Between 1949 and 1989, a total of 456 nuclear tests were carried out at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, the former Soviet Union's premier test site, before its closure by presidential edict in 1991.
For the rest of the decade, despite fears about the level of radioactivity and the potential impact on the local population, flora and fauna, the site was left largely unmonitored. Now, however, scientists have begun systematically measuring and studying contamination at the site, as part of a NATO-sponsored project.
The Semipalatinsk project, which is a joint venture between scientists from Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom, aims to examine contamination levels across some 600 square kilometres of the 22,000 square kilometre site, an area about the size of Wales. It brings together scientists from Middlesex University in London with their peers at the Al-Farabi Kazakh State National University in Almaty, the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology in Kurchatov and the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Almaty. Expert help is also being provided by University College, Dublin, in Ireland.
NATO's involvement in the project follows a series of tests carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1997, which confirmed that the site represented a "serious risk to the health of some individuals and population groups". The IAEA recommended further monitoring and a UN resolution of December 1997 urged collective international action to "fund a viable solution for the ecological problems at the Semipalatinsk test site". Following a donors' conference in Tokyo in 1998, NATO decided to fund a three-year study, which began in 1999, to the tune of 20.5 million Belgian francs (some $500,000).
Nicholas Priest, professor of environmental toxicology at Middlesex University, and Mukhambetcali Burkitbayev, head of inorganic chemistry at the Al-Farabi Kazakh State National University, are joint directors of the project. They chose the 600 square kilometre area for study because it has fresh water, an electricity supply, was formerly used for grazing and hay production, and borders the village of Sarzhal, which has a population of about 2,000. "Before NATO funded our research, monitoring of radioactivity and contamination levels took place on a limited and ad hoc basis," Professor Priest said.
The area of study is especially significant because it was in the plume of a 1953 ground-level, hydrogen-bomb explosion. It lies close to the Degelen mountains, where 239 underground nuclear tests were carried out, and was the site of two experiments, exploring the possibilities of creating canals and diverting rivers by using nuclear explosives. It is also close to another test area called Balapan, where more than 100 nuclear explosions were carried out in vertical shafts underground.
The Semipalatinsk project seeks to measure contamination levels throughout the 600 square kilometre area, identifying land that is immediately fit for human settlement, land which could be settled with minimal clean-up work, and land which should permanently be placed off limits to humans. In addition, the consequences of the two experiments aimed at creating canals and diverting rivers are being studied. Three Kazakh doctoral students are also examining respectively plutonium levels in people living near the site, plutonium levels in water, and the potential for contamination of surrounding areas via airborne plutonium. Results of the various studies are immediately fed into a second project on land utilisation funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development.
The Semipalatinsk project is one of the largest of 97 projects currently supported by NATO's Science for Peace programme. This programme, which was established in 1997 and currently has an annual budget of more than $5 million, is based on the principle that science and technology are critical to the security of nations. All NATO-funded scientific research projects require cooperation between scientists from Alliance member and Partner countries. A call for proposals in 2000 generated some 850 applications, of which an additional 45 to 50 projects will eventually be supported.