The Semipalatinsk Test Site (also known as the Polygon) near Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) was the main atomic bomb test site for the USSR until 1991. Since 1991, it has been visited by scores of scientists from around the world, making it the best researched nuclear test site in the world. On top of that, it is the only nuclear test site in the world tourists can visit.
Much has been done since 1991 to reduce and research the dangers of radiation, and the test site is now opening up to tourism, mining, agriculture and storage of radioactive waste. Visiting is sure to expand your views on nuclear warfare, the dangers of radiation, and the history of the Cold War.
It’s also a surprisingly atmospheric place; steppe winds whistle past the silent reminders of a violent past, undisturbed by wildlife with their own designs for life. In our short visit, we saw butterflies, birds, a fox, and many ground squirrels.
To visit, you need a permit (lengthy process) and a tour guide. Depending on your interest, a Polygon tour lasts 1 or 2 days, and definitely includes a visit to the Kurchatov museum, a number of impact sites inside the experimental field and a stop at the abandoned Chagan military airbase nearby.
Below, we will dive a bit deeper into the details for visitors, points of interest, the history and the present state of the Semipalatinsk test site (STS).
- Visiting the Polygon
- A short history of the STS
- Points of interest
- Future of the test site
- Sources and further reading
Visiting the Polygon
Permit & tour
To visit the Semipalatinsk Test Site, you need a permit, which takes up to 3 weeks to acquire but is free of charge. You can only get the permit if you take a tour. The tour is not cheap for individual travelers due to the high price of the transport inside the test site; for larger groups prices are quite reasonable. If you have your own car, it’s also quite cheap; you only need to pay for the guide.
If you don’t have the time or funds to visit the test site itself but still want to pass through Kurchatov: that is allowed without a permit. To visit the museum, however, you still need the permit.
When visiting in summer: prepare for heat! Visiting in the dead of winter is not advised: it’s very cold.
Is it safe to visit the Polygon? Yes. We are not nuclear scientists ourselves, but we have seen the geiger counters and they stayed quiet for most of our visit, under the level of radiation you absorb when taking an airplane.
Near the impact zones where more radiation still lingers, you are asked to wear a protective suit and mask. Especially the mask is important: radioactive dust particles are your main enemy. So don’t kick up the dust. Having said that: after talking to the nuclear scientists who work and live in Kurchatov, we have no concerns regarding the safety for accompanied visitors.
As an example of how our knowledge of the dangers of radiation is still sorely lacking: more people died from the panic following the Fukushima accident than will ever die from the radioactive fallout of the meltdown.
It goes without saying though, that many of the locals have been affected by the testing, with high cancer rates and malformed babies common in the villages nearby. Al Jazeera’s Silent Bombs documentary serves as a good introduction to the sad history and aftermath of the testing for locals.
1 day or 2 days?
From Semey, you can visit the museum in Kurchatov, a number of sites inside the Polygon and the airbase at Chagan in 1 day. And you get to wonder about the food you are being served in the Kurchatov nuclear center canteen! To see the Atomic Lake and a few more sites, add an overnight stay in Kurchatov’s only hotel. You will need the rest – it’s a bumpy 240 km return journey (2,5h one-way) to the Atomic Lake the next day.
Is it worth it to spend 2 days on the site? Most people will feel satisfied with the 1-day trip. Slow travelers and those with a deep interest in the site’s history should definitely stay for a second day.
If you make the effort to come this far, do take an extra day to visit Semey. Together with Uralsk, it is arguably Kazakhstan’s most historic city, and the museums are really interesting. You will come away with a much better view of what is/was/could be Kazakhstan than the majority of tourists who stick to the south of the country.
A short history of the STS
How it began
The site was selected in 1947 by Lavrentiy Beria, political head of the Soviet atomic bomb project (Beria falsely claimed the vast 18,000 km² steppe was uninhabited). Gulag labour was employed to build the primitive test facilities. The first Soviet bomb test, Operation First Lightning, was conducted in 1949 from a tower, in an area that would become known as the Opytnoye Pole (experimental field).
The explosion was detected by a US weather reconnaissance aircraft flying from Japan to Alaska, fitted with a special filter to collect radioactive debris. Weeks after the explosion, President Truman announced to the world that the Soviets had developed an atomic bomb. The announcement was a turning point in the Cold War that had just begun. The nuclear arms race was now underway. Once the Soviet Union was confirmed to be in possession of the atomic bomb, pressure mounted to develop the first hydrogen bomb.
The first hydrogen bomb was tested on the Polygon in 1953. In total 116 atmospheric nuclear explosions (either dropped from a tower or from an airplane) happened between 1949 and 1962. These were the most damaging tests for the health of surrounding residents. Subsequently, 340 nuclear explosions were performed underground in boreholes and tunnels until the end of testing in 1989.
In addition, 175 explosions with radioactive warfare agents took place.
IGR was initially built in 1960 to study nuclear reactor accidents. The reactor was designed to run for about one year, after which a major accident was to be simulated and the reactor destroyed in the accident. However, during the first year of operation it was noted that in the simulation of minor accidents the characteristics of the reactor were such that even fairly major accidents could be simulated without destroying the reactor. Therefore, it was decided to keep the IGR in operation.
Baikal-1 was set up to test fuel elements of experimental nuclear rocket engines and fuel assemblies.
How it ended: Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement
Why write it myself when I can rely on someone as brilliant as Rebecca Solnit? From Savage Dreams:
However foolish and futile this aninuclear activism seemed close up, at a distance it commanded respect. Maybe it was an accident that we helped inspire an extraordinarily successful movement on the other side of the globe, and maybe it wasn’t.
The fact remains that on February 12 and 17, 1989, underground nuclear tests vented radiation into the atmosphere in Kazakhstan, the central Asian republic where the Soviets tested most of their nuclear weapons and where the environment and human health had suffered terribly from radiation over the decades.
And on February 27, the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov appeared live on television and instead of reading his poetry as scheduled, he read a statement condemning nuclear testing and calling for a public meeting.
The next day 5,000 people came to the Hall of the Writers Union in Alma Ata, the Kazakh capital, and named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement, in solidarity with the antinuclear and indigenous activists of Nevada—an extraordinary line of convergence running from test site to test site halfway round the globe. Local officials were members of this movement, along with distinguished professionals and many, many writers.
On the confident assumption that the Test Site activists had the same kind of entrenchment in local institutions, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement sent statements of solidarity to Nevada government officials, who must have been bemused to find that Communists thought they had a lot in common. In October, two huge Soviet tests triggered demonstrations of tens of thousands of Kazakhs, the republic’s miners threatened to go on strike, and more than a million people signed the Nevada-Semipalatinsk statement opposing nuclear testing.
However bleak the political situation, the culture was enviable, one in which a poet had such power and the public could join together so effectively. By October 21, 1989, the Soviets had stopped testing, begun a unilateral moratorium, and agreed to close the sites down altogether by the mid-nineties.
Points of interest
Kurchatov and Test Site Museum
These days Kurchatov is a quiet place. No longer a closed city, its population has fallen by more than half. Most people living here are scientists working in the nuclear research facilities and their families, along with some military personnel.
Although some money is clearly injected to keep Kurchatov looking neat, the air of abandonment so typical for small Kazakh towns is never far off.
History abounds for those willing to look for it; from the dacha where Beria stayed (ironically, it is now a church) to the numerous monuments to the power of the atom.
Test Site Museum
The museum of the Polygon is housed inside the National Nuclear Center and you therefore need a security clearance. Too bad, since it prohibits many people from visiting and you would really want more people to see it.
Among the exhibits are a lot of unique machines developed for the nuclear tests. The highlight is the fully functional control center with telephone line straight to the Kremlin: when the alarm goes off, it’s ominous. Furthermore there are scary deformed animals in jars, video footage and interactive maps. Museum guides are very knowledgeable but only speak Russian, so an additional English-speaking guide will come in handy here.
Kurchatov’s old office has been kept as well; you can sit down on his chair and sign the guestbook. Leaf through the past to see how expressions of shock and solidarity from foreign tourists and dignitaries make way for congratulations on a job well done from Soviet top brass.
Opytnoye Pole testing ground
Keep your geiger counter close as you head into the steppe en route to the experimental field, or Opytnoye Pole in Russian. This is where all atmospheric tests were conducted. Large concrete bunkers called GUS, used for housing measuring equipment, still stand guard.
A small simulated metro is tucked underground. Lakes have formed on the impact craters.
Near the impact craters, you have to wear protective clothing as you see the geiger counter tick up. This is the place for unusual geological phenomena, as the bombs transformed the soil and rocks in the impact zone. You can put your phone on certain stones, and it will start charging.
Like in Chernobyl, the lack of human interference has given the natural world breathing space; the area has become a haven for steppe wildlife despite the radioactivity.
Balapan and Atomic Lake
The Balapan testing ground was used for underground nuclear explosions. These caused much less radioactive contamination, except for 4 explosions that did not go according to plan, where the fallout was larger.
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.
The Atomic Lake is now a big crater lake where local fishermen come to fish. Is that a good idea? Not really. Besides the fact that it is in a restricted zone (the guards don’t seem to mind?), part of the shore of the Atomic Lake is still very contaminated. Swimming should be possible as the water is not very contaminated. Of the fish, our guide said that in principle you could eat it without too many health concerns, as long as you did not touch the bones: that is where the radioactive tritium concentrates in hazardous quantities.
Double-check where the fish comes from if you are buying it on Semey’s bazaar.
Degelen and Sary-Uzen testing grounds, and RWA test sites
There are 3 more testing grounds, all off-limits for tourists. Degelen, mountainous and forested, is considered 90% clean, but some parts are still dangerously radioactive due to accidents during explosions or from carrying over of radioactivity either from unsealing tunnels after tests, or via underground waterways.
Sary-Uzen is similar to Balapan in terms of contamination, former use and geography, only without crater lakes.
Test sites 4A and 4 were used for tests with radioactive warfare agents (RWA). RWA were liquid or powder-like radioactive mixtures dispersed by mortar shells or bombing from the air. This site is heavily contaminated and poses a serious hazard to people and animals. A physical barrier has been constructed around the area.
Chagan ghost town
Halfway between Kurchatov and Semey stands what is left of the town of Chagan. In Soviet times, this was a closed city of around 10 000 people, designed for strategic bomber planes (who probably would have carried the bombs to be dropped on the Polygon). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Chagan became a ghost town.
Like most of the ghost towns in Kazakhstan, it has a lively virtual community. On the ground, you will mostly find lots of abandoned, semi-derelict buildings for your ruin porn collection. Do be very careful around here. These buildings are very derelict and could fall apart at any moment.
Chagan is divided into 2 parts: on the one hand, the garrison town, thoroughly looted and now containing only the husk of a former town. Secondly, a few kilometers off the road, the airbase itself, with a double runway and a terminal building. Large bomb storage shelters (twice the size of the bomb to confuse enemies) still stand as well.
If urban exploring is your interest, Semey has plenty of abandoned factories. Around town you can find derelict buildings that used to produce wool, leather, cement, meat, asphalt, carpets, fireworks and more. Some are still partly operational, while others have shut down completely. The town of Utinka en route to Chagan had a big goose factory still standing. Once again, watch out.
Anatomical Museum in Semey
The Anatomical museum in Semey, inside the medical university, has a bunch of deformed foetuses, as well as a whole lot of other freaky stuff in jars. It is widely assumed these foetuses are deformed because of the radiation. No doubt, many locals have been affected by the radiation, some being born deformed, many others getting cancer or leukemia.
However, the foetuses are actually not from the area. The jars consist of very rare deformities who come from all over the country and beyond. It is a medical university and the museum is used to teach students about disease.
Future of the test site
Since the closure of the STS in 1991, much has been done to reduce the dangers of radiation and study the effects on its territory and inhabitants. One of the most important conclusions from all of this research has been that a large part of the territory is uncontaminated, and can thus be opened up to economic activity.
The STS territory is rich in minerals: in particular, there are large deposits of coal, gold, nickel, iron and copper as well as tungsten and molybdenum. On top of that, large areas have illegally been in use as grazing lands for a while now. Although the reclamation of the STS is still constrained, both by its legal status and its negative image, mining has been taking place here since the early 2000’s: fluorite, copper, gold, molybdenum, manganese, sand-gravel and coal. Prospecting is taking place and it is expected more mining operations will follow.
As the below map with timeline shows, parts of the test site have already opened up in a phased withdrawal. Clever tourists might also conclude from this map that they can enter the Polygon without permit. Indeed, you can visit big parts on your own. The interesting bits however, remain within the red zone of strict control.
Unauthorized grazing of local farmers on the grounds of the STS has given scientists the opportunity to test the effects of radiation on animal products. Conclusion: most of it is safe. Only samples of animals at wintering locations exceeded safe limits of tritium concentration.
Finally, the Polygon harbours ecologically valuable ecosystems with fauna and flora worth protecting. We have not read any official plans towards protecting nature. We hope local environmental activists will be quick on the ball to try and protect some of these populations.
Sources and further reading
A lot of the information as well as some images I found in this 2011 book from the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology of Kazakhstan (locally saved copy in case the link is dead).
If you are keen to see every possible artefact in the Polygon, head to Cold War historian Martin Trolle Mikkelsen’s Flickr album – he has been everywhere.