The USSR Tried To Cover Up One Of The World's Deadliest Nuclear Fallout Sites


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


A crater from a nuclear test in the Semipalatinsk Polygon. Jim Krehl/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There’s always a lot talk about the radioactive contamination around Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. However, there’s a lesser-known place in the heartland of the former USSR where over 450 nuclear bombs were exploded during the Cold War. It’s been described as the "world's worst radiation hotspot"The truth about Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan only fully came to light to the wider world after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 but even today we're finding out new information about this test site's past.

A new report by New Scientist magazine has revealed even more information about the USSR’s attempts to sweep Semipalatinsk under the carpet by covering up the extent of its radioactive contamination and the cost on human health.


A director at the Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Kazakhstan sent New Scientist “top secret” archival documents that show how Soviets scientists found ridiculously high levels of radiation in surrounding villages, and the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk (aka Oskemen), near the site.

After an atomic bomb exploded a month previously, scientists found that city was experiencing levels of radiation as high as 1.6 millirems (the unit of absorbed radiation dose) per hour. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that the average American receives around 620 millirems per year (over 1.6 millirems per day). A full body CT scan also gives a short sharp burst of 1 millirem.

Documents from this institute given to New Scientist also say that over 600 people were hospitalized with radiation sickness after a nuclear test in 1956 and there were multiple pieces of scientific evidence to suggest the land, soil, and vegetation contained dangerous levels of radiation.

This new finding shows that the USSR was totally aware of the damage caused by its nuclear tests, however, it simply let it slip, did little to address it, and hid it from the wider world.


This accusation has been made before. A report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in 2014 said that Semipalatinsk "stands as a testimony to the horrifying impact of nuclear weapons." Their report details a hefty list of health effects on the local residents up to 2010, including increased instances of infant mortality, congenital malformations, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. The main crux of the report was the "fill in the gaps" of what really went on here, since much of it was kept secret, censored, or underresearched by the Soviets.

Semipalatinsk might not be a household name but as time goes by it's becoming clear that perhaps it should. 

[H/T: New Scientist]


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