Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev never hesitated in his decision to close down Semipalatinsk, the main nuclear test site of the Soviet Union. He didn’t even wait for national independence to do it.
Nazarbayev told this reporter in an interview that the appalling toll in human suffering from 40 years of reckless nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk drove him to defy the leaders of the Soviet Union and unilaterally order the closing down of the site on Aug. 29, 1991.
“The Semipalatinsk test site was a key target in the arms race for the Soviet Union. Thus, the question of its closure was a taboo subject for the Soviet leadership,” the President of Kazakhstan said. “But knowing the consequences Kazakhstan witnessed as a result of the nuclear tests that were carried out at the site, I took a firm decision to cease the bombings on the native land.”
Nazarbayev was highly critical in the interview about the irresponsibility of generations of Soviet leaders who ultimately allowed at least 1.5 million people to be exposed to the hazards of radioactive fall-out and radiation from atmospheric and underground nuclear tests without giving them adequate warning or preparation on how to protect themselves.
“Our country has suffered more than any other from the apocalyptic consequences of the nuclear tests that were conducted behind our peoples’ back since 1949,” he said. “The inhabitants of the area had no any idea for a long time about what was happening at the nuclear site and the danger that lay behind it. For more than forty years the uncontrolled radiation destroyed human lives and it ruined the environment of the steppes, where our ancestors lived for centuries, and where Kazakh national culture was formed.”
“In all, 490 nuclear explosions were carried out on the site,” Nazarbayev said. “More than a million and a half people suffered. Over 300,000 square meters of land were contaminated and left unfit for agricultural use.”
The president unfavourably contrasted the long refusal of the Soviet authorities to take responsibility for the damage done by their nuclear testing, with the willingness of the United States government to approve financing to repair the ravages of nuclear testing at the main U.S. test site in the state of Nevada.
“The United States annually allocated over $1 billion for the rehabilitation of their test site in Nevada. But in the Soviet Union, such compensation did not take place,” he said. “Such indifference to the fate of Kazakhstan was another argument behind our efforts to put an end to nuclear testing.”
“With the weakening of the Soviet system, the public finally learned the truth about the nuclear site in the late 1980s. Then thousands of Kazakhstan citizens of different ages joined together in the anti-nuclear movement, which overwhelmed the whole country,” Nazarbayev added.
“On August 29, 1991, I closed the Semipalatinsk test site by decree. In 2009, on the initiative of the government of Kazakhstan, this day was declared by the United Nations as the International Day against Nuclear Tests,” he said.
Nazarbayev said his unilateral decision to shut down the infamous Semipalatinsk complex was one of the most pivotal decisions of his presidency. He said it pointed Kazakhstan permanently in the direction of peaceful international cooperation and economic growth.
“The closing of the Semipalatinsk test site was one of the first independent steps of our sovereign state,” the president said. “We have taken a new democratic path. We have declared a nuclear weapons-free status of Kazakhstan. We have asserted peace and harmony in our land as the main treasure of the nation.”
“Due to the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site, other nuclear testing grounds were also shut down in Nevada in the United States and at Lop Nur in China,” he continued.
The Kazakh leader said he had experienced the shock waves from underground nuclear tests as a young engineer working about 500 kilometres from Semipalatinsk, and his conviction that they had to be stopped grew over the years as he uncovered the deeply hidden facts about the site.
“My views on the nuclear issue were formed at the time when I and my family lived in Temirtau,” the president said. “The city is located about 500 kilometres from the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. The earthquake shocks from nuclear explosions often reached those places. With the passing of time we got used to it. However, the feeling of catastrophically destructive forces being too close did not pass away. We were told the shocks we felt had been earthquakes, although the area of Temirtau was never distinguished by seismic activity.”
“Over the years, with access to more information I began to better understand the whole horror of what was happening. The vague guesses of previous years were then evidenced by hard facts,” he said.
Nazarbayev said the scale of the testing that the Soviet military conducted at Semipalatinsk was still not widely appreciated around the world. It had taken an enormous human toll, he said.
“The force of the explosions produced at the Semipalatinsk test site was 2,500 times higher than the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945,” the president continued. “Hundreds of thousands of the Kazakhs people became the unwilled victims of the arms race on their own land.”
The sufferings caused by the Semipalatinsk testing over 40 years were even more iniquitous because they did not come during a time of war, but in an era of supposed peace, Nazarbayev remembered.
“Our ancestors bravely defended their native steppes from the most powerful invaders. But what happened on the nuclear test site took place in peacetime! That may be the most monstrous experiment in world history.”
“As a politician and as a citizen, I was opposed to my homeland becoming a test laboratory. I am proud that I managed to achieve the set goal when I became the leader of an independent Kazakhstan,” he continued.
The end of nuclear testing and the closure of the Semipalatinsk complex removed a great burden of fear from the people of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev said.
“When Kazakhstan abandoned nuclear weapons, and closed the Semipalatinsk test site, we were released from a powerful psychological pressure, under which we had been trapped for nearly half a century,” he said. “Only those people are truly free who live without fear. Today the people of Kazakhstan boldly face the future. They live without any more fear that they will hear one day the rumble of a nuclear explosion that makes the earth tremble.”
“When we became a sovereign state, we adopted a package of targeted programmes for the rehabilitation of the Semipalatinsk region. People now receive medical care for their conditions. Soil fertility has been restored, background radiation has been normalized,” he added.
Nazarbayev believes his decision to shut down Semipalatinsk 20 years was the most pivotal of his presidency and laid the foundation for his country’s subsequent peaceful and exceptionally successful entry into the global economy.
“Kazakhstan has proved its peacefulness and consistency in non-proliferation issues,” he said. “We enjoy the trust of foreign partners due to this. Over the past 20 years we have attracted $132 billion in direct foreign investments (FDI) to our country. That is more than all the other four Central Asian states combined could attract. We have built a dynamic economy and we are constantly improving welfare of our citizens.”
“Two decades ago, we made the biggest step towards peace and prosperity by abandoning nuclear weapons unilaterally and by embracing the way of peaceful international cooperation to attract investment,” he recalled. “We have never strayed from this path.”