The crime of nuclear testing
Tales of the Atomic Age PART 1
Text and pictures Pierpaolo Mittica
Video Alessandro Tesei, Pierpaolo Mittica

The Semipalatinsk Test Site

The road to Semipalatinsk-21 is a long strip of black asphalt pitted with potholes, almost craters, surrounded by endless steppes and villages in the midst of nowhere. There are no road signs indicating Semipalatinsk-21, because the city does not exist. Or rather Semipalatinsk-21 was the code name for one of the most secret cities of the former Soviet Union: the city of Kurchatov. It never appeared on maps and was known only to those working on the development of Soviet military nuclear power. It was built in 1947 and renamed in honor of the nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet nuclear program. In this area, located in the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan, the USSR developed its first atomic bomb and exploded it on 29 August 1949 . A further 456 followed that explosion until 1989. Today the road runs all the way to Kurchatov and it is no longer a secret site. Anyone can enter it. The barbed wire and checkpoints no longer exist. Because everything ended in 1991 when the test site was abandoned. But here nothing has really ended.

The Semipalatinsk test site is a tragedy of the nuclear age destined to endure, continuing to inflict terrible harm on the population and the environment for the next 24,000 years. Throughout the period of the nuclear experiments the local population was kept completely in the dark about what was going on. The inhabitants were warned by the military of impending explosions, partly because they were so conspicuous that they could be seen and heard scores of kilometres away. The locals were forced to leave their homes and await military permission to return, but they were not told that nuclear weapons were being tested, releasing massive quantities of radiation.

Scientists at the Kurchatov nuclear center. The scientists of the nuclear center wear protective suits inside the site, near ground zero, where the first atomic bomb exploded in 1949. Kazakhstan

Everything was secret. Everything was kept hidden. As Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister confirms. He receives us in his office, in the capital Nur-Sultan, to tell us about this tragic burden that Kazakhstan has had to bear ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. “In 1991 Kazakhstan inherited the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site from the Soviet Union. The President of Kazakhstan Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev decided to shut it down on 29 August 1991. For many decades the effects of the atomic weapons tests were not known to the inhabitants and the local government. Everything was hidden, veiled with secrecy, during the Soviet period.

The statue of Lenin in the village of Semey, previously Semipalatinsk. Kazakhstan

It was only during the time of Glasnost and Perestrojka that information was given to the government of the Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan about the consequences of the nuclear tests, or even the fact that nuclear tests were conducted on any given day. According to our government information, through the 40 years of the Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk, some 1.8 million people were affected. Most of them are now dead, but we are tackling the problem with the second and third generations, survivors of the weapons tests. These are the children and grandchildren of those who were exposed to the radiations.”

Berik Syzdykov in his residency in Semey. Berik was born with abnormalities after his mother was exposed to radioactive fallout from atomic tests during pregnancy. He lived in the village of Znamenka, one of the most contaminated villages and located on the edge of the firing range. Semey, Kazakhstan

The test site covered an area of 18,500 square kilometres, but the contamination was detected in an area covering 300,000 square kilometres (comparable to the area of Germany). Much of the soil remains seriously contaminated and cannot be touched for the next 24,000 years. Villages such as Znamenka, Sarzhal and Kaynar, which are practically on the edge of the site, were never evacuated and the population still lives on with the consequences of the contamination. But even bigger towns like Kurchatov and especially Semey, with its 320,000 inhabitants, located less than 100 kilometers from the site, were regularly contaminated by radioactive winds.

A model that reproduces the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in the museum dedicated to the testing site in the Institute of Radiation Protection and Ecology in Kurchatov. Kazakhstan

In terms of damage to human health, according to various estimates, today there are currently 200,000 people living on highly contaminated soil. They suffer from a sharp rise in the frequency of tumours, congenital deformations and, of course, all the other related pathologies caused by radiation.

Viktor Vasilievic, in the hospital of Kurchatov. He suffers from heart problems, one of the most common radiation-related illnesses. Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

Almost 2 million people were affected by radioactive winds in the years of the experiments. But the biggest problem is only beginning. It is the genetic malformations that are increasing exponentially among the new generations, in the children of the witnesses to the Cold War. A legacy that will continue in future generations for thousands of years.