Anastacia Kyseleva is an 86-year-old resident of the Institution for the Elderly and Disabled in the nearby town of Semey. She was newly married and living in a village near the test site when the explosions began. “We didn’t know what it was,” she recalls 60 years later, wringing a scarf in her hands. It wasn’t until a test in 1956 that soldiers told the villagers to leave their houses and stand beside the river. “We could see the mushroom cloud from the field,” she says. “It looked like a sunset. Since that year, a lot of people started dying.”
According to Kazakhstan’s Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology, about 1.5 million people lived in the test site area during the nuclear tests. Hundreds of thousands experienced direct radiation. Marat Sandybayev, director of the Semey Oncology Center, says the cancer rate in eastern Kazakhstan is two to three times the national average, and the tumors are aggressive. “The mortality rate here is much higher than average,” he says. The Oncology Center now treats the children and grandchildren of the original testing victims.
Cancer wasn’t the only side effect of the nuclear testing. The residents around the testing site have experienced birth defects, mental disabilities, and infertility. Even more troubling is the region’s suicide rate. A 2001 report indicates that within a 60-kilometer zone around the test site, the suicide rate is more than four times the national average. Himan Stameltova grew up 30 kilometers away from the test site. “They have a special cemetery for people who kill themselves,” she says. “It’s full.” Among the graves is that of a 10-year-old boy.
Twenty-three years after the Semipalatinsk test site was closed, there is no fence surrounding it, nor are their signs marking the ground as contaminated. Anyone can drive onto it. Local scavengers have stripped the site of its scrap metal, even using backhoes to dig up buried copper cables. They sold the radioactive metal to recycling plants.
“This was a no man’s land,” Strilchuk explains. “It belonged to Kazakhstan, but the state had no resources to control it. The government was busy taking care of other problems.”
The scavenging alarmed U.S. and Russian nuclear watchdogs who knew that unsecured weapons-grade uranium and plutonium remained in tunnels on the site. A covert collaboration between the United States, Kazakhstan, and Russia called Operation Groundhog just finished filling these tunnels with concrete last year.
Today, hundreds of Kazakh shepherds still graze their animals on the site. Their presence is technically illegal, but no one is there to turn them away. Scientists on an experimental farm on the site are testing the transference of radioactivity from grass to sheep. The government has opened a portion of the site to beryllium, coal, and gold mining, estimating that 80 percent of the test site has safe levels of contamination and could eventually be used for mining or agriculture.
The government’s optimism for the Semipalatinsk test site reflects Kazakhstan’s emergence from a Soviet nuclear wasteland into a prosperous capitalist economy. Kazakhstan has come to terms with its history quicker than most former Soviet republics. A wealthy, resource-rich country, Kazakhstan is broadening its profile as a leader of the nonproliferation movement by hosting negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. They’ve volunteered to establish an international nuclear fuel bank, a measure of nuclear security that the International Atomic Energy Agency is seriously considering. The government even talks of building a nuclear energy reactor of its own, a peaceful application of the fierce atomic power that the Soviet Union once wrought upon the Kazakh steppe.
For now, walking through the test site is a surreal juxtaposition of danger and beauty. The radiation is invisible, silent, and odorless. The sea of grass, undulating softly in the wind, looks like the American prairie. The scene is oddly peaceful.
Back on the bus, Yuriy Strilchuk wipes the palm that held the contaminated soil on a spare face mask and smiles. Sixty-four years after this grassland became the epicenter of the Soviet nuclear program, he enjoys coming to this place. “It has a very pleasant smell,” he says. “You feel comfortable here.”