The Polygon near Semey was the main atomic bomb test zone for the USSR until 1991. It is possible to visit the Polygon, the main town Kurchatov and the abandoned army base Chagan with a tour guide. I think anyone can appreciate this place, but photographers, physicists and historians in particular will find it glorious.
Permit & safety
You need a permit, which takes 1 week to get but is free of charge. You can drive to Kurchatov on your own transport without a permit if you do not turn off anywhere into the Polygon, but this is rather pointless. Kurchatov is not that exciting and you cannot even visit the museum without a permit.
Is it safe to visit the Polygon? I am not a nuclear scientist so I cannot judge the situation, to be honest. From what I have read and heard, it is safe as long as you follow the guide’s instructions.
Some poor people live inside the Polygon, herding sheep, and some locals even swim in the Atomic Lake. That is definitely not healthy.
1 day or 2 days?
From Semey, you can visit Kurchatov, Chagan and the Polygon in 1 day. If you want to see the Atomic Lake, you need to stay overnight in Kurchatov and return to Semey the next day, as it is 240 km return across a very bad steppe road.
Tour & sights
Kurchatov and its surroundings hold lots of ruins. Some were purposely bombed, others were simply abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. The museum is a must for the archival images of the site – it can be quite shocking for modern Western eyes. It’s mostly in Russian but your guide can explain.
Pasha Cas, Kazakhstan’s most important street artist, painted a gripping rendition of The Scream on a lone cement wall in the steppe.
Lake Chagan, more commonly known as the Atomic Lake, was formed by the Chagan shot (the shot is on Youtube), the first and largest of the 124 detonations in the Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy program, designed to produce peaceful nuclear explosions for earth-moving purposes.
Anyone interested in the history of the Soviet nuclear programme, or the physics and geology of the detonations, will definitely want to visit. You will need to wear protective clothing to visit this fascinating site.
On the way back, there is still time to visit the town of Chagan. This was the airbase where the bombers carrying the atomic bombs were based. It is now a ghost town. Since the closure, a lot of the remains have been taken away as free construction material by locals, but it is still worth a visit.
Last picture courtesy of Nadav Kander, one of a slew of photographers who went around Kazakhstan to photograph ruins. Google for more.