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.

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.

And the medical devastation wasn't isolated to that one village. According to a 2006 study from the Research Institution for Radiation Biology and Medicine at Hiroshima University, approximately 1.6 million people directly suffered from the tests, and an additional 1.2 million continue to experience the after-effects today. The health impacts of radiation exposure include genetic disease, cancer, severe birth defects, infertility, and suicide. (The 60-kilometer zone around the test site has a suicide rate that is more than four times the national average.) In fact, Japanese and Kazakh scientists determined that symptoms experienced by people exposed to nuclear radiation in the Semipalatinsk region were not dramatically different than the ones suffered by survivors of the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to the human toll, an estimated 300,000 square kilometers of land were environmentally affected by the tests.

"A ninth of Kazakhstan's territory, comparable with the territory of Germany, was turned into a nuclear wasteland," said Nazarbayev in a speech at the 20th anniversary of the Semipalatinsk closure in 2009.

Semipalatinsk also inspired the formation of "Nevada Semipalatinsk," the first anti-nuclear movement in Soviet territory. In 1989, Kazakh poet and candidate for the Congress of People's Deputies, interrupted his nationally televised poetry reading to criticize the nuclear testing at the Polygon site. Two days later, 5,000 people filled the National Writers' Union headquarters in Almaty and held the first meeting of the Nevada Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement (named in partial recognition of similar protests in the American state of Nevada). In subsequent years, that campaign put significant pressure on the Soviet and Kazakh governments to destroy all nuclear facilities. Their eventual success when Kazakhstan became the first country on earth to close a nuclear test site set the tone for the country's continued role as a responsible voice in global nuclear policy over the following decades.

"It is the experience of the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing and the long-lasting tragic consequences of it that explain why the population was overwhelmingly supportive of the government's decision to get rid off the Soviet nuclear weapons left on its territory," said Kassenova.

Today, Kazakhstan's nuclear legacy and ambitions to position itself as a " model nonproliferation citizen" remain at the heart of the country's foreign policy. Although the human and environmental tolls of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk remain an open wound for most citizens, that experience did arm Kazakhstan with the credentials to play an active role in global nuclear politics.

"Kazakhstan's nuclear history and how it dealt with it is a very important part of its national identity. The Soviet past did a lot of damage," Kassenova said. "But at the same time, part of Kazakhstan's current strength in the field of nuclear energy and even in its ability to contribute to nonproliferation projects is due to the infrastructure and expertise rooted in the Soviet program."