Secrets of Semipalatinsk: How nuclear theft was averted in Central Asia

More nuclear material remains at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, but collaboration between the US and Russia has locked down most of it.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
The Soviets detonated their first nuclear device here at the Semipalatinsk test site. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets conducted 456 nuclear explosive tests, with 116 of those above ground.

Anastacia Kyseleva saw her first atomic mushroom cloud from the fields near her village.

Residents of Kanonerka, located near the Russian border in eastern Kazakhstan, had only heard the mysterious explosions from previous tests at the nearby Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk. This time, in 1956, soldiers came and ordered everyone outside – a move experts now suspect was made to protect residents from potential house collapses.

"It looked like a sunset," says Ms. Kyseleva. Some stood frozen, staring; others ran toward the bomb. "Those people who followed it, they either died or they couldn't walk afterwards."

They couldn't have known better, suggests Saule Orazlekova, director of a home for the elderly where survivors, including Kyseleva, reside. "The population wasn't informed. They didn't know what was going on.... And still a lot of information related to the testing is classified and it's in Moscow."

After the nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in August marked the anniversaries of the nuclear bombings, the international mantra has been one of never letting the world forget the horrors of the nuclear aftermath. Here, the tenor has been more about figuring out what actually happened during the top-secret Soviet program, and to whom.

The US has played a major role in helping piece together answers, some of which have alarmed Washington. One part of the site that was finally secured last year had more than 400 pounds of recoverable plutonium – enough for at least a dozen nuclear weapons – packed into tunnels that scavengers were starting to access. Talks with Washington are ongoing about removing more nuclear residue, and scientists here admit they may not know the full extent of what's still on site.

What does ground zero look like?

Ground zero of the first Soviet test could be mistaken for eastern Montana, with its big sky and expansive fields of grass and sage. The Soviets drew a perimeter around these lands nearly the size of Belgium, moving out the sparse population.

The crater itself could be taken as just another small dent in the earth. But the soil is filled with unusual smooth stones that are drops of melted earth. Stretching out to the horizon along two perfect radials stand numerous four-story concrete structures.

Each once held aloft a 90-foot pipe that had sensors at the top. In the buildings' original state, the pipes gave them the look of long-necked geese; now they resemble an eerie Stonehenge of bombed-out buildings.

With the help of satellite imagery, a team led by Sergey Lukashenko, director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a government agency tasked with researching the test site, located an area with unusual markings last year. They dug a meter down and pulled up a metal fragment containing enriched uranium, nickel, and iron.

"For us, it was discovered, and...," Dr. Lukashenko folds his arms, sits back, and looks down intently. "What is it?"

He says that he has been called a "nuclear archaeologist" by his colleague Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the US nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos.

Abandoned plutonium

It was Dr. Hecker who followed up in 1997 on suspicions that a significant amount of plutonium had been abandoned in the 207 tunnels at Degelen Mountain, an underground testing area at Semipalatinsk, according to a paper published in August by journalists Eben Harrell and David Hoffman.

The paper details how the United States had paid to shut the tunnels into the mountain, but did not fully realize what lay inside. Scientists in the recently independent Kazakhstan were beginning to suspect the scope of the materials, and it worried them: Scavengers were digging for scrap metal around the site and Russian authorities were tight-lipped about what they might find there.

Hecker managed to slowly pry from the Russians what was there, wrote Mr. Harrell and Mr. Hoffman, leading to a secret 17-year, $150 million project by the US, Russia, and Kazakhstan to fill the tunnels with special concrete.

The work was completed only last year, and talks are ongoing about whether to remove plutonium-laced soil from Semipalatinsk.

Years of Russian secrecy about the site raises questions for the US and Kazakhstan about what may remain there. "Really, we don't know exactly, and the problem is even the Russians don't have very exact information about events that happened in the '50s," says Lukashenko.

This sounds familiar

A similar problem may exist in the US at the Nevada test site.

"People from Los Alamos, they said that it's possible that they have some burial site where somebody from the '50s buried some materials and they don't know because they lost information about these materials," says Lukashenko. "It's just due to [the fact that] these events happened a long time ago."

Higher-level American and Kazakh officials portray the effort to secure loose nuclear material in Kazakhstan as more or less done. "By now we can say it is absolutely secure – there are no loose, dangerous materials," Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told a visiting group of reporters.

"We can pretty much say that we are in a maintenance mode for that part," says Lt. Col. Charles Carlton, director of the US Defense Threat Reduction Office in Astana.

Yet even maintenance – including the monitoring of sensitive areas – requires upkeep.

Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has softened his undemocratic image abroad with his nonproliferation work. But the 72-year-old strongman has not named a successor, leaving the country – filled with uranium reserves and nuclear know-how – open to considerable turmoil and change ahead.

"Predicting the nuclear intentions of the next Kazakh regime is impossible – let alone those of whatever government may control this territory hundreds or thousands of years in the future," wrote Harrell and Hoffman. "The mismatch between the lifetimes of plutonium and of human institutions is a problem that extends far beyond the steppes of Kazakhstan."

Echos of nuclear fallout

For survivors living around Semipalatinsk, the long-term health implications are more pressing. In the years after 1949 when the tests started, the Soviets maintained a secret health facility for diagnosing and treating civilians affected by the fallout. It was named Dispensary No. 4. (It's still unknown if there were other clinics and where they were.)

The facility now operates openly as the Research Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Semey. The agency keeps a database of all residents exposed to fallout and their descendants along with the estimated dose based on location models.

The agency inherited some records stamped "top secret," but still had to reconstruct – with Russian and Japanese assistance – where fallout went and who was there.

"All the information on the nuclear tests was classified during the Soviet time ... and after the closing of the test site [in 1991] all this information went back to Moscow and we never received any information," says Talgat Muldagalief, of the research institute.

Their research done on sample villages near the test site found cancer mortality rates 2-1/2 times greater than those in a control village. The agency says some 356,000 people face radiation risk, with 70 percent of those being descendants of exposed villagers.

Lukashenko worries that those figures could give the wrong impression. The number of people alive today facing serious health effects may be more like 10,000, he says. Even then, the causes of cancer are hard to pin down, with naturally occurring radiation and industrial pollution also thought to be playing a role.

While some Kazakh officials expressed frustration with getting information out of Russia to help their work, there appears to be little push for Russian compensation.

"This is the first time I've heard this point of view [about compensation]. After independence, Kazakhstan assumed total responsibility for the health of its citizens ... without turning to Russia for help," says Dr. Muldagalief.

• Ben Arnoldy traveled to Kazakhstan on a trip organized by the International Reporting Project.

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