The Soviet Union's Nuclear Testing Programme

The Soviet Union's
Nuclear Testing Programme

Shortly after the end of World War II, the steppes of Kazakhstan became the scene of nuclear weapon testing by the Soviet Union. Tests were later conducted in one of most remote places on Earth – the mountainous Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, as well as in the Urals and at the Missile Test Range area in Kazakhstan.

Semipalatinsk Test Site

Between 1949 and 1989, 456 atomic and thermonuclear devices were exploded at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) under conditions of tight confidentiality. Explosions were conducted on the surface and in the atmosphere. Five of the surface tests were unsuccessful and resulted in the dispersion of plutonium into the environment, with the first test on 29 August 1949 unexpectedly contaminating villages to the northeast of the STS.

The approximate cumulative explosive yield of the tests conducted before 1963, when the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), was 6.4 Mt. This was about six times greater than the explosive yield of the above ground tests at the Nevada Test Site and about six percent of the yield of the tests conducted in the Marshall Islands.

More than 300 test explosions were conducted underground after 1961. Semipalatinsk's Degelen Mountain nuclear test facility was the largest underground nuclear test site in the world, consisting of 181 separate tunnels. Between October 1961 and October 1989, 224 tests were conducted there.

The last test took place on 12 February 1989 and resulted in a leakage of large amounts of the radioactive noble gases xenon and krypton, according to Gusev et al. in The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site: a first assessment of the radiological situation and the test-related radiation doses in the surrounding territories. Peterson et al. describe how the radionuclides emanating from these tests resulted in atmospheric and environmental contamination in Diagnosis of benign and malignant thyroid disease in the east Kazakhstan region of the Republic of Kazakhstan: a case review of pathological findings for 2525 patients.

Exposure to radiation

Officially, the only inhabitants in the immediate vicinity during the testing programme were in the nearby town of Kurchatov, whose purpose was to service the site, and in two small settlements along the northern edge of the site. However, local officials maintain that hundreds of thousands of people lived within an 80 km radius of the STS.

In the September 2002 issue of National Review, Robert Elegant describes how residents of the village of Sarjal were evacuated before one extremely powerful blast but were returned after ten days. They were normally told to refrain from lighting their iron cooking stoves when testing was taking place in case the fire flared back into the house. They were also warned to stay outside when an explosion was scheduled, since it might topple their house. Historical accounts of residents who were schoolchildren before 1962 indicate that windows were blown out of their schools and that their bodies convulsed when testing occurred.

Health impact on the local population

A number of genetic defects and illnesses in the region, ranging from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities, have been attributed to nuclear testing. There is even a museum of mutations at the regional medical institute in Semey, the largest city near the old nuclear testing site. It consists of a room filled with jars containing monstrosities caused by nuclear testing such as deformed fetuses and human organs, and animal carcasses barely recognizable as potential living beings.

As well as an epidemic of babies born with severe neurological and major bone deformations, some without limbs, there have also been many cases of leukaemia and other blood disorders, according to James Lerager’s 1992 article Second sunset - victims of Soviet nuclear testing. Lerager goes on to say:”The director of the Oncology Hospital in Semipalatinsk estimates that at least 60,000 people in the region have died from radiation-induced cancers; ‘officially,’ the area has the lowest cancer rate in Kazakhstan.”

A number of genetic defects and illnesses in the region, ranging
from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities,
have been attributed to nuclear testing.

In the September 2002 issue of National Review. Robert Elegant states that: “Informed specialists estimate that the region endures double the worldwide cancer rate and that half its people have suffered damage to their reproductive cells, which means their offspring are likely to be afflicted by genetic complaints. Doctors have warned that the rate of chromosomal abnormalities in the third generation following exposure could be even greater.”  The article also describes how some infants suffered from melanoma, a condition otherwise unknown among Kazakhs and very rarely found anywhere else in the world in such young children.

The increased risk of leukaemia is detailed in Nested case-control study of leukemia among a cohort of persons exposed to ionizing radiation from nuclear weapon tests in Kazakhstan (1949-1963). The study by Abylkassimova et al. was the first etiologic epidemiologic investigation to be carried out in the region and dealt with 10,000 exposed subjects under continued follow-up.

Several studies conducted after 1991 to assess impact of nuclear testing

Since the site’s official closure on 29 August 1991, various studies have been conducted to determine the medical, social and environmental impacts of nuclear testing in response to the Kazakhstan Government‘s concern about the radiological situation in Semipalatinsk and western Kazakhstan.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) organized a study of the radiological situation in the region between 1993 and 1994. Although the mission found that most of the area had little or no residual radioactivity directly attributed to nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, it concluded that  “… a few areas have elevated residual radioactivity levels within the test site where the surface tests were performed and where a few underground tests vented to the atmosphere.”  The report recommended restricting access to the test area.

Research conducted by Susanne Bauer et al. published in 2005 in volume 164 of Radiation Research asserted that a significant association between solid cancer and radiation dose was found in the Semipalatinsk historical cohort.

Economic, social, and environmental impacts

In December 1997, a joint Mission of the United Nations and the Government of Kazakhstan travelled to Semipalatinsk to investigate the economic, environmental and social consequences of the Soviet nuclear testing at the STS. The mission found that the psycho-social effects of the testing had been profound.

The population felt victimized and deceived by the government. The local economy had been affected by the negative image of the region, which discouraged major domestic and international investors. Agricultural land had been contaminated during the years of testing and underground water cycles had been disturbed. The mission concluded that: “It is important to keep in mind that a number of past, current and future impacts of nuclear testing remain uncertain, for example, the health impacts of the so-called “low-doses” of radiation and the risks of contamination of the environment by extremely harmful plutonium. Only fundamental, expensive, long-term research may reduce or eliminate these uncertainties.”

Lake Chagan was created by a 140-kt underground explosion,
equivalent to 140,000 tons of TNT, on January 1965.

In a statement to the United Nations in October 1998, H.E. Ms. Akmaral Kh. Arystanbekova, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations spoke of the “…severe socio-economic, humanitarian and ecological consequences, and also the serious harm by the negative impact to the environment of the many years of nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground… The underground tests destroyed ecological linkages, and this in turn accelerated the process of desertification of the territory of the region, which is continuing to take place up until the present time. Large areas of land and water resources were subjected to radiation contamination, and economic activity in the territory located around the testing ground was considerably reduced.”

Lake created by nuclear test

Lake Chagan was created by a 140-kt underground nuclear explosion, equivalent to 140,000 tons of TNT, on 15 January 1965. The crater formed by the Chagan explosion had a diameter of 408 m and a depth of 100 m. Approximately20 percent of the radioactive fission particles released by the explosion escaped into the atmosphere, wrote Milo D. Nordyke in The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions. Radioactivity from the test was detected as far away as  Japan.

Totsk test site in the Urals

A nuclear weapons test conducted at the Totsk test site in the Arinbuk region of the southern Urals on 14 September 1954 continued to cause serious health and environmental effects decades later. The former Russian Deputy Minister for Emergency Situations Vladimir Vladimirov claimed that people living in the blast region remained exposed to ionizing radiation 42 years later, with soil levels of plutonium-239 up to five times normal levels. High levels of caesium-137 contamination were also recorded.  The region's population suffers shorter life expectancy and a death rate 1.8 times higher than in other similar areas, a high infant mortality and a high rate of physical retardation in children.

Novaya Zemlya archipelago – relocation of indigenous population

Video of 1981 Novaya Zemlya test explosion:

Novaya Zemlya became the site of some of the world's largest test explosions after the Soviet Union determined that its test site in Kazakhstan was too close to human settlements to test large nuclear weapons. Consisting of two islands approximately 450 km from the Arctic Circle, Novaya Zemlya was inhabited by nomadic peoples and reindeer before nuclear testing started. Roughly 500 people were relocated due to the testing programme. Most of the reindeer either died or were transported to the mainland, according to a Case Study on nuclear testing in Novaya Zemlya by Carrie Mc Vicker.

Testing on Novaya Zemlya represents the greatest single source
of artificial radioactive contamination in the Arctic.

A total of 130 nuclear tests were conducted there atmospherically, underground, and in the surrounding oceans between 1954 and 1990. Between 20 September and 25 October 1958, 15 bombs were detonated in the atmosphere over Novaya Zemlya. After the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963, the first underground test there took place on 15 September 1964. Forty two underground explosions were conducted on the Arctic islands until 24 October 1990. Although the site accounts for only 25 percent of all Soviet testing, the aggregate yield of tests at Novaya Zemlya is estimated at 273 Mt, roughly 94 percent of the total yield for all Soviet tests.

Environmental impacts

Testing on Novaya Zemlya represents the greatest single source of artificial radioactive contamination in the Arctic. From 1958 to 1962, the large number of high yield atmospheric tests on the islands resulted in radioactive contamination not only on Russian territory but also in Alaska and northern Canada. Norway, located just 900 km away from the islands, also received considerable radioactive fallout and became very concerned about the possibility of the Barents Sea, one of its main fishing areas, becoming polluted. Fallout from all past atmospheric weapons testing is still a major source of plutonium isotopes in the Arctic seas.

Several tests went wrong or caused unforeseen damage

  • The Tsar Bomba  was the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. It was a hydrogen bomb with a yield of about 50 Mt, detonated on 30 October 1961. The explosion was hot enough to induce third degree burns at distances of 100 km. The flash of light was so bright that it was visible at a distance of 1,000 km, despite cloudy skies. Tsar Bomba caused extensive environmental damage: the ground surface of the island was completely levelled, as were the rocks. Everything in the area was melted and blown away.
  • During an underground test on 14 October 1969, three devices were exploded in two tunnels with a total yield of 540 kt. In his Database of radiological incidents and related events, Robert Johnston explains how a gas plume burst from the surface near one of the tunnels about one hour after the test. Several hundred test personnel were in the vicinity and were not evacuated until up to one hour later. On 24 October those most seriously exposed were transported to Moscow for examination and treatment. Over 80 people received doses of 40 to 80 rad (See Chart 2).
  • On 12 September 1973, four nuclear devices with a total yield of 4.2 Mt were detonated on the northernmost island. The explosion had a seismic magnitude of 6.97 and triggered an 80 million-ton rockslide that blocked two glacial streams and created a two kilometre-long lake.
  • Venting at Novaya Zemlya in 1987 reportedly released fission products throughout Sweden, writes Peter Gizewski in Military Activity and Environmental Security: The Case of Radioactivity in the Arctic. The venting produced the highest levels recorded in northern Sweden in 15 years, apart from the Chernobyl incident. Three years later, a second venting produced similar results.
  • A 1993 study of Novaya Zemlya’s topography by John Matzko, Physical environment of the underground nuclear test site on Novaya Zemlya, Russia, revealed that at least one test site had severe leakage due to cracks in the rock formations. There have been indications that several tests caused a significant amount of leakage.

Researchers later discovered that large amounts of radioactive material associated with nuclear weapon testing had been dumped into the Barents and Kara seas. Novaya Zemlya - The Sad Reality describes how Novaya Zemlya was also used as a graveyard for various nuclear weapons, submarines, and reactors, which were sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Many vessels still had their radioactive materials aboard. These materials were not properly disposed of. As containers break down and submarines corrode, the materials inside have the potential to pollute marine life and disperse radioactivity into the ecosystem. Strong currents can then carry contaminants into fishing grounds and into the feeding areas of sea mammals and birds.

Craters produced in the Earth’s surface

A satellite study conducted by researchers at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs highlighted possible geological problems on Novaya Zemlya. Explosions at one site produced craters in the Earth's surface, indicating the destruction of the entire permafrost layer under the site. Radioactive residues therefore have the potential to leak from the caverns caused by the test explosions into the groundwater and eventually into the sea.

In the 1990s, Norway and Russia, two of the world's largest
exporters of fish, expressed concern about the effect of nuclear
dumping on their fish industries.

Health effects

In the Russian Arctic, environmentalists and scientists claim that there had been a definite decrease in health quality by the late 1980s. Increases in mortality rates in cancer, and in blood, skin, and oncological diseases were reported in the Arkhangelsk region. In Military Activity and Environmental Security: The Case of Radioactivity in the Arctic, Peter Gizewski documents how the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences observed that the cancer death rate in Chukotka jumped from 10 percent of the population in 1970 to 27 percent in 1988. There were also reports that year from members of the Soviet Union's 26 indigenous peoples, who claimed that the indigenous Inuit population were becoming ill from radioactive contamination in the environment. In Military Activity and Environmental Security: The Case of Radioactivity in the Arctic, Peter Gizewski states that in April 1992, scientists noted that thousands of seals were dying off Russia's northern coastline as a result of radioactive pollution of the seabed.

The Committee for Special Risk Veterans has 6,000 members who were involved in nuclear weapons production or monitoring nuclear tests at the test sites of Semipalatinsk and Novaya Zemlya, as well as at other lesser known sites. Ninety percent of the committee members are invalids and many thousands of veterans have already died. To date they have received medical assistance for illnesses caused by nuclear testing but no financial compensation.


Next Chapter:
The United Kingdom's Nuclear Testing Programme