Silent Bombs: Kazakhstan’s Polygon Legacy
Decades of nuclear bomb testing by the Soviet Union have left a damaging fallout in Kazakh children generations later.
Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union exploded 460 nuclear bombs in eastern Kazakhstan. About 200,000 villagers living within 45km of the test site, the ‘Polygon’, were exposed to high levels of radiation for.
Not only were they not protected but they were treated as human guinea pigs, instruments of study in the event the Cold War turned into nuclear war. But what is probably most devastating of all is what is happening today.
Children born decades later and never directly exposed to nuclear fallout are sick and getting sicker. They are the product of “radiation-induced mutation in the chromosomes of sperm and ova”. In other words, the damage their parents and grandparents suffered in the Soviet Union’s heedlessness has not only been passed down but also intensified in the third, fourth and fifth generations.
However, others have not learned from the mistakes of those who have come before them. Late last year, North Korea triggered a 6.3 magnitude tremor as a result of its own nuclear testing, causing major structural damage and a significant number of casualties.
Shortly after, a ‘human-induced’ earthquake only kilometres away was recorded; one of an increasing number of earthquakes caused by human activity.
Gillian Foulger, professor of geophysics at Durham University, has compiled a comprehensive list of hundreds of similar instances as a means to study cause, effect and due consequences.
“It’s well-known that this occurs, it has been observed many times – for example, at the Nevada test site, with American nuclear testing. Following these tests, there is such a disruption of the local stress field that swarms of earthquakes often occur,” says Foulger.
With the potential for these disruptions to build to full-scale earthquakes, the strongest recorded being a magnitude 7.9 earthquake, which activities should elicit more care and control before they are executed to avoid these repercussions and what can be done to do so?
“Everybody is surprised at the huge range of activities that can induce earthquakes. These include mining, filling reservoirs, building tall buildings, extracting gas and oil … I could go on and on,” says Foulger.
“There’s great economic benefit [to these projects] but of course there’s always a down side. Industrial accidents, road accidents, environmental damage … we now realise that there can also be induced earthquakes. This needs to be added to a portfolio of health and safety hazards that should be managed whenever a big project is undertaken.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.