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Kazakhstan: Nuclear Fallout Still Signals Health Hazards

  • Bruce Pannier

Ten years ago today, Kazakhstan announced an end to nearly 40 years of nuclear tests and the closure of all testing sites on its territory. The Kazakh government would later voluntarily give up all its nuclear weapons as well. The damaging effects of hundreds of nuclear tests had already been done, however, and Kazakhstan is still living with the fallout. So yesterday's announcement by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev that the country is considering allowing other nations to bury their nuclear waste on its territory came as something of a surprise. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier examines the issues.

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 29 August 1991, Kazakhstan declared that it was ending nuclear testing at its northern Semipalatinsk range. The announcement halted nearly four decades of explosions that have left scars both on the landscape and the people of the region.

The timing of the announcement by Kazakhstan was interesting, coming as it did eight days after the failed coup in Moscow. Kazakhstan would later receive more attention for announcing that it was decommissioning the nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the Soviet Union.

The missiles and warheads are gone now, but the effects of the testing will be with the people of Kazakhstan for many years to come.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke yesterday at a ceremony in Almaty marking the release of his new book about the topic of nuclear weapons testing, titled "Peace Epicenter." The title, Nazarbayev explained, comes from the fact that "Kazakhstan found itself at the epicenter of global confrontation...."

There is a certain logic to the title. At the start of the Cold War, the Soviet government needed testing sites for its nuclear weapons program. Northern Kazakhstan was one of two sites chosen in the Soviet Union -- the other was the virtually uninhabited island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Circle. And it was in northern Kazakhstan -- on 29 August 1949 -- that the first Soviet nuclear test was conducted.

More than 450 nuclear tests had been carried out in Semipalatinsk -- most of them above ground -- by the time Mikhail Gorbachev declared a moratorium on such testing shortly after he became Soviet leader in 1985. A 1992 study estimated that 1.6 million people in Semipalatinsk had been affected by the radiation released during the nuclear testing.

While Semipalatinsk -- an area roughly half the size of Switzerland -- was the most active nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev said yesterday that nuclear testing was conducted over almost half of present-day Kazakh territory.

At his book launch, Nazarbaev said: "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."

Studies of the region indicate higher rates of cancer and other diseases 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 traveling in the region, including those from "National Geographic" magazine, have documented shocking images of deformities among the local population. The respected U.S. television news program "60 Minutes" broadcast the image of a baby still-born with a Cyclops-like eye, which became a symbol of just how serious the situation had become in Semipalatinsk.

Roald Sagdeev is the director of the center for space research at Kazakhstan's East-West Institute and attended yesterday's ceremony in Almaty. Sagdeev says 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. He attributes this rise in temperatures to the nuclear testing.

Despite the harm to the environment and the local population, Kazakhstan's decisions to close the testing sites and give up its nuclear arsenal were not easy to make. Its nuclear arsenal had originally been put into place to protect the Soviet Union from neighboring China. Some Muslim nations had even been quick to congratulate Kazakhstan on becoming the "first Islamic nuclear state."

The United States helped Kazakhstan destroy its nuclear missiles. Russian technicians dismantled the warheads and sent them back to Russia, while U.S. specialists removed the weapons-grade uranium.

Kazakhstan was nuclear-free by the mid-1990s. President Nazarbaev said yesterday that Kazakhstan will remain a nuclear-free zone and urged other Central Asian nations not to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

Of course, for anyone who lived or still lives around Semipalatinsk, or near other former testing sites in Kazakhstan, the damage is done. Every common cold brings the suspicion of something much worse. Every pregnancy is a gamble.

So it came as a surprise that at yesterday's presentation of his new book, President Nazarbaev announced that Kazakhstan is considering a plan to allow low- and medium-grade radioactive waste from other countries to be buried in Kazakhstan.

Experts of the national Kazakhatomprom company believe the country can bring in $30 to $40 billion over the next 25 to 30 years by allowing the burial of such waste on its territory.

Those experts say the waste could be safely buried in old uranium mines in western Kazakhstan's Mangistau region -- or, ironically, in the former Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range.

(Edige Maguin of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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