Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Authorities “Ignoring” Nuclear Victims

Many of those affected by radiation from Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk have yet to receive the compensation they are due.
By Akim Bekenov

Nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk ended 16 years ago, but it has left its mark on those who lived in the surrounding region of Kazakstan.


Official figures show that 1.3 million residents of Semipalatinsk and the adjoining Pavlodar, East Kazakstan and Karaganda regions have health problems caused by exposure to Soviet-era nuclear testing.


However, despite campaigning by parliamentary deputies, the government is still refusing to compensate many of those affected. Some 260,000 people - a fifth of the total number recorded as having suffered effects - still haven’t been granted certificates allowing them to receive aid from the state. Some believe that they have simply been forgotten.


“We have the highest mortality rate and the highest level of cancer in Kazakstan. But we do not get any benefits,” said Vladimir Borovikov, who lives in the wide area affected by radiation from the nuclear site.


When tests for the production of an atom bomb first started in 1949, there was an immediate surge in cases of cancer in the regions around the Semipalatinsk site. The mortality rate went up, and there was a dramatic rise in the number of children born with deformities. However, because the Soviet leadership shrouded its nuclear test programme in secrecy, information about the damage done to the population and environment remained classified.


Testing ended in 1989, and when Kazakstan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, it voluntarily abandoned the nuclear arms programme, and the remaining weapons and material were removed.


The Kazak authorities officially admitted that the health problems suffered by those living near the test site were directly related to the nuclear experiments, and promised to help the victims. Under legislation passed in December 1992, the state acknowledged its obligation to compensate citizens for damage to their health and property.


But very little of the money was ever paid out, and the labour ministry estimates that the outstanding debt on compensation payments now stands at 12.8 billion tenge – about 95 million US dollars at the current exchange rate.


Sultan Kartaev, who heads the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations of Semipalatinsk, has first-hand experience of the problems faced by people suffering the after-effects of nuclear testing.


“The government’s measures really are very inadequate,” he told IWPR.


Kartaev says the confusion over compensation pay-outs results from disagreement over the level of risk that officials attach to areas around the former testing ground, “There are several risk zones – maximum, heightened and so on, in decreasing order. Formerly, Semipalatinsk and the surrounding territory were categorised as a maximum risk zone. But now, for some reason, it is only classified as a heightened risk zone. We’ve written to the prime minister three times asking him to restore its maximum risk categorisation. But it hasn’t happened yet.”


Liudmila Pruss, a senior figure in the anti-nuclear movement Nevada-Semipalatinsk, which played a pioneering role in revealing the truth about radiation from weapons testing in Soviet Kazakstan, takes a dim view of the government’s behaviour towards the victims, and says however much compensation is paid, it will never be enough.


“When we took part in developing [the 1992 law], we were in favour of calling the payment a benefit rather than compensation,” she said. “Unfortunately we were ignored and it was called compensation, but it cannot compensate for anything, either loss of health or family.”


Areas around Semipalatinsk – and the people living in them - were exposed to high levels of radiation in the 40 years that tests were conducted, with 125 explosions set off above ground and in the air as well as 343 underground. Scientists at the High Energy Institute, part of Kazakstan’s Academy of Sciences, say the combined force of all the blasts is 2,500 times more powerful than the hydrogen bomb the Americans dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.


“I remember the nuclear explosions that took place here, it was terrible,” recalled 80-year-old Semipalatinsk resident Liubov Nikolaevna. “The walls and windows shook. I remember that initially we weren’t warned about the testing, that only came later. Residents were constantly frightened when they felt jolts from the tests - women were especially scared, above all for their children.


“I know many people who really suffered as a result of the testing. The treatment is expensive for them, and many of them have died.”


The East Kazakstan province appears to have been worst hit by illnesses linked to radioactive fallout. According to Kazak health minister Erbolat Dosaev,“The incidence of cancer [in this one region] grew from 230 to 295 per 100,000 between 1990 and 2004. That exceeds the figures for the rest of the country by 25 to 30 per cent. The mortality rate from cancer has doubled in comparison with previous years.”


Children growing up near the testing site are 10 times more likely to be born with deformities or developmental problems than the norm. Those whose parents were exposed to radiation often suffer from mental retardation, which in some parts of Semipalatinsk region is twice as common as the national average.


“The situation in the [wider] region is turning into a social catastrophe and it needs urgent additional measures. There needs to be a large-scale medical campaign for the prevention and early diagnosis of cancer,” said Dosaev.


Even now, there are still concerns over the safety of the former testing ground. The site is not adequately guarded, and access to the explosion sites is easy. Local residents graze their animals and gather scrap metal in the area.


Rawan Shaekin, a member of Kazakstan's parliament, is angry that even though the authorities regularly conduct investigations into the regions affected by radiation, they do nothing to solve the problems.


“A simple calculation of the sum of money spent on various kinds of scientific research at the testing ground shows it came to two billion tenge! For just a small fraction of this money, fences could have been put up, as is the practice at nuclear testing grounds elsewhere in the world,” he said.


“Until the last debt has been returned to the last victim, I think it is simply immoral to waste money thoughtlessly on new research of dubious value. Not a single scientist has yet said that the territory is safe. So why conduct research there?”


At the end of June, deputies held special parliamentary hearings on problems facing the wide area of Kazakstan affected by nuclear testing. However, after exchanging recriminations, the parliament and the government reached a stalemate.


While the parliamentary hearings were under way, a small group of Semipalatinsk residents gathered outside the legislature. They had come to the capital Astana to tell the assembled deputies and government officials about the problems they face – but no one came out to talk to them.


Alim Bekenov is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Astana. Zamir Karajanov, an IWPR contributor in Almaty, also contributed to this report.