between .008-.015 milliRem/hr. According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Americans receive an average radiation dose of about 620 milliRem per year. Half of this dose comes from naturally occurring radiation found in soil, rocks (uranium), and air (radon). The other half comes from man-made sources, like radiation therapy, x-rays, and nuclear power plants. At the crater, five weeks is enough time to receive the average yearly dose of radiation described by the NRC. In one year that dose is equal to 6,136 milliRem.

Looking around the abandoned test site, it is almost never obvious what went on here, except at a few key experimental locations, which have decaying cement structures and other visible points of interest. The once high levels of security have long since disappeared. Yet for 40 years various technical sites at Semipalatinsk were used to experiment with different types of nuclear explosions. At “Ground Zero” for example, 116 aboveground tests were conducted, as part of a full-scale experiment designed to record damage done to animals (sheep, goats, cows, and pigs), plants and soil, building construction, military equipment, and people living in settlements found near the site. At other technical areas, more than 300 underground nuclear explosions were used to test their peaceful applications. Several of these high-yield tests produced nuclear craters and contaminated much of the area nearby.

Near the nuclear crater Tursynbek and I visited, only a small and badly faded radiation warning sign clung to a mangled barbed wire enclosure that once provided some level of protection. The plight of people who suffered from radiation exposure during the Soviet-era is well known in the country and abroad, even if the level of radioactive pollution and its impact on human health are hotly disputed, in local and international peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In an August 2015 editorial for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, Kairat Umarov, highlighted the fate of 1.5 million Kazakh citizens whose lives continue to be affected by nuclear testing. He wrote with the optimism of a man hoping to promote a nuclear-weapons-free world. But Umarov ignored an obvious fact: The Nazarbayev government, lacking financial resources, has done very little to address the security problems at Semipalatinsk and has not spent a penny to clean up the area. Praise of the nation’s leadership for making Kazakhstan a non-nuclear state has come at a price: It has overshadowed and limited conversations about lack of oversight of Semipalatinsk and the toxic mess that the Soviet nuclear testing program left behind and continues to endanger thousands of citizens living in the area. Given this unresolved and underreported situation at Semipalatinsk, the international community should offer financial help and expertise for the cleanup of Semipalatinsk, or at the very least help with cordoning off the most contaminated areas of the site.

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