On this day, seventy-one years ago, 29th August 1949, the USSR performed its first nuclear test at Semipalatinsk in East Kazakhstan. From 1949 until 1990, the Soviet Union used the Semipalatinsk region, dubbed the Polygon, as a nuclear testing ground. Hidden from the world, this top-secret site the size of Wales was subjected to 607 nuclear explosions, including 26 aboveground tests, 124 atmospheric tests and 457 underground. Cynically, the military scientists would wait until the wind was blowing in the direction of the remote Kazakh villages before detonating their nuclear devices. KGB doctors would then closely study the effects of nuclear radiation on their own population. 

After widespread protests by the people of Kazakhstan, President Gorbachev ordered a moratorium on all further tests in 1990. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in December 1991, the departing battalions of troops and secret police who had guarded the Polygon, left a legacy of devastation and sickness. The 1.5 million population of the Polygon were subjected to the equivalent of 2,000 Hiroshima bombs. Seepage from the underground tests polluted watercourses and streams. Farmland was heavily irradiated. Radioactive contamination entered the food chain.

Cancers were running at five times the national average. Cancers of the throat, lungs and breasts were particularly common. Twelve-year-old girls developed mammary cancer. Birth defects were three times the national average. Babies and farm animals were born with terrible deformities. Children were mentally retarded and Downs Syndrome was common. Virtually all children suffered from anaemia. Many of the young men were impotent. Many of the young women were afraid to become pregnant in case they give birth to defective babies. Psychological disorders were rife. Suicides were widespread, especially among young men and even, alarmingly among children. Until recently, average life expectancy was 52, compared to 72 outside the Polygon. These were the real victims of the Cold War.

The city of Khurchatov, 150 kilometres from Semipalatinsk, was the centre of this hotbed of nuclear activity. Shrouded in total secrecy and named after the father of the USSR’s nuclear programme Igor Kurchatov, the city was home to over 30,000 residents, including scientists such as Andrei Sakharov and Stalin’s notorious KGB Chief Lavrenty Beria. From here, this formidable command centre supervised the first above ground atomic bomb test in 1949, equal to the size of the Nagasaki bomb. Ground Zero, the remote site chosen for the test was several hundred kilometres from Kurchatov. Stalin ordered his KGB Chief to supervise the detonation and told him that if it failed, he was immediately to execute Professors Igor Kurchatov and Andrei Sakharov. Fortunately for them, the test was a success.

At 5 kilometres from Ground Zero the first series of reinforced concrete towers, which still bear nuclear blast monitoring equipment, can be seen. Nearer Ground Zero, the towers are little more than mangled heaps of steel and concrete. Rocks and stones have been turned to glass. Here sheep, pigs, cattle and dogs were tethered to stakes to await the scorching nuclear blast. An entire small uninhabited town was erected nearby with two shops, a metro station, a factory and road and railway bridges. Mannequins dressed as soldiers were dotted around. Military machinery, artillery pieces, tanks, aeroplanes, transport vehicles and armoured cars were placed at different distances around the epicentre to study the impact of the bomb. Now the tangled detritus is all that remains. 

In the isolated villages dotted across the Polygon, elderly men and women recount horrifying tales of the nuclear blasts. In Znamenka, one of the villages worst affected by the nuclear tests, they remember witnessing the first atomic explosions and seeing the mushroom clouds. They say their parents were told to stack bedding and furniture against their doors and windows to protect them from the shock waves, then to stand outside, away from any buildings, to watch the explosions. Some recall the nuclear blast in vivid detail. They describe how the sky turned red as if a huge fire had engulfed the landscape from horizon to horizon. They say the ground trembled beneath their feet as the hellish roar of the atomic weapon swamped their village, turning the fiery sky black, then grey, with piercing white and red spirals of flame shooting skywards, while the writhing stalk of the monstrous mushroom cloud unfolded. 

In 1976, America and the USSR signed the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, which limited the yield of underground nuclear explosions to 150 kilotons. But the Soviets cynically continued to test atomic weapons, claiming that they were carrying out peaceful underground explosions in the Polygon to construct a lake, in order to supply fish to the local population. Thus, the Atomic Lake was born. This massive radioactive reservoir was blasted out of the low-lying mountain range, which crosses the steppe in the region of Semipalatinsk. The Soviets even tried to introduce fish to the highly radioactive waters, encouraging local Kazakh villagers to catch and eat their deadly harvest. 

Following the collapse of the USSR, the Kazakhs didn’t have the resources to police the Polygon and despite the fact that spending more than ten minutes at ground zero was lethally dangerous, many scavengers camped on the site for days, digging up the hundreds of kilometres of copper wire used to detonate the bombs. The risks that radioactive material could fall into the hands of terrorists finally triggered a clean-up operation involving Kazakh, Russian and American nuclear scientists. A secret $150 million operation was launched where concrete was poured into test holes and tunnels and in 2012, it was announced that the problem had been solved and the Polygon was re-opened for economic activity like mining, agriculture and tourism. But now there is growing evidence that cracks and fissures in the geological strata of the Polygon have allowed plutonium, strontium and americium into the River Irtysh, which flows from China, through the Polygon and on through Siberia to the Kara Sea and eventually the Arctic Ocean. The Soviet nuclear legacy may yet become a world catastrophe.