Half of huge Kazakhstan witnessed Soviet nuclear tests…and the effects are still evident, president says

The president of the world’s ninth largest country has admitted that when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union nuclear testing was conducted over almost half of its territory, and that the nation still suffers a terrible nuclear legacy.

The admission by President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 29 August that testing was carried out over almost 50% of this vast nation of 2.7 million square kilometres (one million square miles), marked the nation’s tenth anniversary of the end to nearly 40 years of nuclear tests and the closure of all testing sites. “Kazakhstan was the only country in the world where an inhumane totalitarian regime carried out experiments without regard for the ecology or the health of the population, even though the problems were known,” he said, speaking at a ceremony in the principal city of Almaty marking the release of his book about nuclear weapons testing, titled Peace Epicenter.

Nazarbaev also spoke of the effects of radiation felt by 1.6 million inhabitants of the Semipalatinsk region in the north, which had been chosen in 1949 to be one of two testing sites for nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union – the other being the virtually uninhabited island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic. The area, roughly half the size of Scotland, witnessed more than 450 nuclear tests – most of them above ground – by the time a moratorium was declared in 1985, and residents were never told of the tests. Studies of the region indicate higher rates of cancer and birth defects than in most of the rest of the world. Lakes near where the tests were carried out have an eerie glow. Television and photo-journalists travelling in the region have witnessed shocking images of deformities among the local population, including the US news programme 60 Minutes which documented the image of a still-born baby with a single eye in the center of its head.

Roald Sagdeev, the director of a space research center in Kazakhstan said that the temperature in the Semipalatinsk region is now about 10 degrees Celsius higher than historic norms and has remained so for the last four years, attributing the rise to the nuclear testing programme. The Kazakhstan Information website documents one man whose family would watch “beautiful mushroom clouds”, never realising they were atomic bombs, and who had lost eight children at an early age.

President Nazarbaev assured his nation that it would remain a nuclear-free zone, which it has been since the mid-1990s, but subsequently announced that the nation is considering a plan to allow low- and medium-grade radioactive waste from other countries to be buried in its territory. Experts say the waste could be safely buried in old uranium mines in western Kazakhstan’s Mangistau region or in the former Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range. The reason for the president’s willingness to accept the waste, is a belief that such a move would generate US $30 to US $40 billion over the next 25 to 30 years for the economically crippled nation.

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