Helping Semipalatinsk: A Job Half-Done

The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan was the location for almost a quarter of all nuclear weapons tests in the world since 1945. Their total number exceeded 2,000. From 1949 to 1989, 456 of them were carried out at Semipalatinsk, including more than 120 in the atmosphere. Their total destructive power was 2,500 times that of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.

The nuclear tests in Kazakhstan affected more than 1.5 million people. They contaminated vast regions of the country, equal in size to the total area of Germany.

Despite the fierce resistance of the Soviet leadership and their military-industrial complex, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, even before the country became independent, issued a decree, on Aug. 29, 1991, closing the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

This historical step has had a great impact. After the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site, thanks to the example of Kazakhstan and the actions of the world community, other test sites in the world in Nevada, Lop Nor and Novaya Zemlya stopped their activities. The nuclear club powers signed on to documents prohibiting nuclear tests, and committed themselves to adhering to a moratorium on further nuclear weapons testing.

Since 2009, August 29 has been declared by the UN as the International Day against Nuclear Tests.

At independence, Kazakhstan inherited a Soviet nuclear arsenal which included 1,040 nuclear warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles and 370 nuclear warheads for cruise missiles carried on strategic bombers. This arsenal exceeded combined nuclear forces of Britain, France and China. Thanks to the decision of President Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan not only closed the test site, but also expelled all nuclear weapons and their means of delivery from this country.

Throughout independence Kazakhstan has consistently pursued efforts in non-proliferation and disarmament. So it was with great interest that the people of the country watched as world’s leading powers and Iran met in Almaty at the invitation of the president of Kazakhstan at the end of February for another round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The talks in Almaty, which ended with an agreement to further search for the solutions at the level of experts in Istanbul in mid-March and to have another round of talks in Almaty on April 5-6, became a considerable step in building confidence and mutual understanding between the parties and in strengthening of the understanding of the need to solve this problem through peaceful, diplomatic means.

Kazakhstan was not a direct participant of the talks. However, it worked to create all conditions for their fruitful holding. Prior to the talks, President Nazarbayev personally received their co-chairs, Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme Security Council, and Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Even such small progress in this difficult negotiation process cannot but please all of us, especially since it happened on the Kazakh soil.

Back in the 20th century, the nuclear tests that were carried out over four decades at the Semipalatinsk test site had a detrimental impact on the humanitarian, social and economic situation of the population and the environment. The effects of those nuclear tests still negatively influence the health of people living near the site. Today, 70 percent of victims of nuclear weapons testing are children and grandchildren of the people exposed to radiation fallout from those tests.

Since independence, the Government of Kazakhstan has been committed to the rehabilitation of the victims of nuclear tests and it has provided economic and social support to the population in the region. The government has adopted a number of targeted programmes aimed at addressing the problems of the Semipalatinsk region. Kazakhstan’s Parliament has passed a law for the social protection of victims of nuclear tests.

With the assistance of the international community, Kazakhstan has organized an electronic data base of the personal records of the people affected by nuclear tests. Electronic registers have been set up. Those listed receive privileges in obtaining medical care and treatments in their respective rehabilitation centres and hospitals, as well as other social benefits and payments.

As of today, the register includes the passport and medical data for 194,124 individuals. Some 90 percent of them are from the East Kazakhstan region, and 10 percent are from the Pavlodar region. Every year, the Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology updates the register and expands the number recorded by about ten thousand people.

According to UN data, the Government of Kazakhstan provided 600 million dollars in official aid to the Semipalatinsk region for the period from 1999 to 2010. However, the social, economic and environmental rehabilitation of the region still requires very serious and prolonged international assistance.

International public opinion has been sympathetic to the tragedy of the people of Kazakhstan. The UN General Assembly, in its Resolution No. 63/279 on April 25, 2009, called upon the global community to provide further support to Kazakhstan for the environmental, social, economic and humanitarian rehabilitation of the region. From 1997 to 2009, the UN General Assembly adopted six such resolutions.

At the Tokyo International Conference on Semipalatinsk, organized by the Government of Japan and the UN Development Programme in 1999, the member states agreed on the feasibility of recruiting international donors, as well as organizing cooperative actions, to assist Kazakhstan in eliminating the consequences of nuclear tests, and helping to rehabilitate the population and the environment of the region.

The major donors to help the victims of Semipalatinsk nuclear tests have been the UN Development Programme, the European Union, Japan, Britain, Norway, Switzerland, UNICEF, the USAID, the IAEA, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, the OSCE, the Red Crescent Society of Kazakhstan and the Canadian International Development Agency.

The Government of Kazakhstan and the world community as a whole have done a great deal to rehabilitate the victims of the nuclear tests and to restore the environment at the Semipalatinsk test site. Kazakhstan officials say they are grateful to the international community for its assistance in eliminating the consequences of the Soviet nuclear tests, and in supporting the human and ecological rehabilitation of the region. At the same time, as noted by Kanat Saudabayev, chair of the presidential commission on non-proliferation of weapons of destruction and director of the Nazarbayev Center, at the recent conference in Oslo, it is obvious that the people of Kazakhstan look forward to the continuation and strengthening of targeted humanitarian assistance from the international community and above all, from nuclear weapon states, main participants in the global arms race, which caused such severe trials and tribulations to the people of Kazakhstan through the long decades of the Cold War. People in Kazakhstan hope the appeal of the UN General Assembly to its member-states to provide support to this country in its efforts to rehabilitate the Semipalatinsk region will be heard by the leaders of all nations in the international community.

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