In 1947 the Soviet Union had begun its own atomic weapons development program. As the projected time for the completion of an atomic device drew into view, the need for a test site became urgent. The criteria were essentially the same as those faced by the United States during its own selection - an uninhabited area, remote enough to aid in security and secrecy but with good enough infrastructure and connections to the industrial and scientific centers of the nation to allow high technology installations to be built and maintained there.
Lavrentiy Beria, the political head of the atomic weapons program, selected an area of steppe some 150 kilometers west of the Kazakh SSR city of Semipalatinsk (later renamed to Semey), starting at the shores of the Irtysh River and stretching southwest. A vast area was designated, some 18,000 km2, with its northeast corner at the river's south bank. A primary installation was built there to house workers, laboratories, workshops and support facilities. Off to the southwest the land was reserved for testing and for facilities requiring isolation. This installation was initially a military base, named Moscow-400, but as additional workers and support personnel and their families continued to arrive, it grew into an actual town and was redesignated as such with the name of Kurchatov. The name commemorated Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, and the engineering establishment came to be known as the 'Kurchatov Institute.'
Kurchatov was maintained under strict security. It required special permission to enter or leave, and was designated as what J.K. Rowling would call 'unplottable' - it did not appear on any maps available to the general public. Its purpose was to support the various highly secret facilities scattered throughout the area of the Sempalatinsk Test Site to the south and west, an area which was named The Polygon, no doubt for its irregular but obviously artificial shape.
The first atomic explosion occurred there on August 29, 1949. Known by the Soviets as the Pervaya molniya (Первая молния, "First Lightning") test, it was referred to as Joe One ('Joe' for Joseph Stalin, i.e. Joe's first test) by the American military and intelligence communities. Unfortunately, the local area had not been entirely uninhabited, and some few thousand villagers and nomads were resident within the region. Over the next years, they would come to receive varying doses of radiation contamination, both direct fallout and water/soil pollution, from the tests.
By 1989, 456 nuclear tests had been conducted at the Test Site. These ranged from very small detonations done for engineering tests or weapons design tests to enormous explosions such as the cratering test done on January 15, 1965 which created a small lake. Known as Lake Chagan (for the Chagan test) it is some 300-400 meters across, the result of a 140 kiloton detonation.
In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated and the test site was closed. Kazakhstan, the new nation which ended up owning the Test Site, declared its intention to 'repatriate' all atomic weapons and devices to Russia, and spent some years doing exactly that. As Western access to the area eased with the ending of the Cold War, the actual contamination of the site became clear. There are no perimeter security fences around the Test Site; people and animals can roam freely through heavily contaminated lands. The U.S. and Kazakhstan embarked on a program to make the facilities safer; the tunnels used for testing weapons and disposing of contaminated equipment and soil were closed one by one using explosives. However, when work on this process resumed some years later, it came to light that scavengers had been re-opening the tunnels in search of copper and other metals to salvage, selling it to local merchants and to China for use in jewelry or as scrap. The resulting contamination was one way the scavenging was detected.
As an aside, at the time the Soviet Union fell, a nuclear device (not weapon, but device) had been placed in a tunnel for a scheduled test. That test never occurred, and that device remained in the tunnel for several years. In 1995, it was finally 'destroyed' by Kazakh engineers using explosives - the nuclear materials were not recovered, but the device was damaged enough to make it unusable and the tunnel it was in destroyed as well.
- Lewis, Jeffrey. "Nuclear Nightmares Revisited" from armscontrolwonk.com
- Lewis, Op. cit. Tunnel Re-Sealing at Semipalatinsk
- Ewell, Emily. "Trip Report on 'International Conference on Nonproliferation Problems,' Kazakhstan Sept. 1997".
- The Nuclear Threat Initiative, Semipalatinsk.
- Mukhatzhanova, Gaukhar. "An Alleged 'Nuclear Device' in Western Kazakhstan Is a Non-Nuclear Installation." James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies web page.
- Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.