Semipalatinsk Revisited: Old Nuclear Test Site Sets New Course

A statue of Igor Kurchatov, the "father of the Soviet atomic bomb project", stands in front of the former Headquarters of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in what was then known as the village of Kurchatov in the Kazakhstan Republic. (Credit: NNC, Kazakhstan)

IAEA Director General ElBaradei congratulated Kazakhstan this week on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site shutdown.

"Shutting down the nuclear test range at Semipalatinsk sends a strong signal of support for the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime," he said. "Like the closure by France of the nuclear test site in the South Pacific, it contributes both directly and symbolically to the goals of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and underscores the principles of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)."

Between 1949 and 1989 the former Soviet Union conducted over 450 nuclear tests, both in the atmosphere and underground, in the steppes of Kazakhstan - stoking the fires of the Cold War and releasing a radiation downpour on Kazakh nomads. This testing ground was the Semipalatinsk test site, a 19,000 square-kilometre zone in the northeast of the country, 800 km north of the capital Almaty.

In the aftermath of the Soviet break-up, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a new vision for his young country – a vision that involved renouncing the 4th largest arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union and adhering to the non-proliferation regime. Among his ground-breaking initiatives was the closing of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test site in 1991.

Today, the scientific and technical facilities at Semipalatinsk are being converted to peaceful uses under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Centre of the Republic of Kazakhstan, work which the IAEA is assisting.

As Dr. ElBaradei noted, Kazakhstan´s support for the NPT regime was signalled soon after its emergence as one of the Newly Independent States, when it renounced the nuclear weapons that were deployed on its territory. Not long afterwards, it joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State. Kazakhstan has played a significant role in the effort to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia. It signed the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement in February 2004 and preparations are underway for its implementation.

"These actions on the part of Kazakhstan — and its broad support for IAEA safeguards — contribute to regional and global security," Dr. ElBaradei said. "On a global scale, it continues to be my hope that such efforts, taken collectively, will lead to a system of collective security that no longer relies on nuclear weapons. I am pleased to join others in congratulating Kazakhstan in celebrating the 15th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk test site, and I commend Kazakhstan for its efforts to convert this site to peaceful uses."

Last update: 11 November 2014