Let’s face it: There are a lot of lousy places one can be stuck living on the Earth. At present, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq all come to mind.
Yet, none seem quite as bad as the region of eastern Kazakhstan that the Soviet Union used as a nuclear testing ground for more than 40 years.
Agence France-Presse has a depressing report about life in the Kazakh city of Semey, just a couple hundred miles from where tests were conducted beginning in the late 1940s up until the early 1990s.
“I was working in a medical institute, teaching chemistry,” said 79-year-old Yevdokia Matushkina. “Almost every day, announcements on the radio at noon would say: ‘Now there is going to be a test of nuclear weapons.’ Everything would shake. The windows in my classroom were shattered by the shockwave from one of the blasts.”
A total of 456 nuclear tests were conducted at the test site over 42 years until Kazakhstan shut down the facility 20 years ago on Aug. 29, 1991, making it the first country to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, according to Agence France-Presse.
The first Soviet nuclear bomb was exploded at 7 a.m. on Aug. 29, 1949. Named “First Lightning,” it threw up a huge mushroom cloud and dumped vast amounts of radioactive materials on the 1.5 million people who were living in the nuclear impact zone, which was the size of Belgium.
“While the nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl and the bombing of Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki are etched in the world’s memory, what happened at Semey, then known as Semipalatinsk, appears to be all but forgotten,” Agence France-Presse reported.
The provincial and otherwise unremarkable town of Semey, whose name was changed four years ago, lies a little less than 100 miles west of the 7,100-square-mile nuclear testing site where the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States began.
Ahead of nuclear tests, the Soviet military warned the public to shut windows and stay at home or remain inside buildings, witnesses recall.
One of those who decided to look out of curiosity was Suakysh Iskakova, now 77, a resident at the same home as Matushkina, who says she paid for it with her eyesight.
“When I was blinded from the blast, my uncle took me to see the doctor and the doctor said it was my own fault that I looked at the bright light from the explosion,” Iskakova said.
At the same site, in November 1955, the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb.
In 1957, the Soviet authorities established a secret facility to monitor the impact of radiation on human life. Now-declassified documents describe the contamination of Kazakh villages.
“The village of S. was contaminated by radiation from precipitation after a 1953 nuclear test,” said one document from 1967, adding that radiation levels in the village were still 10 times higher than normal.
Although the site has been shut down for two full decades, Kazakhstan is still reeling from the effects of long-term nuclear testing.
The Semipalatinsk region around the test site was subjected to the fallout from a total of 616 nuclear explosions over a period of 40 years.
The region has the highest cancer rate in the country, something that is at least partly attributable to the effects of fallout, said Kazbek Apsalikov, the head of the Semey research centre of radiation medicine and ecology, a once-secret facility created to monitor the impact of radioactivity on the population.
While it is hard to determine precisely how many have been affected by nuclear testing, scientists link the region’s higher rates of cancer and heart disease, especially among younger population, to the effects of radiation.
Officials at the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology in the once closed military city of Kurchatov, some a little over 100 miles west of Semey, say they hope farmers will eventually be able to reclaim land at the test site.
The contamination at the site is scattered and levels have not changed significantly in the last 20 years, said Sergei Lukashenko, the director of the institute.
“The only way to remedy this contamination is to remove the upper layer of soil and store it in a secure place,” he said.
(Above: First Lighting, the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb, exploding on the Kazakh steppe on Aug. 29, 1949.)