On 29 August 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in the atmosphere at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. By the time it stopped testing nuclear weapons in 1990, the Soviet Union had conducted some 715 explosions, including 456 at the Semipalatinsk test site. Having declared its sovereignty in 1990, Kazakhstan closed the test site on August 29, 1991, exactly 42 years after the firstSoviet test. In 2009, on Kazakhstan’s initiative, the United Nations proclaimed August 29 as the International Day against Nuclear Tests. Having suffered much from nuclear testing, Kazakhstan has been leading the way towards the full cessation of nuclear testing and nuclear disarmament.
It was a mere four years after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the nuclear arms race started: the Soviet Union became the second nuclear power by detonating a plutonium-based implosion device in Kazakhstan. This was the beginning of a long series of tests that was only ended after four decades of nuclear explosions with catastrophic consequences. Atmospheric testing by the Soviet Union stopped in 1971 thanks to the Partial Test Ban Treaty, while its underground testing was discontinued in 1990 thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus became independent states, but also “inherited” former Soviet nuclear weapons and their launch vehicles deployed on their territories. Kazakhstan found itself in possession of some 1,400 nuclear warheads on SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles(ICBMs) and 40 Tu-95M long-range bombers equipped with 320 cruise missiles. After negotiations with Moscow, by May 1995 Kazakh authorities had returned all the nuclear warheads and ICBMs to Russia; eliminated silo missile launchers, launch control centres and test silos; closed and sealed nuclear weapons test tunnels; and dismantled the heavy bombers. Kazakhstan acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994 and ratified the CTBT in 2002.
Kazakhstan was also one of the key initiators of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ). In 1992 it was in Almaty, at that time the Kazakh capital, that Russia and the two other former Soviet Republics — Ukraine and Belarus — agreed on the transfer of the inherited nuclear weapons to Russia. It was also there that, on 27February 1997, the presidents of the five Central Asian states issued the Almaty Declaration endorsing the creation of a CANWFZ. When the treaty establishing the CANWFZ was concluded among the five Central Asian states, on 8 September 2006 the document was officially signed symbolically in Semipalatinsk, the former Soviet testing site in Kazakhstan.
On 29 August 2016, at a conference on “Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World” organised in Astana on the 25th anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk testing site, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stated:
“Twenty-five years ago, we legally stopped the most sinister experiment of militarism, which had been tormenting our land and our people for almost 40 years. We in Kazakhstan were the first to cut the “Gordian knot” by adopting a decree on closing the largest nuclear test site in the world.After our decision, the test sites of all leading nuclear powers became silent, but they have still not been closed anywhere. Kazakhstan was the first to take such a step. This was the will of our people. It shows the great importance of this event for the entire planet.”
Indeed, Kazakhstan led the way in this endeavour. After it signed the CTBT in 1996, France irreversibly closed and dismantled its own nuclear test site in French Polynesia, where it had carried out 193 of its 210 nuclear tests. Other nuclear-armed states are observing a moratorium on nuclear testing, but because some of them (China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States) have yet to sign or ratify the CTBT, they could still resume testing at their own sites. In this regard, the news that President Trump had considered resuming testing at the Nevada test site raised concerns both within the United States and across the world, because such testing would not only have disastrous consequences for the local population, but could act as an incentive for other states to follow suit.
The major suffering caused by nuclear testing needs no demonstration. The Kazakh health authorities estimated that up to 1.5 million people were exposed to nuclear fallout in the 40 years of Soviet testing. Some impacts of these explosions still linger 30 years after the test site was closed. Studies show elevated risks of cancer, and the effects of radiation on cardiovascular health are passed down from one generation to the next. Women who were exposed to radiation had higher risks of giving birth to children with chromosomal diseases, including Down’s syndrome and congenital disabilities.
Regarding the impact of nuclear tests on the environment, according to the Kazakh permanent representative to the United Nations in 1998, “The underground tests destroyed ecological linkages, and this in turn accelerated the process of desertification of the territory of the region, which is continuing to take place up until the present time. Large areas of land and water resources were subjected to radiation contamination, and economic activity in the territory located around the testing ground was considerably reduced.”
The terrible nightmare that Kazakhstan’s population suffered is unfortunately shared by the many other victims of nuclear testing and the production of nuclear weapons throughout the world. A 1991 study by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War predicted that globally some 2.4 million people would eventually die from cancer as a result of atmospheric testing. In the United States, which conducted almost half of all nuclear tests, a 2017 study estimated that fallout from nuclear testing caused between 340,000 and 460,000 deaths from 1951 to 1973.
Regrettably, there are no independent statistics on casualties resulting from nuclear testing by other nuclear-armed countries, including tests conducted in other locations such as Algeria or French Polynesia by France, Australia by Britain, Greenland by the United States, or Pacific islands by Britain and the United States. Some partial studies, however, give an idea of the impact of such tests. For instance, recently declassified documents show that some of the tests carried out by France in Algeria led to radioactive contamination as far north as Southern Europe and southwards to sub-Saharan Africa. A group of 3,000 French veterans fighting for compensation found that 35 percent of them had cancer or suffered from infertility and cardiovascular problems, while their children and grandchildren were also suffering health complications.
It is therefore fully justified that the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) contains obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation. Kazakhstan ratified the TPNW on 29 August 2019, again symbolically on the International Day against Nuclear Tests, setting another example for other states, especially nuclear-armed states, to follow.
The author is Marc Finaud, the Head of Arms Proliferation at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and a Bureau Member of Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire.