Kazakhstan inherited nuclear-tipped missiles, a nuclear weapon test site, and biological and chemical weapon production facilities when the Soviet Union collapsed. In its first decade of independence, Kazakhstan dismantled and destroyed Soviet weapons systems and facilities left on its territory, and signed major international nonproliferation treaties. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)]

From 1947 to 1990, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, some 467 nuclear tests were conducted at the 19,000 square kilometers Semipalatinsk test site, 800 kilometers north of Almaty. They included explosions that were conducted on the surface and in the atmosphere. Five of the surface tests were not successful and resulted in the dispersion of plutonium into the environment. Starting in 1961, more than 300 test explosions were conducted underground, 13 of which resulted in release of radioactive gases to the atmosphere. Operations at Semipalatinsk were formally terminated in 1991. [Source:]

A plant in Öskemen fabricated beryllium and nuclear reactor fuel, and another at Aqtau produced uranium ore. In Petropavl, one plant produced SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles, and other plants manufactured torpedoes and naval communications equipment, support equipment for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), tactical missile launcher equipment, artillery, and armored vehicles. Chemical and biological weapons were produced in Aksu, and chemical weapons were manufactured in Pavlodar. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhstan's other military significance was as a test range and missile launch site. The republic was the location of only about 1 percent of all Soviet test ranges, but these included some all Soviet Union's largest and most important, especially in the aerospace and nuclear programs. Test sites included a range at Vladimirovka used to integrate aircraft with their weapons systems; a range at Saryshaghan for flight testing of ballistic missiles and air defense systems; a similar facility at Emba; and the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Weapons Proving Grounds, which was the more important of the two major nuclear testing facilities in the Soviet Union. In the four decades of its existence, there were at least 466 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk. *

The objects of greatest concern to the world, however, were have been the 1,350 nuclear warheads that remained in Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union disbanded. Although two other new states — Ukraine and Belarus — also possessed "stranded" nuclear weapons, the Kazakhstani weapons attracted particular international suspicion, and unsubstantiated rumors reported the sale of warheads to Iran. Subsequent negotiations demonstrated convincingly, however, that operational control of these weapons always had remained with Russian strategic rocket forces . All of the warheads were out of Kazakhstan by May 1995.

Nuclear Weapons and Kazakhstan

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads and the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site. By April 1995 Kazakhstan had repatriated its nuclear warhead inventory back to Russia, destroying the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk by July 2000. However, weapons-grade nuclear material remains in Kazakhstan, including three metric tons of plutonium moved to Semipalatinsk for secure storage and significant amounts of civil highly enriched uranium (HEU). [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)]

When Kazakhstan became independent in 1991 it was home to the world’s forth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. During the Soviet era, 1,400 nuclear warheads were deployed in what is now Kazakhstan. They were mounted on 104 SS-18 missiles and TU-95 bombers. There was also a test center for nuclear weapon carriers in Bailkonur and a nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk (now Semey) in northeastern Kazakhstan and a production complex at the Semipalatinsk test site.

In Kazakhstan there were three weapons-grade uranium enrichment and processing plants, one warhead assembly and dismantlement plant and two research institute with a research reactor with weapons grade material (one near the Aral Sea and one near Semipalatinsk). It has been said that Kazakhstan possesses the technology and materials to build a nuclear weapon within a year if it so chose.

In the Soviet era, Semipalatinsk was the world's largest and most frequently used test site for nuclear weapons. During the long Cold-War period of nuclear weapons testing, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people were affected by radioactive pollution in northern Kazakhstan. Demonstrations against nuclear testing began in 1989, and a major environmental movement sprang from that opposition. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Atom Bombs in Kazakhstan

The Soviet Union became the world’s second nuclear power after the United States when it detonated its first atomic bomb, "Joe 1," in Kazakhstan in August 1949, four years after the Hiroshima bomb exploded. The bomb was a copy of the Fat Man bomb. United States "sniffer" planes picked up fallout from the test. The design for the bomb was stolen from the U.S. by the German-born spy Klaus Fuchs.

As of 1995, the U.S. had conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, Russia (the Soviet Union) 715, France 209, Britain 45, China 43, and India 1. Kurchatov, a city in northeaster Kazakhstan, was an important center of the Soviet nuclear industry. Designed and tested here were everything from some of the world's most powerful H-bombs to tiny nuclear reactors intended to power the Soviet mission to Mars. The city was so top secret it didn't appear on any maps. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, March 1993 ♠]

Not far from Kurchatov the Soviets built an entire town with five story buildings, military bunkers and bridges. The put cars, tanks and planes on the streets; brought in sheep and dogs. And then blew it all up on August 29, 1949. No one was warned about the explosion beforehand including Kazakh villagers who lived 60 miles downwind.♠

Hundreds of nuclear blasts were set off at the site. People used to go to them as if they were a were a fireworks display. One person who did this told National Geographic, “They didn’t say anything about radiation.” Some 80 percent f the 1.5 million people who lived downwind from the testing area had weakened immune systems. Cancer and birth defect rates were also very high.

Nuclear Testing in Kazakhstan

Semipalatinsk in northeast Kazakhstan was the primary nuclear testing site in the Soviet Union. The Soviets regarded Kazakhstan as a convenient place to test nuclear weapons. Between 1949 and 1989, the Semipalatinsk Test Site was one of the primary locations for Soviet above and below ground nuclear testing. The first Soviet nuclear weapons test, codenamed Pervaya molniya or First Lighting, took place at Semipalatinsk on August 29 1949. In total, 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric tests, were conducted at Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities as part of an effort that created the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative]

Often, such tests were conducted without evacuating or even alerting the local population. Some of the tests cracked walls in towns 50 miles a way. One test in August 1949 blanketed the town of Dolon, 60 miles from ground zero, with radioactive fallout after the wind suddenly changed direction.

The first test, in 1949, had the force equivalent of a 22 kilotons of TNT. The last one, in 1989, packed 75 kilotons. By comparison the Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons. The power of all 367 test was two megatons. After 1963 all the tests were done underground. Semipalatinsk was closed in 1991 when Kazakhstan became independent.

Semipalatinsk was the world’s largest nuclear test range. It covers 18,500 square miles, making it roughly the size of Indiana. The city of Semipalatinsk is about 100 miles from the testing site. It was home to 200,000 people while the tests were going and is home to around 350,00 people now. There is some discussion about opening up parts of the test range farming and cattle raising,

See History and the Military Under Russia

Semipalatinsk Test Site

Semipalatinsk Test Site: Location: East Kazakhstan Province, Kazakhstan. Subordinate To: National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Size: 18,000 square kilometers Facility Status: Non-operational. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative ]

There were four major testing areas at the site, along with two research reactors, supported from then closed city of Kurchatov. A total of 116 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests took place at the ‘Experiential Field,’ either detonated on towers or dropped from aircraft. After the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force in 1963, the Soviet Union carried out 340 underground nuclear tests in caves or boreholes at all four sites. Semipalatinsk also was the location of 9 of the Soviet Union’s peaceful nuclear explosions. This program intended to use nuclear devices to create artificial lakes, aid in mining and other large scale infrastructure projects.

The last nuclear test conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site took place at Balapan in November 1989. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited the site. Russian scientists and security personnel quickly departed without leaving information for the Kazakh authorities about the location of many of the tunnels or boreholes. The Semipalatinsk test range was officially closed by Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev on 29 August 1991. Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities are now under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which is involved in civilian activities and conversion of the site to non-defense uses.

Human Guinea Pigs and Nuclear Testing

Forty male villagers who lived within the Semipalatinsk were ordered to observe the first test in 1949. They all died of leukemia and cancer. They only one who remained alive in 2001 suffered from skin cancer and liver diseases.

On September 14, 1954, Soviet warplanes drooped a nuclear bomb, more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, on the town of Totsk, near the Kazakhstan border, to test how soldiers would react during a real nuclear war. Minutes after the explosion, about 44,000 troops dug into 140 miles of trenches were ordered into area the bomb had just exploded. Twenty minutes after the explosion conventional warplanes were ordered to the center of the inferno to bomb any "enemy" targets that might have survived.

Some civilians were told to move; others were not. Some soldiers received no protection. Villagers said they heard a deafening explosion, followed by fires and shock waves. Some people who were six kilometers away said the shock wave was so intense blood started to pour out of the ears. A Russian colonel told the Washington Post in 1994, "We already had many manuals written on the tactical use of nuclear weapons, but we wanted to see what would happen in real life—the morale and psychological response of the soldiers, and so forth."

The soldiers had to swear an oath that there would never discuss the test. They were encouraged to wash off and destroy their clothes but there wasn't enough soap and water to go around and many kept a belt they were given to commemorate the event.

No casualties figures for civilians and villagers living in the area have been made available and no rigorous long-term medical studies were conducted to check the lasting effects of radiation exposure. Some studies showed that people in the area had a five times higher rate of cancer than the general population.

Environmental Effects of Nuclear Testing

Semipalatinsk is contaminated with high levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. According to one estimate 19 million acres of land in Kazakhstan has been rendered unusable by tests. The temperature of the ground in and around the testing is higher than elsewhere in Kazakhstan, in some cases by 15 degrees C. Some places are devoid of snow in the winter and show up as hot on satellite images.

Radiation leaks out from the tunnels at the site. Scavengers have stolen copper and other metals from the radioactive tunnels at Semipalatinsk. The scale of the problem became clear in 1996 when China complained that the copper sold to it by a Kazakh company was radioactive.

An estimated 230 millions tons of radioactive waste is buried in Kazakhstan. Of this 179 million tons is highly radioactive. Most of it was created during the production of uranium for nuclear weapons, atomic experiments and fuel for nuclear power plants.

In 1956, a nuclear bomb was detonated underground to create a reservoir 65 miles southwest of Semey. Large amounts of radiation was released into the atmosphere at the time of the blast and was blown into populated areas. The reservoir is now called Atomic Lake.

Health Problems Related to Nuclear Testing

Although nuclear testing was halted in 1990, radiation poisoning, birth defects, severe anemia, and leukemia are very common in the area. An estimated 1.2 million people were exposed to above normal doses or radiation around Semipalatinsk. According to some calculations some people were exposed to the same amount of radiation as the people that people were a half kilometer from ground zero of the of the Hiroshima explosion.

One man, who lived 43 miles from the testing site, told AP that whenever a bomb was exploded he was told by his teacher to run into the steppe and lie face down on the ground. “Who would really lie down?” the man said. “We were kids. Everyone wanted to look, watch the plane, and see the mushroom.” By the 1990s, he, his four brothers and three sisters all suffered from varying degrees of stomach cancer.

The rate of stillborn births, birth defects and cancer is high among the people living around Semipalatinsk. According to some estimates, 300,000 people have suffered from the effects from the radiation, including offspring of the people that were actually exposed to radiation. Many families in the area gave one, two or three malformed children. Affects have spread to the third generation. One boy pictue, There is one boy with a distorted head, who eyes are completely swollen shut. Rates of lung, stomach and skin cancers are particularly high. Investigators, though, have a difficult time distinguishing between problems caused by radiation and those caused by poverty and other reasons and thus shy away saying there is a direct link between these health problems and radiation.

The government ordered that all radiation victims be given a one-time compensation payment based on how close they lived to Semipalatinsk and for how long. The payments ranged from 25 percent to five times the minimum monthly wages—with the money paid being as low as $5 a month—for each person who lived on or near the site.

Missiles in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan inherited 104 R-36M (GRAU: 15A14; NATO SS-18 Satan) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from the Soviet missile complex. All ICBMs were transferred to Russia for dismantlement by September 1996 and missile silos and silo structures were destroyed under the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program by September 1999. [15] Gidromash, an Almaty-based Soviet-era producer of submarine-launched missiles, was converted to a civilian commercial enterprise under CTR's Industrial Partnerships Program. However, Kazakhstan still possesses a small arsenal of Soviet era short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) consisting of the OTR-21 Tochka-U (NATO: SS-21-B Scarab-B) and the R-300 Elbrus (NATO: SS-1C Scud-B). [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) ]

Kazakhstan has an active space industry and inherited the Baikonur Cosmodrome from the Soviet Union. Baikonur is used for international space launches, including all Russian launches to the International Space Station (ISS). Additionally, Russia leases a segment of the Baikonur Cosmodrome for ballistic missile testing. Kazakhstan also inherited the Sary-Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground from the Soviet Union, and now leases the complex to Russia for continued ballistic missile defense testing. Kazakhstan's space industry provides it with dual-use technology and expertise; however, the country is committed to nonproliferation efforts and has shown no interest in pursuing a ballistic missile program.

Kazakhstan closely cooperates with Russia in air and missile defense. On 30 December 2013, Russia ratified an agreement for the “Creation of a Joint Regional Air Defense System of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan,” which will be an integral part of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) joint air defense infrastructure. Russia has exported S-300PS (NATO: SA-10D Grumble) and S-300PMU-1 (NATO: SA-20 Gargoyle) surface-to-air missile systems to Kazakhstan.

Biological and Chemical Weapons in Kazakhstan

The Soviets regarded Kazakhstan as a convenient place to test biological weapons as also was the case with nuclear testing. Kazakhstan housed the world's largest (Soviet) bioweapons plant in Stepnogorsk during the Cold War, and is now home to a significant number of anti-plague facilities that were part of the Soviet biological warfare (BW) effort. In June 2007, Kazakhstan acceded to the Biological Toxin and Weapons Convention (BTWC). Kazakh President Nazarbayev has declared Kazakhstan's commitment to biological weapons nonproliferation. Kazakhstan is not a member of the Australia Group. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) ]

In 1993, Kazakhstan created a civilian body, the National Center for Biotechnology, to oversee the administration of most of the former BW facilities in Kazakhstan. These facilities include the following: Biomedpreparat, a large-scale biological production facility located in Stepnogorsk; the Scientific Research Agricultural Institute (SRAI) at Otar, which specializes in crop and livestock diseases; and Biokombinat, a small mobilization production facility located in Almaty that now produces vaccines. Kazakhstan reorganized these facilities in August 2005 under the National Center for Biotechnology of the Republic of Kazakhstan, with the goal of conducting research and creating a profitable domestic biotechnology industry.

The Kazakh Scientific Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases (KSCQZD) (formerly known as the Central Asian Anti-Plague Research Institute) was also involved in the Soviet defensive BW system and is now under the jurisdiction of the Kazakh Ministry of Health. [10] Both KSCQZI and SRAI house extensive collections of virulent strains of human, animal, and plant pathogens. Under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, Biomedpreparat has been dismantled and safety and security have been upgraded at KSCQZI and SRAI. In December 2004, the United States and Kazakhstan signed an amendment to a bilateral agreement that will expand cooperation against the threat of bioterrorism through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. With completion expected in summer 2013, CTR’s Cooperative Biological Engagement program is funding the construction of the Central Reference Laboratory at KSCQZI to secure Especially Dangerous Pathogens. The goal of U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation in this area is to counter the threat of bioterrorism and prevent proliferation of biological weapons technology, pathogens, and expertise at their source.

Kazakhstan inherited one Soviet chemical weapons production plant in the city of Pavlodar. Pavlodar was intended to replace aging plants in Volgograd and Novocheboksarsk (Russia) and to produce binary agents like "novichok" but the facility never actually manufactured chemical weapons themselves – only precursor chemicals. The plant's construction was halted in 1987, after the Soviet Union became involved in CWC-related negotiations, so it never produced any chemical warfare agents. Kazakhstan joined the CWC in March 2000. However, Kazakhstan submitted a nil declaration, leaving out the Pavlodar facility. In 2005, the plant filed for bankruptcy, and was purchased in March 2007 by Bazalt-PV for 1.57 billion tenges ($11 million).

Biological Weapons Testing at Vozrozhdeniye Island

A top-secret facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea was the world’s largest biological weapons testing ground and was one of the primary testing grounds for Russia's biological weapons using anthrax and other diseases. The island contains pens that held thousand of animals—rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep, donkeys, mice, hamsters, horses and baboons—that were used in testing. Around 1,500 people lived there at its height. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Mark Synnott wrote in National Geographic: Located on Vozrozhdeniya Island—which, now that the sea is gone, is no longer an island—the facility was the main test site for the Soviet military’s Microbiological Warfare Group. Thousands of animals were shipped to the island, where they were subjected to anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and other biological agents. The U.S. State Department, concerned that rusting drums of anthrax could fall into the wrong hands, sent a cleanup team there in 2002. No biological agents have been found in the dust since then, but sporadic outbreaks of plague afflict the surrounding region. [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 +/]

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a scientist who worked at Vozrozhdeniye told the New York Times, “About one-third of our work was on weapons, like anthrax, plague and others bacteria, and two thirds on matters like testing vaccines or clothing or how long microorganisms would survive in the soil....The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything.” The workers used to sunbathe, dance and hunt ducks in their free time. |:|

Much the testing involved giving disease-causing agents to animals. Lepyoshkin told the New York Times, “We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range”—25 kilometers from the town—“and they would put them in cages next to devises that the measured the concentration of germs in the air. Then after they were exposed, they would be taken to the labs, where we would test the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies..” The testing was usually only done in the summer when temperatures sore to 120 degrees F to prevent the spread of the pathogens. |:|

Lepyoshkin said, “There was always danger, but we never had an accidents. He recalled on incident in which a woman dropped a petri dish containing anthrax. She tried to hide her mistake but her accident was discovered. Here punishment: she was docked some money on her paycheck. “No one got sick,” Lepyoshkin said. |:|

Vozrozhdeniye Island In the Early 2000s

Vozrozhdeniye Island, now shared by shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the level of the Aral Sea has dropped the island has become a peninsula connected to the mainland. The peninsula is uninhabited except for the occasion scavenger that goes there. [Source: Christopher Pala, New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2002 |:|]

Large amounts of the strain of anthrax that killed people in Sverdlovsk are buried in pits on Vozrozhdeniye Island. There are concerns that terrorists could collect disease samples of the diseases could spread through animals or people that visit the site. Uzbekistan is particularly concerned because it plans to drill for oil near where the anthrax is stored. |:|

One of the greatest worries is that wild rodents that live at the range and were exposed to weapons-grade plague may have survived, The plague that was used was not affected by antibiotics and is more contagious than the natural kinds. If this strain somehow spread to a scavenger and then the people there could be a very serious problem.

In 1995, an American teams discovered live anthrax spores on Vozrozhdeniye Island. At that time the United States earmarked $6 million for a program to decontaminate the site.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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