The Soviet Union's project to produce an atomic bomb started in a low-key way in 1943, with physicist Igor Kurchatov being appointed as scientific director. But espionage information about the US project, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, pushed the issue centre-stage. The Soviet Union's objective was to produce a working weapon on the US design as quickly as it could. Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's feared former security chief, was appointed administrative director to drive the project. In 1947, Beria selected an area of the Kazakh steppe to the south and west of Semipalatinsk to be the test site for the project, callously and inaccurately describing the area as uninhabited. On 29 August 1949, in the presence of Beria, the first bomb, 'First Lightning', was detonated from a tower in the Experimental Field of the Semipalatinsk Test Site. Closely resembling the US 'Fat Man' bomb, it had a yield of 22 kilotons. It was nicknamed 'Joe One' by the Americans, in a reference to Stalin.
Until the last test was carried out in 1989, the Semipalatinsk Test Site, also known somewhat geometrically as the 'Polygon', was the host to 456 nuclear explosions, with a cumulative power output some 2,500 times the Hiroshima bomb. Some 116 of these were atmospheric tests, conducted at the Experimental Field. When such atmospheric tests were banned by the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the focus of the testing moved to sites further south within the 'Polygon', particularly in a network of tunnels in the Degelen Mountains, and boreholes in the Balapan Complex. There were 340 of these underground tests. One of the most infamous of the later explosions was the Chagan test of 15 January 1965, part of a Soviet programme to explore peaceful uses for nuclear explosions. Conducted on the dry bed of the Chagan River, the explosion formed a crater which aimed to dam the river during its peak springtime flow. The result was the formation of Lake Chagan, better known as the Atomic Lake. The results of the nuclear testing for the people of the area included high rates of cancers and a host of other medical problems, as well as many cases of physical deformity. The radiation effects of the nuclear testing were monitored in the Soviet period by institutions with titles deliberately designed to mislead, such as the Brucellosis Dispensary No 4, whose work had nothing to do with brucellosis. The concerns of local people about the test site found shape in the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement, headed up by Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, which was established in February 1989. It held numerous peace marches, meetings and conferences. As the old Soviet order collapsed, the movement carried the day, and no further tests were held after that year. On 29 August 1991, Nazarbaev signed a decree closing the Semipalatinsk Test Site.
The boreholes and tunnels have been sealed with the help of US support through the Co-operative Threat Reduction Programme, but the legacies of four decades of nuclear testing will be harder to erase. Large swathes of land within the 18,000km2 of the 'Polygon' are still contaminated, and the health effects of the testing, both physical and psychological, are still with the local people. There have also been many stories about the looting of contaminated copper cable inside the tunnels: there is a ready market, despite the risks. And the Semipalatinsk 'Polygon' was not the only nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. At Azgir, in Atyrau Region, 17 underground nuclear explosions were conducted between 1966 and 1979 to develop technologies to create large underground cavities. This found practical application at the Lira site in West Kazakhstan in 1983-84, when deep underground explosions were used to establish storage facilities for gas condensate. The dangerous legacy of the Soviet Union's nuclear testing thus still remains very much with Kazakhstan.
Actually, it is possible - but it's true, there's nothing to see.jThe Polygon, 160 kilometres to the east of Semey, was the principal test site for Soviet nuclear weapons. A total of 18,500 square kilometres - a territory the size of a small country - were set aside for five nuclear testing sites, the largest of which was the Semi-palatinsk Polygon. The first atomic explosion occurred there in 1949, and over the next forty-one years there would be a further 752 nuclear explosions in Kazakhstan - 26 in the atmosphere, 78 at ground level, and the rest underground. Back in Moscow, Kazakhstan was perceived as a remote, isolated and empty region, an underpopulated and faraway place capable of absorbing any amount of pollution.
Visitors are still turned back at checkpoints on the borders of the Polygon site, and all agriculture in the area is banned. Inside, the site is a desolate moonscape, cratered and blasted by the most powerful weapons on earth. A permit, however, is no longer required to visit the city of Kurchatov - named after Igor Kurchatov, the physicist who led the team that developed the Soviet atom bomb. Kurchatov was one of the Soviet Union's sinister 'closed cities' - meaning off-limits to all unauthorized personnel because of military activity. In the Cold War it was the headquarters of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme and home to 40,000 scientists and military men. Today it is a ghost town, with only a fraction of its original population, situated at the end of a depressing stretch of barren road enlivened by the occasional deserted village, abandoned factory, and military base along its route.
In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins