Seventy years ago this week, the first nuclear explosion took place at the now shut down Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. A momentous event, its shock waves were felt far beyond Central Asia for decades to come. The successful test of the first Soviet bomb marked the formal launch of the nuclear arms race and the escalation of the Cold War to a dangerous new level.
Over the next 40 years, Semipalatinsk remained at the heart of East-West tensions. The first test – known to the Soviets as First Lightning and to the Americans as Joe-1 – was followed by approximately 450 more tests. Nearly a quarter of all nuclear explosions were triggered under and above the ground of this huge site in eastern Kazakhstan.
Seven decades later, the role played by that initial test and those that followed in increasing tensions may be largely a matter for Cold War historians. But for Kazakhstan, the legacy in both physical and policy terms remains very real.
Our country is still struggling with the environmental and health fall-out of these explosions. Our determination, too, to prevent any other country suffering this fate has seen us champion dialogue and co-operation in the international community and lead the global fight against nuclear weapons.
For there is nothing at all abstract in Kazakhstan about the effects of nuclear weapons. As we have said before, nobody else in peacetime has suffered more and for longer from their effects. Thirty years since the last test took place in 1989, large areas of eastern Kazakhstan remain contaminated by radiation. There has been a huge human cost as well for those who lived in and around the site.
The tests, in the early years at least, took place without even the most rudimentary precautions. Far from being told to stay indoors, the local population went outside to watch the explosions. The result is a very high incidence of health problems, such as birth defects and cancers which sadly continue to be passed down through generations.
It is why our young country, from its earliest days, has warned about these dangers and, importantly, campaigned for a nuclear weapons-free world. In a symbolic move, the closure of Semipalatinsk was announced in 1991 on the anniversary of the first test. It was a bold move by a country – and its leader Nursultan Nazarbayev – still months away from becoming a fully independent nation.This courage is recognised by the United Nations, officially making Aug. 29 the International Day Against Nuclear Testing.
This decisive break with the past was made even stronger when Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up the 1,400 nuclear warheads it inherited on the break-up of the Soviet Union. In a sign of Kazakhstan’s international co-operation and partnership approach, which underpins its foreign affairs, Kazakhstan worked closely with both Russia and the United States to transfer the warheads securely to Russia for decommissioning, to prevent nuclear material falling into the wrong hands and to make the Semipalatinsk site safe.
In the years that have followed, these steps have been followed by a series of measures to permanently end nuclear testing and create a world in which these weapons are unnecessary. Kazakhstan has been one of the most tireless supporters of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
At Kazakhstan’s suggestion and with Kazakhstan’s full support, too, the nuclear weapons free zone in Central Asia was agreed by the five countries of the region and nuclear powers. More recently, the hosting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank will help, in time, discourage the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons.
By matching rhetoric with action, such steps have given powerful weight to Kazakhstan’s voice within the international community. Our international audience knows, too, that our campaigns rest on our own tragic experiences and our warnings should be heeded.
Today, this is more important than ever. As we look around the world, it can seem sadly that the hard-won lessons of the past are at risk of being forgotten. The idea that we achieve more internationally by working together towards common goals appears to have gone out of fashion. Narrow and often short-term self-interest now seems in the ascendancy.
Nowhere is this more dangerous than in the sphere of nuclear weapons. We must hope the 70th anniversary of that first fateful explosion at Semipalatinsk reminds all countries of the need to stop nuclear tests and to work to rid the world of these threats to our survival.