August 29 is a red letter day for nuclear testing. On that day in 1949, the Soviet military began forty years of nuclear tests—456 in all—at Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in the steppes of Kazakhstan. On August 29, 1991, following protests by thousands of Soviet citizens united by the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, Kazakhstan shut down the site. To encourage the banning of nuclear tests worldwide and in acknowledgement of Kazakhstan’s actions the United Nations General Assembly designated August 29 the International Day against Nuclear Tests, in 2009. On the twentieth anniversary of the closure of Semipalatinsk, it is important to recognize the role of the former weapons testing facility in strengthening the verification regime of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Kazakhstan and the Soviet Weapons Program

Kazakhstan was critical to the Soviet weapons program. It supplied material for nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines; it hosted strategic nuclear weapons; and it suffered bio-weapons tests on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea.

Testing was the most critical element of the nuclear activities the Soviet military carried out in Kazakhstan. More than half of the Soviet Union’s 715 tests were carried out at Semipalatinsk.

Kazakhstan’s population, especially in the areas adjacent to the Semipalatinsk test site, was left deeply scarred—both physically and psychologically. Different types of cancer, hemorrhaging of organs, blood diseases, and an array of other serious diseases have plagued the local people.1  Japanese and Kazakh scientists have also documented how these victims of nuclear testing have suffered from symptoms similar to those of Hibakusha—survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.2 Even now, more than twenty years after nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk ended, its consequences, including serious health problems, endure.

Swords to Ploughshares

The Semipalatinsk tragedy remains an open wound for Kazakhstan, and the country will never be able to undo the harm that nuclear testing has inflicted on its people. What it can do—and, indeed, has already done—is to use its legacy to support the international community in its quest to ban nuclear testing forever. In a remarkable turnaround, today the former test site is being used to make a unique contribution to the verification regime of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Most notably, in 2008 Kazakhstan hosted the largest ever on-site inspection simulation exercise conducted by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO PrepCom). Its goal was to give surrogate inspectors the chance to test all stages of their inspection regime in conditions that resembled a real life situation as closely as possible. There are few places in the world that could have provided more realistic conditions than the former nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk. The exercise scenario called for an investigation into a suspected nuclear test conducted by the fictitious country of Arkania. It required the shipment of forty tons of equipment to the Kazakh steppe to support simulated inspections carried out by forty inspectors.3

The 2008 exercise was, in fact, the fourth to be hosted by Kazakhstan. In 1999, the CTBTO PrepCom conducted its first field experiment at the Semipalatinsk site. This involved the detonation of a 100-ton conventional explosive device inside an underground tunnel, and the investigation of various procedures integral to inspection including the logistics of shipping the necessary equipment to inspection sites, and the deployment of an inspection team. In 2002, Kazakhstan hosted another CTBTO PrepCom exercise, this time involving a simulated nuclear explosion to test how well different inspection techniques would work together. Inspectors carried out visual observations, seismic aftershock monitoring, radiation monitoring, and environmental sampling. A third exercise conducted in 2005 tested over flights and radiation monitoring.4

It is symbolic that the final steps taken to eliminate the former test facility also contributed to the future CTBT verification regime. When the Semipalatinsk test site was shut down, tunnels and holes had to be destroyed to prevent them from ever being used again for nuclear testing. Specialists used the explosions of testing tunnels and holes to calibrate the monitoring stations of the CTBTO’s International Monitoring System (IMS) located on its territory.5  The IMS stations located throughout the world monitor the planet for nuclear explosions.

Toward the Abolition of Nuclear Tests: Building the Verification Regime

To enter into force, the CTBT must be signed and ratified by North Korea, India, and Pakistan, and ratified by China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, and the United States. In 1999, the U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT partly on the grounds of verification.

The verification regime of the CTBT has evolved considerably since 1999. The monitoring system to verify the CTBT has successfully detected the two nuclear explosions carried out by North Korea. More than 60 monitoring stations registered the nuclear explosion carried out by North Korea in May 2009 and the CTBTO issued the Reviewed Event Bulletin within 48 hours, as required by the treaty. North Korea’s earlier nuclear explosion in October 2006 was also picked up by more than 20 stations.6  To date, the CTBTO PrepCom has completed 274 of its 337 monitoring stations located in 89 countries.7  However, another component of the CTBT’s verification regime—on-site inspections to directly investigate accusations of testing—will only be usable after the treaty’s entry into force.8  Such inspections, which Kazakhstan has played an instrumental role in helping to develop, would constitute a significant deterrent to any state considering a clandestine test.

When in force, the CTBT will provide the international community with the tools to detect and deter nuclear testing and it will act as the only appropriate tribute to communities in Semipalatinsk, Nevada, and other places throughout the world that endured nuclear tests.


1. B. A. Atchabarov, Zabluzhdeniya, Lozh' i Istina po Voprosu Otscenki Vliyaniya na Zdorov'ye Lyudei Ispytaniya Atomnogo Oruzhiiya na Semipalatinskom Yadernom Poligone (Misperceptions, Lies, and Truth in Assessing the Impact of Nuclear Weapons Testing at Semipalatinsk Nuclear Testing Site on Public Health), [in Russian], Almaty, Karzhy-Karazhal, 2002; B. I. Gusev, R. I. Rosenson, Z. N. Abylkassimova, “The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site: A First Analysis of Solid Cancer Incidence (Selected Sites) Due to Test-Related Radiation,” Radiation and Environmental Biophysics, Volume 37, Number 3, pp. 209-214; Z. Zhumadilov, B. I. Gusev, J. Takada, M. Hoshi, A. Kimura, N. Hayakawa, N. Takeichi, “Thyroid Abnormality Trend Over Time in Northeastern Regions of Kazakstan, Adjacent to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site: A Case Review of Pathological Findings for 7271 Patients,” Journal of Radiation Research, March 2000, 41(1), pp. 35-44; A. Akanov, S. Yamashita, S. Merimanov, A. Indershyiev, A. Musakhanova, Nuclear Explosions and Public Health Development (Nagasaki-Almaty, 2008), [in Russian], p. 113. 

2. Noriyuki Kawano, Kyoko Hirabayashi, Masatsugu Matsuo, Yasuyuki Taooka, Takashi Hiraoka, Kazbek Apsalikov, Talgat Moldagaliev, Masaharu Hoshi, “Human Suffering Effects of Nuclear Tests at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan: Established On the Basis of Questionnaire Surveys,” Journal of Radiation Research, Volume 47, pp. A209-217.

3. “On-Site Inspections: The Integrated Field Exercise 2008,” video, CTBTO Preparatory Commission, <>.

4. “Exercises,” CTBTO Preparatory Commission, <>.

5. “Monitoring of Nuclear Tests at Operating World Test Sites,” National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, <>.

6. “Homing in on the Event,” CTBTO PrepCom, 29 May 2009, <>.

7. “FAQs,” CTBTO Preparatory Commission, <>.

8. In addition, the IMS can be utilized in a range of civilian applications, such as the monitoring of marine life; detection of volcanic activity; using seismic data in forensic work; prevention or mitigation of the effects of natural disasters; enhancing climate change research; and creating new opportunities in scientific research generally. “Potential Civil and Scientific Applications of the CTBT Verification Technologies,” CTBTO PrepCom, <>.