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Latest update : 2018-10-19

Semey Revisited: The legacy of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan

© France 24

Nearly 30 years after the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, local people are still suffering the consequences of four decades of exposure to radiation. FRANCE 24's reporters Sophie Guignon and Miyuki Droz Aramaki went to meet them.

From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet military conducted no less than 456 nuclear tests in Kazakhstan – both in the air and underground – on an area larger than the whole of the Paris region. At the time, the zone was chosen for its low population density. However, according to the Kazakh authorities, 1.5 million people lived close by and many of them were exposed to radiation.

An "atomic lake" in the Semey area, which appeared after an underground nuclear explosion in 1965. © France 24

Far from being a taboo, Kazakhstan's nuclear past has become one of the cornerstones of its diplomacy. Back in 2009, the country successfully tabled a UN resolution to create an International Day against Nuclear Tests. Every year on August 29, the date the Semipalatinsk site closed in 1991, Kazakhs now commemorate their nuclear victims. And although the development of nuclear weapons in the region was shrouded in secrecy for 40 years, the authorities are now willing to communicate. They even allow foreign researchers and journalists – such as our FRANCE 24 team – access to the former test site.

Serious health problems

The village of Znamenka is located less than 80 kilometres from Semey, as Semipalatinsk was renamed in 2007. Nazipa Uzakbayeva, 68, has lived there since the 1960s and still remembers "the big black cloud" that the explosions formed, but also the authorities' recommendations: "We were told to go outside during the explosions!" The local population was neither informed nor protected from the high levels of radioactivity generated by the nuclear tests. Today, although Uzakbayeva heads a large family, one of her daughters died of breast cancer at the age of just 33, and many of her 13 grandchildren have serious health problems. The rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases are at least twice as high in eastern Kazakhstan than in the rest of the country.

On the ground, our team was surprised by the authorities' willingness to resume economic activity on the former test site. The National Nuclear Centre in Kurchatov – the secret city where the KGB designed and conducted the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme – is busy testing how dangerous the area is today. The soil, air and plants are all analysed, with samples screened to test the effects of radioactivity. The laboratory will release its report in 2021, but for now, the early conclusions are optimistic: a large part of the site could potentially be exploited. It must be said that the area – like much of the country – is replete with minerals, including gold.

Marion Cantor, Bakhyt Toptayeva and Fernande Van Tets also contributed to this report.

By Sophie GUIGNON , Miyuki DROZ

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