From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union tested more than 450 nuclear weapons at Semipalatinsk, a 18,000 square mile tract of prairie in northeastern Kazakhstan. The surrounding population, all villages and cities combined, totaled roughly 700,000.
Needless to say, these communities lived in the most active nuclear testing site in the world, seemingly overlooked entirely by the Soviet government. An especially egregious test occurred in August of 1956, which put four times as many people into the hospital with radiation sickness as would the Chernobyl meltdown. Apparently, this didn’t go unnoticed, and the Soviet government sent a scientific expedition to track the health effects in the area. We only know about this through a top secret report uncovered by New Scientist. Here’s writer Fred Pearce discussing a bit of what they found:
“After seeing a newly uncovered report, New Scientist can now reveal that a scientific expedition from Moscow in the aftermath of the hushed-up disaster uncovered widespread radioactive contamination and radiation sickness across the Kazakh steppes.
The scientists then tracked the consequences as nuclear bomb tests continued — without telling the people affected or the outside world.”
Images of Chernobyl are vividly remembered–if you needed a reminder, check out Miles visiting the site for PBS NewsHour down below. But Semipalatinsk was orders of magnitude worse, and we hardly hear of it. Forty years of fallout manifesting itself in thousands of affected families, with high rates of birth defects and cancer still lingering. And the Soviet officials knew it was happening.
Banner image credit: CTBTO