Kazakhstan: The Nuclear Power That Wasn't

Kazakhstan: The Nuclear Power That Wasn't

By Emily Cadei

Kazakhstan. Semipalatinsk. Child House Orphanage. Timur Smailov (L) is mentally handicapped and has no nose. Timur Smailov and another orphan lying in bed suffer both from mental deficiency and retardation. Timur Smailov is 2 and half years old and was born near the Semipalatinsk Polygon ( called today National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan). Timur Smailov is a third (or fouth) generation victim of the 456 atomic testing - 116 atmospheric, 340 underground - from 1949 to 1989.


While North Korea rattles the international community with its latest nuclear test, Kazakhstan gave up the world’s fourth largest nukes cache — and its economy soared. 

By Emily Cadei

Anastacia Kyseleva still remembers the first time she saw the mushroom cloud.

It was 1956 and Soviet officials had come to her village in a remote part of what is now eastern Kazakhstan, ordering everyone to evacuate their homes and go to a nearby field, where they’d wait until it was safe to return.

Kyseleva recalls helping to carry her mother-in-law, who was in her late 80s, and laying her on the ground amidst the brush as they waited for the authorities to give them the all-clear to go home.

That was when she saw the glowing cloud unfurling on the horizon. ”It looked like a sunset,” she says.

Kazakhstan has teamed with the United States to remove thousands of pounds of highly enriched uranium and plutonium the Soviets left behind.

People from her village started running towards the cloud, curious to see what would float down as it sunk to earth. “Those people who followed it, they either died or they couldn’t walk afterward,” she says. “And since that year, a lot of people started dying and that’s how we realized that it was very bad for us.” Today Kyseleva lives in a nursing home in Semey, a bustling city not far from the Semipalitinsk nuclear testing range where the Soviets once set off over 450 nuclear bombs. Of those, more than 100 were the sort of above-ground tests Kyseleva witnessed, detonated before the United States and the USSR signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 — allowing only underground tests.

Modern Kazakhstan’s legacy as an unwitting testing ground for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program factored heavily in the decision newly installed President Nursultan Nazarbayev made to rid his country of some 1,400 nuclear warheads — the fourth largest arsenal in the world at the time — that’d been left behind when the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s and return them to Russia for safekeeping.

Kazakhstan, which sits on the Central Asian steppe bordering Russia and China, has since teamed with the United States to remove thousands of pounds of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — the coveted materials used to make nuclear weapons — while collaborating on several highly sensitive covert operations, the last one completed in 2012.

Explosion seen from afar in color located in the mountains

An explosion destroys the last part of a Soviet-era nuclear bomb test site in the Degelen Mountains in northeastern Kazakhstan, July 29, 2000. 

Source Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters/Corbis

Nazarbayev made sure to play up this type of cooperation on the international stage. “Many thousands of our people have died early because of their exposure to radioactive fallout. Cancer rates and birth abnormalities remain far higher in the affected region than in the rest of the country,” he wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed. “This tragic legacy helps explain the passionate commitment of our people to help lift the shadow of nuclear weapons from our world.”

Nazarbayev calculated — correctly — that giving up the nuclear cache would score him major points with the West. 

What Nazarbayev left out of his op-ed is the fact that the newly independent Kazakhstan was left entirely broke after separating from the Soviet Union, without the cash to provide basic services for or feed its people, let alone maintain and secure one of the planet’s biggest stockpiles of nukes. The country also lacked the technological know-how to use the weapons — the Kremlin had kept tight central control of the program, which was administered by Russian scientists.

And Nazarbayev was a pragmatist. He calculated — correctly — that surrendering the nuclear cache would score him major points with the West while earning his nation a measure of status and support in the global community. Indeed, Kazkahstan has emerged as Central Asia’s dominant player, with an economy that grew nearly tenfold since independence in 1991, despite a recent slowdown causd by collapsing oil prices.

Deformed Fetus preserved in formaldehyde Result of about 500 nuclear tests (1949-1989) near city in Semey, Kazakhstan in February, 1996

Deformed Fetus preserved in formaldehyde Result of about 500 nuclear tests (1949-1989)

Source Getty

“I think that if that nuclear arsenal had stayed in Kazakhstan, the country probably wouldn’t have experienced such financial success because it is very expensive to store it,” says Sergei Berezin, the deputy director general of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center. And, he adds with a laugh, “We would also have been blacklisted.”

Nazarbayev has called a snap election for March to redress Kazakhs’ mounting discontent over the country’s stalling economy, but dismantling the nuclear weapons system remains an undisputed yes vote for stability in the region and improved relations with its global partners in nonproliferation.

“I cannot speak for the whole country. I can only comment as a citizen,” Berezin says of his message to other nations that may be trying to develop a nuclear weapon. “I would say: Do not torture yourself and your own economy because it is extremely expensive and the consequences are impossible to predict.”

Emily Cadei reported from Kazakhstan on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP), a nonprofit organization that funds journalists to report overseas on undercovered issues and is based at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University.