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Effects Of 'Peaceful' Nuclear Tests Felt Decades Later

The "nuclear lake" near the village of Sarzhal, formed after a test to study the feasibility of creating reservoirs with nuclear explosions
The "nuclear lake" near the village of Sarzhal, formed after a test to study the feasibility of creating reservoirs with nuclear explosions
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union each explored the possibility of using nuclear explosions for "peaceful" purposes.

Their programs yielded little real benefit, but left behind radioactive footprints and trails of contamination from the nearly 150 tests from the projects -- "Plowshare" in the United States and, more cryptically, "Program No. 7" in the Soviet Union.

Decades later, in one corner of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, residents near one of those former test sites say authorities are ignoring their complaints about serious health effects.

The Soviet experiment near the village of Sarzhal, meant to study the feasibility of creating water reservoirs, created a 430-meter wide crater that formed a lake.

Villagers say the area is still radioactive. They say the water from what they call the "atomic lake" contaminates the ground water they need to survive.

Residents believe radioactivity in the lake's water has caused heart problems, high blood pressure, and birth defects.

"Nobody cares about us," Sarzhal resident Kayrash Madenov tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "I think there's no such place as the village of Sarzhal on the map. We became the part of the dead testing site. Authorities probably think that there's no life here."

Madenov says authorities have ignored locals' concerns.

Kazakhstan's Atomic Lake
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Program No. 7

The Soviet Union's program was far bigger and longer-lived, thanks partly to the Soviet practice of keeping sensitive information secret and a smaller concern for health and safety issues.

The Program for the Utilization of Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, or "Program No. 7," conducted 122 nuclear tests between 1965 and 1988.

Soviet scientists chose the Semipalatinsk nuclear test field in northeastern Kazakhstan to conduct their first and most powerful nuclear explosion under Program No. 7.

On January 15, 1965, a 140 kiloton underground charge -- about nine times the size of the Hiroshima blast -- detonated at the intersection of the dry beds of the Chagan and Ashy-Su rivers.

Plowshare Program

In the United States, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced its program for peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) in 1958. The Plowshare Program, a reference to the biblical imperative to turn "swords into plowshares," envisaged creating canals, harbors, and dams, as well as using nuclear explosions for open-pit mining and forming underground oil and natural-gas reservoirs.

Washington and Moscow had agreed to a nuclear weapons-testing moratorium at the time, so no nuclear explosions were conducted for the following three years.

After the moratorium ended in 1961, the Plowshare Program kicked off with a 3-kiloton test underneath a salt bed deposit in New Mexico. Scientists wanted to study the possibility of converting heat from the explosion into steam for producing electric power. But the blast unexpectedly vented smoke, steam, and radioactive material straight into the atmosphere.

The United States conducted 26 more nuclear tests under the Plowshare Program over the next 12 years. Peaceful nuclear explosions turned out to be most useful for stimulating natural gas production. But economic and environmental concerns forced the program to end in 1975.

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