It was a nuclear disaster four times worse than Chernobyl in terms of the number of cases of acute radiation sickness, but Moscow’s complicity in covering up its effects on people’s health has remained secret until now.
We knew that in August 1956, fallout from a Soviet nuclear weapons test at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan engulfed the Kazakh industrial city of Ust-Kamenogorsk and put more than 600 people in hospital with radiation sickness, but the details have been sketchy.
After seeing a newly uncovered report, New Scientist can now reveal that a scientific expedition from Moscow in the aftermath of the hushed-up disaster uncovered widespread radioactive contamination and radiation sickness across the Kazakh steppes.
The scientists then tracked the consequences as nuclear bomb tests continued — without telling the people affected or the outside world.
The report by scientists from the Institute of Biophysics in Moscow was found in the archive of the Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology (IRME) in Semey, Kazakhstan. “For many years, this has been a secret,” says the institute’s director Kazbek Apsalikov, who found the report and passed it on to New Scientist.
More nuclear bomb tests were conducted at Semipalatinsk than anywhere else in the world during the 1950s and early 1960s. Western journalists have reported since the breakup of the Soviet Union on the apparent health effects on villagers downwind of the tests. And some recent studies have estimated radiation doses using proxies such as radioactivity in tooth enamel.