The Semipalatinsk Test Site ("The Polygon") was the primary nuclear testing site for the Soviet Union. It's about 150 kilometres west of the town Semey (named Semipalatinsk until 2007). The place was selected in 1947 by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Soviet atomic bomb project, who claimed the huge steppe region was totally uninhabited. It wasn't, but nobody cared. Workers from Gulag camps were brought in to build a big complex of buildings and laboratories. Here's what happened.
Now Kazakhstan, formerly Soviet Union
The first Soviet atomic bomb with its chief designer Yulii Borisovich Khariton
The RDS-1 (codename: First Lightning, but the Americans called it Joe-1, in reference to Stalin) was detonated here on 29 August 1949 – without evacuating the nearby cities and villages. The Soviet Union became the second nation to successfully develop a nuclear bomb, but this project made a terrible impact on the local people.
The explosion of the Joe-1
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The Joe-4, the first thermonuclear weapon test in USSR, exploded on August 12, 1953
It detonated with a force equivalent to 400 kilotons of TNT. (1,700 TJ) It was the "layer cake" (Sloika) model: fission and fusion fuel (lithium-6 deutheride) were "layered" here, similar to the never-tested Edward Teller design.
(via Nuclear Weapon Archive)
456 tests in four decades
Between 1949 and 1989 this place saw 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric explosions with mushroom clouds. These were roughly the equivalent of 2500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The Soviets conducted these tests without any regard for the effects on the local environment or the almost quarter-million inhabitants of the area.
On the picture: Russian Atomic Weapon Museum, with the Joe-4, Joe-2 and Joe-1, (left to right)
(via Nuclear Weapon Archive)
The early bombs were "dirty", so there is a really huge amount of plutonium on the fields
The big, aircraft wing-like things named "geese" and other buildings without window glass were built to measure the shockwaves of explosions.
Atomic lakes everywhere
The biggest had a 1640 ft (500 m) diameter and 260 ft (80 m) maximum depth, formed in 1965. "That lake is void of any living creature. Fish can't live there," said local farmer Aiken Akimbekov.
Children with genetic diseases, leukemia, infertility, and cancer are really common here. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of Kazakhstan, in the Summer of 1991, the site was closed. But a tenth of the country's total population – nearly 1.5 million people – have health problems. Lots of poor people still live in the most dangerous zone in a semi-nomadic way and sell the remaining scrap metal for money. One in every 20 children in the area is born with serious deformities, and half of them can't reach the age of 60.
The Chagan River
The drinking water from the nearest contaminated river has almost one hundred times more tritium than the recommended limit.
"It smelt… you know, like hair. Like hair burning. The smell came back from the earth every time it rained." – said a local woman, Makysh Iskakova.
"I was working in a medical institute, teaching chemistry. Almost every day, announcements on the radio at noon would say: 'Now there is going to be a test of nuclear weapons.' Everything would shake. The windows in my classroom were shattered by the shockwave from one of the blasts." — Yevdokia Matushkina
"When I was blinded from the blast, my uncle took me to see the doctor and the doctor said it was my own fault that I looked at the bright light from the explosion. — Yevdokia Matushkina
Most of these newborns were abandoned and left for the local orphanages in the nearest cities.