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Semipalatinsk Test Site (“The Polygon”)

Between 1949 and 1991, this was the main place where the Soviet Union tested their nuclear weapons. The test site itself was attached to the city of Kurchatov, Kazakhstan, on the Irtysk River, and not far from Semey (which was called Semipalatinsk at the time, giving its name to this facility).

It was Lavrentiy Beria who chose this site for the nuclear testing facility. Over the time it was in operation, it caused considerable environmental damage (toxic dust to be blown away by windstorms, etc.) and led to a number of health problems for the local population (like elevated rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease).

One of the first and most important anti-nuclear movements in the USSR, Nevada Semipalatinsk, arose in Kazakhstan in response to the facility and the problems it caused. It was named in solidarity with US anti-nuclear movements.

The USSR completed its last test here in 1989, and as it collapsed, this facility became unsecured and ripe for plunder. In 1991, the president of the newly independent Kazakhstan announced its closure, but it was not until the 2010s that the site was “cleaned”, with concrete poured on plutonium waste to bind it and other waste sealed inside mountain tunnels. This clean-up effort was a collaboration of Kazakh, Russian and US engineers.