Some 140km west of Semey, Kurchatov served as the headquarters for the programme of nuclear testing carried out between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, which lay to the south and west of the town. In the Soviet period this was a closed town, known only by its postal code, though was later given the name Kurchatov in honour of the first scientific director of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Employing in its heyday some 40,000 people, its population has now fallen to around 10,000. Today, the town houses various research institutes of the National Nuclear Centre of Kazakhstan, established in 1992 on the basis of the infrastructure of the Semipalatinsk Test Site. Some new facilities are being built in the town, including a nuclear 'technopark', but for the most part Kurchatov has a semi-derelict appearance, with its occupied buildings standing amongst abandoned two- and three-storey 1950s blocks from which wild dogs howl at night. Some of these buildings were once grand affairs, with columns topped with five-pointed stars separating glassless windows. One derelict building still has the word 'hotel' written above the space where a door once stood.
PRACTICALITIES There are no longer restrictions in place on visiting Kurchatov. The checkpoints which used to stand outside the town have been dismantled. It may be possible to overnight here, by arrangement with the National Nuclear Centre (www.nnc.kz). The Centre and the various research institutes under its banner run small hotels in the town, which are primarily intended for official visitors, but they may be willing to put up tourists.
Should you visit the 'Polygon' some Kazakhstan tour operators offer visits to the former Semipalatinsk Test Site, and the National Nuclear Centre advises that many places within the 'Polygon are safe to visit, though others are not.
WHAT T0 SEE The town centres on a square, at the end of Kurchatov Street, dominated by a large statue of the shaggy-bearded Igor Kurchatov. The scientist was famous for his unruly beard, which grew long initially because of his promise not to cut it until the atomic bomb programme was shown to be a success. Behind the statue, the building with the Ionic-columned facade once housed the headquarters of the Semipalatinsk Test Site administration, and now accommodates the town akimat. To the right stands the head office of the National Nuclear Centre: a two- storey building with a balustraded balcony above the entrance. A plaque records that Igor Kurchatov lived and worked in the building from 1949-55.
The Cottage accommodation mentioned above stands between the National Nuclear Centre and akimat buildings, in the corner of the square. Behind it, in the same balustraded enclosure, is another accommodation unit, a green-walled building belonging to the Institute of Geophysical Research. Just beyond this is a two-storey cottage behind railings. This is the building constructed for Lavrenti Beria, who was to use it for a grand total of three nights. In a glorious piece of irony, Berias cottage has now been converted to accommodate a Russian Orthodox church.
Heading away from the central square along Kurchatov Street, you reach on your right the two-storey green-walled building housing the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology (www.irse-rk.kz). A bust of Kurchatov stands outside the building, bearing a quotation expressing Kurchatov's pride in his work. On the second floor of the building is a museum. This is not strictly open to the public, but the staff say they are happy to welcome visitors with an interest in the subject matter who call in advance. Some of the labelling is in English as well as Russian.
A bust of Kurchatov welcomes you into the museum. The displays start to the right, with a gruesome series of pickled animal parts in jars, showing the results of exposure to the nuclear testing. The labels describe such outcomes as 'dog bladder wall haemorrhage', 'second and third degree burns of pig skin' and 'dog liver failure'. There is a map of the 'Polygon', and descriptions of some of the leading scientists of the atomic bomb project, including Yuli Khariton and future dissident Andrei Sakharov. There is a chilling model of the Experimental Field, at which the atmospheric tests were carried out, laid out for a bomb to be detonated from a tower. Arranged around the tower, in segments rather like slices of cake, are areas set out with tanks, aircraft, buildings and, distressingly, tethered animals, to measure the effects of the blast on the military hardware, civilian infrastructure and animal life. Lines of concrete instrumentation buildings also fanned out from the tower.
There is a cut-through model of one of the tunnels in the Degelen Mountains. A large lump of granite, taken from the epicentre of the first underground explosion at Degelen in 1961, is kept in a perspex box. Lift the box to see how the explosion has transformed the heavy granite into the lightest of rocks, something like pumice. A weirdly warped casing pipe, like a piece of abstract sculpture, is a legacy of a test at the Balapan Complex in 1972, and there is a cut-through model of one of the boreholes at Balapan. There is also plenty of equipment on display, including instrumentation panels, cameras and dosimeters. A small side room is devoted to Kurchatov, with photographs of the wildly bearded scientist and copies of his handwriting. The first person to sign the visitors' book kept here, when the museum opened in 1972, was Yuli Khariton.