Kazakhstan's Painful Nuclear Past Looms Large Over Its Energy Future

The central Asian country is positioning itself as a global nuclear leader, but it's haunted by the lasting impacts of Soviet testing decades ago.
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Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev walks in front of the monument "Stronger than Death", devoted to the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in Semei on June 18, 2009. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

As international attention continues to focus on the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, a less-discussed Asian country has quietly emerged as a leader in responsible nuclear development: Kazakhstan. In addition to its much-praised stint hosting last month's international talks on the Iranian nuclear program, Kazakhstan is now in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to host a global nuclear fuel bank. (Proponents of the bank claim that it would serve international non-proliferation efforts by providing a secure emergency supply of low-enriched uranium for peaceful purposes.) Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is moving forward with plans to build a civilian nuclear power facility for domestic energy needs, possibly on the Aktau site of a now defunct Soviet-era plant.

Although the human and environmental tolls of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk remain an open wound, the experience armed Kazakhstan with the credentials to play an active role in global nuclear politics.

For many Kazakhs, these steps are proud evidence of the country's developing status as a major player in international nuclear policy. They are, however, also a painful reminder of the Soviet-era nuclear traumas that continue to haunt millions of Kazakhs today.

"Kazakhstan's people and environment have endured tremendous suffering as a result of Soviet nuclear weapons testing," said Dr. Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The majority of people, if asked, would express support for global nuclear disarmament and would display pride of Kazakhstan's own record in shutting down its nuclear testing site and removing all nuclear weapons from its territory."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads. Under the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who is still the president of Kazakhstan today) the country renounced its nuclear weapons arsenal, which had been the fourth largest in the world, and voluntarily repatriated its warhead inventory back to Russia. In later years, Kazakhstan signed START-1 , the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and was instrumental in establishing the Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone along with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

But Nazarbayev's most cathartic move, perhaps, was the August 29, 1991, closure of Semipalatinsk, the world's second largest nuclear weapons testing site. At the beginning of the Cold War, Stalin chose the remote corner of northeastern Kazakhstan, also known as "The Polygon," to test the first Soviet bombs. When Lavrenti Beria, the head of the KNVD secret police, selected the site, he claimed it was "uninhabited." It wasn't. Today, the area (which is not surrounded by a barrier of any kind to prevent humans and animals from roaming freely) has been called the " world's worst radiation hotspot."

"The nuclear threat strikes a deep chord within Kazakhstan. For four decades, our country was used as the backdrop for nuclear tests," wrote Nazarbayev in a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times. "Although it has been over 20 years since the last test, their devastating impact is still being felt."

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear weapon, called First Lightning, at Semipalatinsk. (Although Soviet authorities knew that wind and rain would make local populations susceptible to the nuclear fallout, they disregarded the risk.) Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet Union went on to conduct an additional 456 nuclear tests in the area --340 underground and 116 above ground -- with no regard to any environmental or humanitarian impact the tests might have. The residents of Dolon, a village located 100 kilometers northeast of Semipalatinsk, for example, were exposed to an estimated radiation dose of 140 rem during the first year alone. For comparison, the average American is exposed to a radiation dose of roughly 0.62 rem each year.

Presented by

Jillian Keenan

Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York City. 

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