Nuclear Steppe

A photo-essay about Soviet nuclear test site Semipalatinsk, located in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan 2013

By Ben Dalton

October 29, 2013

Also published by NewEurasia


1. In north-east Kazakhstan, close to the Russian border, lies Kurchatov city, a small, rundown town that was once one of the USSR’s most closely guarded secrets. Kurchatov housed many of the USSR’s top scientists as they developed and tested the weapons that comprised the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The city appeared on no public maps and was known only by its postal code, Semipalatinsk-16.

Kurchatov sits on the northern periphery of the Semipalatinsk Test Site, or “polygon” — a vast expanse of steppe where, between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets carried out 456 nuclear explosive tests. The USSR is gone, but its radioactive legacy remains in the form of abandoned facilities and nuclear material left on the steppe. Pictured, an arch welcoming visitors to present-day Kurchatov.


2. In its heyday, Kurchatov was home to 40,000 people and was “serviced by two daily direct flights from Moscow.” After the Soviet collapse, the population plummeted. When Siegfried S. Hecker, director of the United States’ Los Alamos National Laboratory, visited Kurchatov in the 1990s, he described Kurchatov as a “ghost town”:

“Mostly deserted buildings … most of them had the windows knocked out—a kind of eerie scene out of a ghost-town movie. This was especially true when I jogged in town early in the morning. The streets were deserted, not a soul. All I saw was a herd of horses running loose through the outskirts of town and an enormous number of ravens…” (Harrell and Hoffman, “Plutonium Mountain”, Harvard Belfer Center)

The test site was similarly neglected. Scavengers ranged the unguarded sites of underground explosions in search of scrap metal.

3. Today, a revitalized Kurchatov houses Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center, which manages the polygon test site and operates Kazakhstan’s research reactors, among other projects. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), part of the Department of Defense, has worked closely with the Kazakh and Russian governments to secure nuclear material present at the polygon test site. Pictured, one of many DTRA stickers found on equipment in Kurchatov’s laboratories.

4. A local museum preserves the history of the test site. Exhibits chart the history of the Soviet nuclear program, including the stages of testing that took place in the polygon. The first Soviet atomic bomb was detonated here in 1949, and atmospheric testing continued until 1962. Underground tests continued until 1989.

5. Soviet scientists tested the effects of atmospheric blasts on buildings, equipment, and animals. The Kurchatov museum preserves examples of the severe burns, hemorrhages, and other injuries endured by test animals.

6. The polygon itself includes some 18,000 square kilometers of unfenced steppe, about the size of New Jersey.

7. Nuclear material remains at the site of the tests, stored in the soil of the steppe. At some locations, water has seeped into test sites, most famously at Lake Chagan, or “atomic lake,” where the nuclear crater has filled with radioactive water.

8. One of several concrete structures, long abandoned, that Soviet scientists built to test blast effects at varying distances from ground zero.

9. One of several craters at the Experimental Field, “the area where most of the atmospheric tests took place,” including the USSR’s first test in 1949.

10. Radiation contamination increases closer to blast sites. Pictured, soil fused by the force of an explosion.

11. Kazakhstan’s Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, one of several institutes under the National Nuclear Center, is running experiments to see whether food can be grown in the irradiated soil of the test site. Pictured, a sunflower at an experimental farm run by the Institute.

12. Kazakhstan’s military now guards sensitive areas within the polygon, including Degelen Mountain, site of extensive underground testing by the Soviets. Degelen Mountain was the subject of a multiyear project by the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan to secure sensitive materials left in tunnels used for underground testing.

13. Sergei Lukashenko runs the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology.

These photos were made possible by the International Reporting Project.