In a peculiar twist of fate for the notorious Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, officials at Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center which runs peaceful nuclear research works at the former test site, are seeking to have it included on the UNESCO World Heritage list and make it a tourist attraction.
Just over two decades ago, the question of nuclear disarmament was a key international issue. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and Ukraine, Kazakhstan an Belarus had inherited parts of the Soviet’s nuclear arsenals becoming the world’s third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear powers..
In 1991, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, jointly with the people of Kazakhstan, made the decision to give up what was then the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal and close the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. It was the site of hundreds of Soviet nuclear weapons tests resulting in the deaths, disabilities and severe illnesses of the estimated more than 1.5 million Kazakhstan citizens. The effects of those tests linger today as many in the region continue to suffer premature death and radiation-related cancers.
Officials at the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan recently proposed including the former test site, an area of 18,000 sq. metres that experienced 340 underground and 116 above ground nuclear explosions over a span of four decades, on the UNESCO World Heritage List and developing the area as a tourist attraction.
National Nuclear Center Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology Director Sergey Lukashenko said during a recent press conference that the test site attracts foreign scholars and up to 30 tourists per year.
“Of course, my position is … that (the test site) should be included on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” he said. “However, we are not a travel company, we can only help.”
Visitors to the site can see melted concrete fences and the “atomic” lake that lies on the territory, which according to nuclear center experts is the region’s most radioactive area. Short-term visits to the area, however, pose no health risks, said Yury Strilchuk, manager of the Educational and Information Center at the National Nuclear Center.
Strilchuk noted that living or spending excessive amounts of time on the site would be dangerous, but reiterated that short-term exposure poses no risk. “For example, during the time that tourists are on the site, they get less radiation than during a flight from Europe to the US,” Strilchuk explained.
Nuclear tourism is not new. The United States and China have already opened up their once secret nuclear-related locations to tourism. Among the most famous nuclear sites is the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States.
Kazakhstan currently has three World Heritage sites, including the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly, and Saryarka – steppes and lakes of the Northern Kazakhstan.