Remembering Semipalatinsk


esterday, a depressing series of photos lined the second-floor room at the University Club in downtown Washington. They were of the effects of Soviet nuclear weapons testing at Semipalatinsk, a vast and lonely area on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

I was invited to the event sponsored by Global Green USA and the Embassy of Kazakhstan as throwback to my years covering Central Asia. This may be far afield for usual Bacon Rebellion columns, but it may be worth it.
The event commemorates two anniversaries. The first, remembering Aug. 29, 1949, was the event code-named “First Lighting.” There, at Semipalatinsk, the Soviets set off their first nuclear bomb. On that windy and cold morning, the sky turned red, the ground trembled and the mushroom cloud appeared.
Americans were shocked in their arrogance that it would take the backward Russians at least a decade before matching the Trinity test of 1945. A combination of first class espionage and world class science brought the Soviets to the bomb a lot sooner.
The second anniversary also occurred about the same time of year but about 20 years ago. Nursultan Nazerbayev, the Communist chief of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the president of the newly-independent country after the USSR collapsed, declared Semipalatinsk closed forever to nuclear testing.
During the years in between, some 456 nuclear blasts were set off, including 86 air bursts and 30 ones on the surface. With their penchant for secrecy, the Soviets built a secret research lab about 45 miles away from ground zero. Called Semipalatinsk 21, it was surrounded by barbed wire and access was strictly controlled.
The same secrecy prevailed as vast areas were contaminated with radioactive fallout. As the photos at the exhibit at the University Club showed, ordinary Kazakhs were afflicted with blood and heart disease, skin cancers, cleft jaws, birth defects, backward limbs and other ailments. Up to 1.5 million people were either sickened or killed. The land was scared as well. The ground bursts of the 1950s and early 1960s until the 1963 nuclear test ban left gigantic lakes filled with rainwater that are still radioactive.
The point of the exhibit is non-proliferation and to their credit the Kazakhs showed unusual sanity. When the Soviet Union fell apart without warning, they found themselves the proud owners of more nuclear warheads and delivery systems than the U.S., France and China combined. The threat of illegal sale or theft involving terrorists was obvious. Nazerbayev and his officials worked closely with the U.S. in securing and disposing of the weaponry.
One operation, set up under an anti-weapon program by Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, involved CIA-sponsored covert flights of gigantic C-5A Air Force cargo planes flying out dozens of warheads. They ended up in the U.S. where they were disassembled and their enriched fissionable was removed and sent for reprocessing into fuel for commercial nuclear plants.
The issue now, Paul F. Walker of Global Green USA and Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakh Ambassador to the U.S. said, is to continue the process by getting the U.S. Senate to pass a new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty that continues the weapons reduction process. Each country would be allowed 1,500 deployed warheads, about a 30 percent cut lower than what was allowed by treaty in 2002.
What is interesting about the Kazakh approach is that they willingly got rid of their nukes, unlike Pakistan, India, Israel, the U.K., France, China, Russia, the U.S. and perhaps South Africa. North Korea has exploded some kind of device and Iran may be on the verge of one as well.
The exhibit was the polar opposite of what every Hollywood action movie has shown since the fall of the USSR — cheesy former Soviet republics selling off a few megatons for the price of a few BMWs. But then, Hollywood’s “Borat” version of Kazakhstan was so off the mark, it isn’t even worth bringing up.
Peter Galuszka

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7 responses to “Remembering Semipalatinsk”

  1. Excellent column. Very interesting.

    Frankly, I think you could follow fellow blogger Jim Bacon with a book on the topic. It might be a hell of a read.

    Kazakhstan is rumored to be a pretty cool place. Huge country. Small population. Pretty cities. Lots and lots of oil. I'd like to go there someday.

    One thing for sure … it's a darn good thing that all those Russian nukes didn't fall into the hands of an Islamic majority country! Everybody knows what a mess that would have been.

    Uh, what?

    There are Muslims in Kazakhstan?

    65% of the population?

    Kazakhstan would be a pretty good place to help de-bunk some of the Islamaphobia going around these days.

    Of course, all most Americans knows about Kazakhstan is the movie Borat … another fine product from the libtards in Hollywood.


  2. James A. Bacon Avatar
    James A. Bacon

    I agree — would make a great book. And you have many of the unique skills required to write it.

  3. what the…..

    there are Muslims in that country TOO???

    this is getting out of hand I tell you…

    they're like cockroaches….

    who designed this world anyhow?

    Groveton – give the current state of islamophobia and our collective national response to it – you may what to hold off visiting Muslim countries for a while… besides.. it's clear that most of them are murderous pagans anyhow.

  4. . dang it…

  5. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Groveton andJim,
    Thanks. I've been there, but a book will have to wait.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Another excellent post, Peter. This is a topic of which I knew nothing.


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