Has Kazakhstan forgotten about its Polygon test survivors via PRI’s The World

On a bright, bitterly cold day in early November, Aigul Suleimenova went home during her lunch break to check up on her daughter, Assee, who has a condition that weakens her nervous system.

“She was born like that,” Aigul said. Assee, now 29, spends her days in a wheelchair and is under constant supervision.  

The Suleimenovas live in the industrial city of Semey in eastern Kazakhstan, home to several food-processing and textiles factories. Aigul works as a security guard at a bread factory.

Many of Semey’s residents, like Assee, are disabled or suffer chronic illnesses. When Aigul brings her daughter to social events for disabled children, she notices that those who have lived in Semey or nearby villages in eastern Kazakhstan have health issues that all seem to point to a single cause — the Polygon. 

In the nuclear arms race against the United States, the former Soviet Union performed more than 450 nuclear tests in an area known as the Semipalatinsk Test Site — otherwise known as the Polygon — from 1949 to 1989. Although the test site itself was uninhabited, winds blew the nuclear fallout and radioactive dust into neighboring villages, affecting anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million people.

Some died immediately from the exposure to nuclear fallout, though the exact number is unknown. Exposed women of childbearing age gave birth to children with physical deformities and other neurological defects. Adults developed a range of fatal cancers. 

Related: Soviet-era nuclear testing is still making people sick in Kazakhstan

The Polygon shut down in 1991, the same year that Kazakhstan gained independence from the former Soviet Union. Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has served as Kazakhstan’s president since then, seemed eager to move the country away from its nuclear history. He decreed the permanent closure of the test site and asked more than a dozen civilian and military experts to devise a cleanup and conversion plan. 

The following year, in 1992, the government sought to help families who were exposed to the Polygon tests. Government officials traveled to villages close to the test sites and handed out ‘‘radiation passports.”

A blueish-purple mushroom cloud decorates the front of the passport. The small, beige documents were issued based on where villagers resided, and whether or not they were exposed to significant levels of nuclear radiation. Asee Suleimenova, along with others born at that time, were all issued such documents.

The government officially recognized 1,323,000 people as being negatively affected by these nuclear tests but only 1,057,000 received radiation passports. By law, those with passports were entitled to compensation and other social benefits — such as higher pensions and additional paid holidays; children under 18 were entitled to free healthcare — based on their individual health conditions.

From 2003 to 2017, approximately $30.5 million was paid out to more than 700,000 individuals with radiation passports. All told, this comes to about $40 a year per individual. 

Many first-generation Polygon survivors said the law worked in their favor at first. But as Kazakhstan moves further away from its nuclear past, survivors and their descendants can’t help but wonder: has the government forgotten about them?


Related: Kazakhstan cafe uses employment to fight disability stigma

One generation after another

Nuclear radiation damages DNA, the building blocks of genes — researchers say that some health conditions caused as a result of the nuclear fallout might be passed down from generation to another. 

To receive social support from the state, one must have a radiation passport. But the government stopped issuing radiation passports after 1992, which means the passport program excludes children who have been born to affected families since then. 

Now, some families that were affected by the nuclear tests are giving birth to a fifth generation, says Talgat Muldagaliev, deputy director of science and research at the Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology. Now that research has slowly emerged proving that some health conditions have a genetic basis, “we expect that laws for social protections will be revised and amended so that all generations of people who could have possibly been affected by these nuclear tests will receive better social support,” Muldagaliev said. 

Olga Petrovskaya, the chair of Generation, a Semey-based nongovernmental organization founded in 1999, also hopes the government will begin to pay attention to Polygon test survivors after years of neglect. She and members of Generation are working to petition the Kazakhstan government for increased social protection because they believe the law initially set in 1992 is no longer benefiting them. 

“It was good for the first two years, but then the benefits started going away,” says Petrovskaya.

Kazakhstan’s turbulent economic situation as it transitioned in the 1990s may explain why the government was unable to fulfill its obligations to provide compensation to those affected by the nuclear tests. 


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