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June 23, 2021

The Semipalatinsk test site-Kazakhstan’s nuclear tragedy

hartaThe Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was established on the 21st August 1947 by the decision of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. It held the first nuclear weapons tests, created in the USSR.


The test site was located on the territory of Semey, Pavlodar and Qaragandy regions. About 18,500 square kilometres of land have been allocated for nuclear experiments. Thousands of indigenous Kazakh families living on the land allocated for the test site were relocated to other areas. Military engineers prepared an “experimental field” for the first atomic tests. A nuclear charge was installed in a thirty-meter metal tower, which was at the epicentre of the field and resembled a water tower. Around the area, reinforced concrete fortifications, armoured towers and bunkers were built. Military equipment, artillery pieces, tanks, aircrafts, vehicles and armoured vehicles were set up at different distances from the epicenter.

The first test carried out at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was on August 29, 1949. Right after the test, the site and the surrounding villages experienced nuclear fallout. For 40 years, from 1949 to 1989, 473 nuclear explosions were conducted at the Semipalatinsk test site, including 90 air, 26 ground and 354 underground tests. Apart from the nuclear experiments, 175 chemical explosions were carried out of which 44 of them were charged with more than ten tons. The peak of experiments was from 1961 to 1962. In two years, 68 nuclear explosions took place and only in September of 1961 alone, 15 nuclear tests were executed. From 1964 to 1989 another 352 underground nuclear explosions thundered at the Semipalatinsk test site, the power of which reached 150 kilotons. Thus, the total power of all nuclear explosions produced on the territory of Kazakhstan went beyond 50 megatons. The fallout spread on the territory of 304 thousand square kilometres, where more than 1.7 million people resided. Semipalatinsk region became a zone of ecological disaster.


Semipalatinsk test site – a city that is not visible on any map


Being highly classified, it often changed its name: Moscow-400, Semipalatinsk-21, Konechnaya (last stop), and recently it has become Kurchatov. Its residents, both military and civilian, carried out works for the nuclear tests. The city had scientific and research laboratories, medical, biological, mathematics and physics centers, as well as shaft, drilling, geological and construction production plants.

It provided all the conditions for research and experimental works, and for the residents a “communist paradise” was created. In Kurchatov city famous Soviet physicists such as Igor Kurchatov, Yulii Khariton and Yakov Zel’dovich lived and worked at different times. Under their leadership, tens of thousands of people turned their work to creating weapons of horror.

Semipalatinsk test site was located in a heavily populated region. A number of times, areas of the surrounding villages were subject to pollution because of nuclear fission. Reservoirs and pastures for grazing of personal and state cattle have also been polluted.

The cases of cancer, heart disease, leucosis, central nervous system disorders and mortality rate increased among the population living near the site during that period. Doctors were forbidden to state the correct diagnosis of the diseases, which were associated with the radiation exposure. Therefore, people were treated for all diseases, except for those caused by radiation.

The anti-nuclear movement “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” was created on February 28, 1989. The main aim of this movement was the closing of the Semipalatinsk test site, as well as all nuclear test sites around the world. At a rally close to the building of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan, on February 28, the founder and the President of the anti-nuclear movement Olzhas Suleimenov declared: “Our goal is to stop the testing of nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan forever, to close the Semipalatinsk test site, to fight for the closure of all nuclear sites!”.

Mass protests of the movement “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” put an end to eleven of eighteen planned explosions at the Semipalatinsk test site in 1989, and in 1990 and 1991 did not allow for a single test to be conducted. Through the efforts of the national anti-nuclear movement, nuclear tests were banned on Kazakh soil, when the independent Kazakhstan appeared on the world map. Its first public act was the Decree “On the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site” signed by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev on 29 August 1991.

After the closure of the test site, the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan was created on its bases. Its activities are focused on the problems of studying and eliminating the consequences of nuclear testing and solving the problems of safety of nuclear power. The independent Kazakhstan became the first state free of nuclear weapons among the former Soviet Republics. In August 1996, Kazakhstan confirmed its commitment to the world by signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the United Nations.

August 29, 2016 marks exactly 25 years since the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. It should be mentioned that the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that approved the Universal Declaration on the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, put forward by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, and declared August 29 the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

Exactly on this day, Astana will host the International Conference “Building a Nuclear Weapon-Free World” which will bring together distinguished parliamentarians, representatives of international organisations, disarmament experts, civil activists, scholars, mayors and media from around the world. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev will address the Conference participants to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. The participants of the conference will discuss the global significance of the Manifesto “The World. XXI Century” and issues of creating a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World.

Kazakhstan – a country which was affected by nuclear tests, knows all the troubles and horrors of the deadly weapons because of its own tragic experience, and will focus on the issue of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as one of its key priorities as a non-permanent UN Security Council member for the 2017-2018.


Editorial Note

For readers’ information: on 16th of September 2016 a Conference on Kazakhstan’s international initiatives on nuclear disarmament with the participation of the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan will be held at the premises of the Romanian Diplomatic Institute. Detailed information can be found at the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Romania.

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