Living In The Shadow Of The Bomb

Slate Magazine has a thought-provoking article exploring the condition of disused above-ground nuclear test sites in the former Soviet Union, and the nascent tourism industry which is springing up to give intrepid explorers an experience of this slice of recent military and geopolitical history:

Nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Photo by Jacob Baynham.
Nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Photo by Jacob Baynham.

Focusing on a particular test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the article looks at the impact that 116 above-ground nuclear tests can have on the wildlife and topography of an area:

Looking out from the epicenter of these blasts, you can still see remnants of structures the Soviets built to test the power of these explosions. To the right are the crumpled remains of a bridge. To the left are fortified bunkers and barracks that had been filled with dogs, pigs, and goats to approximate the effects a blast would have on soldiers. In a line in both directions, 10 four-story concrete buildings rise from the Earth like the moai of Easter Island. These structures were filled with sensors to measure the explosions. Strilchuk calls them “geese,” because from a distance that’s what they look like: giant goose necks craning up from the grass, facing the place where man played God.

As well as the human impact on those in the nearby towns, fifty miles away:

Anastacia Kyseleva is an 86-year-old resident of the Institution for the Elderly and Disabled in the nearby town of Semey. She was newly married and living in a village near the test site when the explosions began. “We didn’t know what it was,” she recalls 60 years later, wringing a scarf in her hands. It wasn’t until a test in 1956 that soldiers told the villagers to leave their houses and stand beside the river. “We could see the mushroom cloud from the field,” she says. “It looked like a sunset. Since that year, a lot of people started dying.”

But amidst this ongoing legacy of sickness, birth defects and infant mortality, there is also cause for optimism:

The government’s optimism for the Semipalatinsk test site reflects Kazakhstan’s emergence from a Soviet nuclear wasteland into a prosperous capitalist economy. Kazakhstan has come to terms with its history quicker than most former Soviet republics. A wealthy, resource-rich country, Kazakhstan is broadening its profile as a leader of the nonproliferation movement by hosting negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. They’ve volunteered to establish an international nuclear fuel bank, a measure of nuclear security that the International Atomic Energy Agency is seriously considering. The government even talks of building a nuclear energy reactor of its own, a peaceful application of the fierce atomic power that the Soviet Union once wrought upon the Kazakh steppe.

The full article is well worth a read.

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