November 6, 2013 2:46 AM   Subscribe

From 1949 onwards, the closed city of Semipalatinsk (now Semey, Kazakhstan) was the test site for 456 nuclear devices. The test site was known as "The Polygon." Testing was stopped in 1989, but the long term effects remained.

After 1969, the tests were carried out underground, mostly at Degelen Mountain. In 1993, the United States paid for the entrance tunnels to be sealed. But there was a problem: The materials were left inside, and they were valuable: Keeping The Plutonium From The Scavengers At Semipalatinsk

From 2004 to 2012, the US, Russia and Kazakhstan worked together to re-secure Degelen and Semipalatinsk.

Saving The World At Plutonium Mountain
The modest ribbon-cutting marked the conclusion of one of the largest and most complex nuclear security operations since the Cold War. The secret mission was to secure plutonium — enough to build a dozen or more nuclear weapons — that Soviet authorities had buried at the testing site years before and forgotten, leaving it vulnerable to terrorists and rogue states.

The effort spanned 17 years, cost $150 million and involved a complex mix of intelligence, science, engineering, politics and sleuthing. This account is based on documents and interviews with Kazakh, Russian and U.S. participants, and reveals the scope of the operation for the first time. The effort was almost entirely conceived and implemented by scientists and government officials operating without formal agreements among the nations involved. Many of these scientists were veterans of Cold War nuclear-testing programs, but they overcame their mistrust and joined forces to clean up and secure the Semipalatinsk testing site, a dangerous legacy of the nuclear arms race.
High-Grade Plutonium Locked in Kazakhstan Mountain at Minimal Risk

The money was allocated under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. PBS Frontline has more.

The main report is from Harvard's Belfer Center:
Plutonium Mountain: Inside The 17-Year Mission To Secure A Dangerous Legacy Of Soviet Nuclear Testing [PDF]

via Arms Control Wonk: Plutonium Mountain and Operation Groundhog and Tunnel Re-Sealing At Semipalatinsk
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Soil, water, and air remain highly irradiated in the fallout area, where according to scientists the level of radiation is 10 times higher than normal.

One in every 20 children in the area is born with serious deformities. Many struggle with different types of cancer and more than half of the local population has died before reaching the age of 60.

...but... a radiation dose 10 times normal would be someone who'd had a couple of CT scans and a stress test.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:47 AM on November 6, 2013

...but... a radiation dose 10 times normal would be someone who'd had a couple of CT scans and a stress test.

Yeah. My guess, though, is that the number that's wrong is the "10 times" -- what we need are real objective numbers, namely, the curies of what isotopes are present in the environment. There were probably much more release when the area was an active testing and refining area. The Soviets had even less regard for downwinders than we did when it came to building nuclear weapons. Denver, you guys were lucky.

What isotopes are important, because that tells you what kind of radiation you're dealing with and the uptake path. Alpha emitters are harmless on your skin, but cancer sources in your lungs. High energy gamma emitters are just plain bad news, period.

The real reason we worry about this site is it's one of the very few places that weapons grade fissionables are available, and if you want to kill a hundred thousand people with radioactive material in one go, a nuclear weapon will do the job.
posted by eriko at 6:43 AM on November 6, 2013

So much nightmare fodder, I don't even know where to start. The Belfer report made for horrifying lunchtime reading...
posted by halcyonday at 7:02 AM on November 6, 2013

...but... a radiation dose 10 times normal would be someone who'd had a couple of CT scans and a stress test.

Those procedures are over pretty fast; environmental radiation irradiates the body every second, every minute, every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the year that you are in that environment; so the analogy fails for duration of exposure, even if the momentary intensity is less outside the clinic.
Further, those procedures don't involve unregulated, unmeasured admixtures of alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and x-ray radiation, also getting into all your tissues from your food and water (type and delivery).

Truly the stuff of nightmares.
posted by GhostRider at 7:14 AM on November 6, 2013

I'm currently about to finish David Hoffman's The Dead Hand, which is full of this kind of Soviet created horrors (plus the germ warfare ones, just as bad). I think for my next reading I'm going to need some old Marvel comics to cure my frayed nerves after that little stroll through everything I blissfully ignored was going on while I was a teen in the ass of the world. Jeeebus...
posted by Iosephus at 7:19 AM on November 6, 2013

Great resource roundup. The Pu could be vitrified to make it a lot harder to recover.

i09 article on the tragic story of the site

The Soviet nuclear weapons program
posted by Twang at 9:07 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, irradiated is not the same as emitting radiation. You don't get a sunburnt tongue from eating a sun dried tomato.

Sensationalism and a lack of understanding aside the demise of the Soviet Union resulted in an alarming quantity of radioactive and potentially fissile material becoming available and also exposed how very broken, willing to sacrifice their population, and desperate the Soviet Union had become. I'm certain other governments, and likely my own, have been similarly cavalier.

I think most money budgeted as "defense" is a colossal waste. I am in favor of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
posted by vapidave at 9:07 AM on November 6, 2013

Kazakhstan government is a world leader in banning nuclear testing - they put the USA to shame. In fact they are currently on tour in the USA (related to timing of this post?). It's called The ATOM project. One of the victims of the radiation is Karipbek Kuyukov (b. 1968), the "honorary ambassador", he has no arms and paints with his feet.
posted by stbalbach at 10:12 AM on November 6, 2013

This is a little tangential, but I think it's worth pointing out that полигон (poligon) is the ordinary Russian word for "firing range." It's commonly translated as the English word "polygon," but in this context, that's sort of a mistake.
posted by my favorite orange at 6:09 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Came to make the same small tangential point my favorite orange did. "Polygon" just means "military range." Could be used for pistols or tanks. Also, to check that the Belfer report was linked here. Interestingly, the Russian Federation still has a number of closed military settlements like Semipalatinsk, inherited from the Soviet era.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:47 PM on November 6, 2013

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