Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site

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The Soviet Union’s nuclear program started soon after the end of the Second World War. Tests were conducted in many remote regions such as the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, the Urals and the steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, not all of these sites were devoid of human habitation.

One of the primary sites selected for testing was the 18,000-square-km Semipalatinsk Test Site, also known as "The Polygon", situated south of the valley of the Irtysh River, in Kazakhstan. Just 150 km east of the test site was the town of Semipalatinsk (later renamed Semey) with a population exceeding 100,000 individual. Hundreds of thousands more lived within an 80 km radius in numerous scattered villages.


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The push for nuclear weapons during the Cold War was so great that the government brushed aside all health concerns for the local people or for the environment. There is also a possibility that they deliberately made humans part of the experiment in order to study to effects of radiation.

From 1949 until 1989 the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk. Experiments were conducted on the surface, underground and on the air, with 116 of these being atmospheric tests. Occasional mishaps resulted in dispersion of radioactive materials and leakage of radioactive gases into the environment

Sometimes, residents of nearby villages were warned when an explosion was scheduled. They were advised to stay outside during the blast, since it could topple their houses. Many residents, who were children at that time, recounted windows getting blown out and experiencing convulsions when testing occurred.

Cases of cancer, impotency, leukemia and birth defects skyrocketed within a few years. Babies were born with severe neurological and major bone deformations, some without limbs. The director of the Oncology Hospital in Semipalatinsk estimates that at least 60,000 people in the region have died from radiation-induced cancers. (Here are some chilling photos of deformities among Semey’s current residents).


The Soviet Union's first nuclear test at Semipalatinsk on 29 August 1949. Photo credit: CTBTO

The Soviet government kept the tests secret. Even the US Defense Intelligence Agency was convinced that the Soviets were researching on particle-beam weapons rather than nuclear weapons. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Kazakh activists began asking questions about the true nature of the tests and launched a campaign to close down the site.

The buildings, bunkers, tunnels and other infrastructure are still there at the Semipalatinsk test site. The most visible ones are the rows of concrete towers that stood at various distances from ground zero, and housed various measuring equipment. Some of the towers have cracked. Others have blisters, possibly developed when the heat of the blast melted the concrete. Radiation level inside the “Polygon” today is mostly low, but there are still pockets of elevated residual radiation in the area.

In 2001, a memorial to the victims of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site called "Stronger than death" was opened in Semipalatinsk city.

Related Reading: Lake Chagan, The Atomic Lake Filled With Radioactive Water


Photo credit: Alexander Liskin/Wikimedia


The memorial to the victims of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. Photo credit: Anton Roschin (left) / Roman Nefedov (right)


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Photo credit: CTBTO/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / / / /

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