The Soviet Union's Nuclear Testing Programme

Page 1: Effects of Nuclear Weapon Testing by the Soviet Union

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.