Not so long ago Kazakhstan celebrated 20 years since Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was closed. Two decades. It seems not to be such a large span of time, however, the whole generation has grown up in this time. This generation knows about the barbarian weapon and its testing only from their parents' stories. Moreover, this young generation struggles to understand why a vast part of their home country's territory is as good as lost forever. Meanwhile, for 20 years the test site has been living its own life. And as it happens, ceasing of nuclear and hydrogen explosive devices testing does not mean that destructive processes in the environment have stopped. A phenomenon of Kazakhstani nuclear science is examined by Grigory Bedenko in this report.
The main sight of the former test site is an "atomic" lake situated on the test area "Balapan". It appeared as a result of thermo-nuclear warhead 140 kilotonnes in power blown up in 1965. The lake is 500 metres in diameter and 80 metres deep. This way soviet strategists were planning to build reservoirs in arid regions of Soviet Union.
A unique chronicles from the archive of the Institute for Radiation Safety and Ecology of RK NNCenter.
Specialists from the IRSE (Institute for Radiation Safety and Ecology of RK National Nuclear Center) say that the warhead was "clean", therefore the scattering of radioactive isotopes is minimal. Curiously, the water in the "atomic" lake is clean, even fish can be found there. However, the banks of the lake are so radioactive that the radiation level equals radioactive waste. At this spot dosimeter indicates 1 microsievert per hour, which is 114 times more than the norm.
An interesting fact about the "atomic" lake: detonation of a 140 kilotonne thermo-nuclear device equals to explosion of 2 thousand vans of trinitrotoluol.
During the explosion soil was out of the crater, and some masses of clay flied up a kilometre high, and then fell down on the ground approximately the same distance from the explosion spot. They are very radioactive.
This glassy mass, according to specialists, was situated in the immediate proximity to the thermo-nuclear charge. Enormous pressure and temperature altered granite into some sort of volcanic foam.
This is Sergey Borisovich Subbotin. He is called the master of "atomic" lake by test site people. He is a head of Geo-information technology laboratory and looks after the object. By the way, Sergey Borisovich was providing geological support of underground nuclear tests. He was one of those specialists who helped creating Soviet nuclear shield. And also, this nice man looks like Vladimir Vysotsky, even the voice timbre is the same.
"High concentration of tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) was discovered there", says Subbotin. "It reaches 700 kilobecquerels per litre, which is almost 100 times more than norm for drinking water. Contamination continues on the stretch of approximately 10 km from the test site borders. And the part of the area contaminated with tritium is planned to be included into test site territory."
Most surprisingly, there are people living about two kilometres away from the lake. They breed cattle and drink water from the contaminated river. Local authorities turn a blind eye to it. This woman refused to talk to journalists point-blank.
And this is the household itself. Judging by appearance, they do not even have electricity inside.
Actually, what amazes in the test site most of all is the booming agricultural activity. And in the "most contaminated" places too. It is hard to imagine anything like that happening somewhere in Nevada or in Lop Nor region.
However, horses are clever. When they pasture they pluck only the upper part of grass, not eating the earth with radionuclides. IRSE specialists say, that kumys from the nuclear test base is clean.
A car with IRSE scientists is climbing to the shore of the "atomic" lake. There was an absolutely flat steppe here before the explosion.
Ground subsidence was a result of an underground nuclear explosion. It is a so-called "battle hole".
It is necessary to watch such objects all the time. As a result of neutron activation of coal beds some unknown and unexpected processes are going on underground. Subbotin told us that they had a case when a hole exploded 15 years after tests. A pillar of fire burst out from under ground and the ground 100 metres around the spot sank.
Fox's skull found close to the hole was not radioactive.
Master of the battle hole is a wild dog. It was sitting and watching the shooting with curiosity. But when I tried to approach it, it started to growl, and then ran away for several metres.
Former centre of Semipalatinsk test site, Kurchatov town, nowadays reminds of a set to a computer game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.
Here you can find the most beautiful ruins I have ever seen.
Half of this amazing town still resembles a ghost-town.
Ruins are amazingly alive...
Our scientists have inherited unique nuclear reactors from military forces. This is the building of "research graphite reactor" (RGR). It was designed by Igor Kurchatov himself in order to study critical load for similar plants.
Today, experiments are conducted at the reactor, whose aim is to model behaviour of various materials in case of an accident on a nuclear power plant, like the ones that happened in Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Experiments are carried out on request from Japanese Nuclear Energy Agency.
This is a head and engineer-in-chief Valery Alexandrovich Gaidaichuk.
Specialists prepare a tube with materials which will be exposed to a powerful neutron burst inside the reactor. It is a subject of the research what will happen to these materials.
And this is what an underground construction containing another reactor, RHTGR-1 (research high temperature gas-cooled reactor), looks like from the outside.
An almost one-kilometre-long corridor leads to it through a specially constructed underground bunker.
Reactor is a prototype of a nuclear rocket engine. It heats hydrogen to the highest temperatures and creates exhaust thrust. Using such engine, it was planned to fly to Mars during Khrushchev times.
"Even fuel for the nuclear rocket engine was created", says a head of reactor complex "Baikal-1" Alexandre Nikolayevich Kolbayenkov. "It met all the parametres required in the technical design specification, like temperature, pressure, resource and 925 seconds performance index. All this was obtained. And, basically, if the work was not terminated, we would, probably, come to testing a production engine which could be put into orbit and launched there."
Kolbayenkov has been working here for almost 40 years.
Spent fuel storage facility (SFSF) in "Baikal-1". Fuel from the terminated reactor BN-350 situated in Aktau, that was working in MAEK, is kept here. The fuel is uranium-235 and plutonium-239.
This is one more "landmark" of the test site. The first Soviet atomic bomb was blown up on this spot in 1949.
This sinister construction is called a "goose". Experts used to measure a blast wave of a nuclear explosion using such reinforced concrete structures.
Radiation measurement. Temperature and pressure on this spot were so enormous that concrete liquidized and absorbed radionuclides.
The first Soviet atomic bombs were "dirty", thus everything is contaminated with plutonium in the testing site. People can stay there only wearing a respirator.
Measuring equipment used to be placed in these constructions.
Specialists of IRSE live in these modules at the test site. What is the danger of living here? The thing is that this object was at the origins of Soviet military nuclear programme. There are a lot of various sites at the testing base, but it all started on this particular spot. First Soviet nuclear and hydrogen explosive devices were very "dirty". Only 30-40% of the warhead mass were actually activated. The remaining part, including extremely dangerous for everything alive plutonium, was dispersed around. Thus, the testing site is almost completely contaminated by it. The total area of 300 square kilometres is considered to be lost, because the half-life period of plutonium-239 is about 20 thousand years. Plutonium nanoparticles can be inhaled by a person with dust if he or she wanders around contaminated "spots" or if there is a strong wind. It is impossible to remove plutonium from a body. Even if one particle got inside it just burns away all the tissue around it. Thus IRSE experts who live on the site put their health under risk every day. It is a sort of feat in the name of science. Without an exaggeration.
Experimental cattle farm is situated here.
A brave man Symbat Baigaziyev, a specialist from the institute, looks after the animals.
Symbat and his charge mare Anka.
The experiment goes as follows: some animals are fed with contaminated fodder, and some are given contaminated water. The others pasture in contaminated places. The aim of the experiment is to measure radiation level got by local population who eat "dirty" food.
Symbat and a calf called Buyan. 200 metres away from this spot there is a plutonium crater from hydrogen bomb.
TOKAMAK, a prototype of a thermo-nuclear reactor of the future, was created during the years of Kazakhstan's independence. It was made for the purpose of researching the properties of materials.
Gennady Shapovalov is a researcher in the Nuclear Energy Institute and is the man in charge in TOKAMAK.
"Actually, quite a wide range of research is planned to be conducted in TOKAMAK. It is a new construction that has its own specific physical parametres, which do not have analogues in the world."
Liquidized concrete on the test site.
It can be asserted even today, that it is completely unprecedented and even paradoxical that sciences connected with nuclear energy continue to develop in our country. It ought to have been quite the contrary. When the last military man left Semipalatinsk test site, Kurchatov town could become one more post-Soviet ghost-towns. And what would have been easier than to enclose the contaminated areas in barbed wire fence and forget about them forever. But the reality is much more complex and the consequences of nuclear weapon tests were, are and will be the part of our life.