Details of the nuclear disaster have now emerged
The study, by the Institute of Radiation, Medicine and Ecology (IRME) in Kazakhstan, revealed more than 500 atomic bombs exploded on the Semipalatinsk test ground between 1949 and 1989, during the Cold War.
The lesser-known site in the heartland of the former USSR has become known as the “world’s worst radiation hotspot”.
A fresh report by New Scientist has now shed light on the USSR’s attempts to cover up the extent of its radioactive contamination and the cost on human health.
Some areas will never return to nature
Kazbek Apsalikov, Director – IRME
According to the institute’s director Kazbek Apsalikov, previously unseen “top secret” archival documents show how Soviet scientists found ridiculously high levels of radiation in villages surrounding the site, as well as in the city of Oskemen, in the east of Kazakhstan.
Boris Gusev, chief scientist at IRME, said documentation revealed 638 people were hospitalised with radiation poisoning following the 1956 nuclear test – more than four times as many cases as Chernobyl.
In addition, multiple pieces of scientific evidence suggest the land, soil, and vegetation also contained dangerous levels of radiation.
Data also indicated that following these explosions, the city of Oskemen was experiencing radiation levels as high as 1.6 millirems per hour – more than 100 times the “permissible rate”.
The Semipalatinsk plant is known as the 'world's worst radiation hotspot
The new findings suggest that Soviet Russia was completely aware of the damage caused by its nuclear tests and stepped up efforts to hide it from the world, while continuing to carry out tests at the site.
With the radiation toxicity spreading across the city and neighbouring villages, the Soviet officials ensured the figure of blame for residents’ poor health was blamed entirely on bad hygiene, a poor diet and diseases like tuberculosis.
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Atmospheric bomb tests at Semipalatinsk stopped in 1963.
Findings show Soviet Russia was fully aware of the damage it was causing
Mr Apsalikov said that although much of the area downwind is now safe to live in, “some areas will never return to nature”.
He added: “The situation in others is uncertain and potentially dangerous.”
The latest report follows on from research conducted by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in 2014.
The land, soil and vegetation contained dangerous levels of radiation
That report said the Semipalatinsk site "stands as a testimony to the horrifying impact of nuclear weapons”.
It goes on to detail a hefty list of health effects on the local residents up to 2010, including an increase in infant mortality, congenital malformations, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.