Kazakhstan is grappling with lingering health issues and trying to rehabilitate the land 20 years after nuclear weapons testing stopped at the former Soviet Union's proving ground .
Heavily contaminated areas of the Semipalatinsk nuclear site are closed to access by Kazaks who used the land for farming and grazing. The government, with the United States, is working to keep dangerous materials out of sinister hands, said Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States.
"All those years we have been trying to make a full assessment of the dangers that were brought to the land by nuclear testing," he said Thursday.
Idrissov spoke before joining a panel discussion at the Atomic Testing Museum to mark the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear site.
"The government's task is to completely rehabilitate the area from the human health point of view and nature, the environmental health point of view," he said. "For the last 20 years, the testing ground is silent, peaceful, and economic productivity is coming back."
While the task is not simple because the radioactive remnants from nuclear tests remain on the surface and below it for a long time, Idrissov said his government continues to give money to make sure the rehabilitation program succeeds.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union conducted 715 nuclear tests that involved detonating 969 nuclear devices.
The United States conducted 1,054 nuclear tests, including 24 that were conducted with the United Kingdom. Most, 904, were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, which is now called the Nevada National Security Site. These included 100 detonated in the atmosphere and 804 underground. Some involved more than one device.
The United States ceased full-scale nuclear tests in 1992, and a moratorium has been extended indefinitely.
On Aug. 29, 1991, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear site. In 2009, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution designating Aug. 29 as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.
Idrissov described Nazarbayev's decision to close the site as "a brave act."
"Millions stood unanimously against nuclear, and this was the birth of the first ever anti-nuclear public movement in the Soviet Union," he said.
Idrissov said he intends to support an anti-nuclear event next Thursday on Capitol Hill, joining some members of Congress and others who want the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, though the United States already observes it.
This year, Magdalena Stawkowski, a University of Colorado anthropology doctoral candidate, spent six months living with villagers around the former Soviet nuclear site.
"There was a moment of shock for me because I knew where I was. I was paranoid. I had a Geiger counter, and I measured everything," she said Thursday, before joining the panel discussion.
She put her fears aside, although she knew that some villagers had suffered from cancer and ill health presumably related to radioactivity from the site.
"You forget about it. You live your life," she said. "You live a life like everybody else does. You bring your water from a well. You start a fire. You have to cook food. You have to do the things people do to survive."
In the days of Soviet rule, the villagers would raise animals and collect hay within the borders of the nuclear site.
After nuclear testing stopped, they continued their subsistence lifestyle, grazing and slaughtering livestock on the borderlands.
Today there are winter pastures inside the borders and gold mines and coal mines.
Stawkowski said the area where she lived is relatively clean. But village elders there told her that "clean air is our death. We are used to radiation, and if we leave, we will die."
"That is the perception," she said. "A lot of people also feel, though, that at the same time they are used to it, they also feel they are sick from it."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.