Page 2: Effects of Nuclear Weapon Testing by the Soviet Union

Memorial in Semey, Kazakhstan, to commemorate the victims of the atomic bomb tests at Semipalatinsk. Photo courtesy of A. Ustinenko.

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.