Kazakhstan’s Atomic Lake: What You Should Know


VICE’s crew visited it with protective suits, but David Farrier of Netflix’s Dark Tourist jumped right in after a shot of vodka. Kazakhstan’s ‘Atomic Lake’, though sitting for decades, has re-reared its head into the media. Here’s what you need to know about its peculiar history.

The Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) projects of the Cold War are a curious case. Leonid Brezhnev first launched his ‘Program 6’ and ‘Program 7’ campaigns in 1965 as a reaction to John F. Kennedy’s ‘Operation Plowshare’. While the Americans reportedly detonated 156 “harmless” nuclear explosions, the Soviet Union detonated a reported 239 nuclear tests until Program 7 came to a close in 1988 under Mikhail Gorbachev.[1] One of the most prominent outcomes of the Soviet programs remains the infamous Lake Chagan. Also known as Lake Balapan, it is the focus of several human rights and water security organizations, and has long-lasting impacts on the surrounding area.

The USSR tested its first successful nuclear weapon ‘First Lightning’ on August 29th, 1949 at the Semipalatinsk site of modern-day Kazakhstan.[2] The following month on September 23rd, Brezhnev sent Andrei Vyshinksy to the United Nations to make a few points regarding how the Soviets would be moving forward with their nuclear projects. Firstly, he stated that the Soviet Union had detonated a successful atomic bomb similar to the Americans; furthermore, many more tests were to come in the nature of peaceful nuclear explosions. Although this was not to be received as a mobilization for war, Vyshinksy stressed that in that unfortunate event, these weapons would be at their disposal.[3]

The first to move forward would instead be the United States’ Project Plowshare proposed to the UN in 1958, to detonate its first PNE blast ‘Project Gnome’ on December 10, 1961. The Soviets waited until 1965 to launch PENE; the Chagan is often times categorized under this umbrella program, but in fact there were two categories to separate developmental intentions. Program 7, or “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” (PNENE) sought to find useful mineral resources with reflection seismology properties; this would be useful to later extract oil and gas. Program 6, titled “Employment of Nuclear Explosive Technologies in the Interests of National Economy” was purposed for developing underground toxic waste storage, dams and canals, and bodies of water. Thus technically, Lake Chagan was created via Program 6, acting as one of four channel and dam explosions performed throughout Program 6. September 6th, 1988 marked the last detonation of all of this program, an explorative geological explosion nicknamed Rubin-1.

Today, Lake Chagan stands with a volume of about 10 million cubic meters, translating to approximately 10 billion liters of water. It is fed by the Chagan River, which functions as a tributary of Irtysh River. Semipalatinsk in total was used for 456 nuclear explosions; at least 115 of these were atmospheric tests before their ban in 1963.[4]

The Partial/Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963—signed and ratified almost fifteen years after the completion of the Manhattan Project—banned all above-ground nuclear explosions.

Underground nuclear tests were supposed to distribute less fallout than their counterparts; however, many underground tests, such as the Sedan of Nevada and the Chagan itself, have proven to distribute more fallout in certain conditions than above-grounders. The lack of specific defining logistics regarding depth, the presence of tunnels and shafts, and TNT yields or equivalents provided for an incomprehensive and largely ineffective treaty.[5] Later in 1974, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty provided its namesake threshold ban of 150 kilotons of TNT or its equivalent; the Soviets stated some “technical uncertainties” in the terms of the agreement and the threshold was fudged to allow slight breaches. Two years later in 1976, these terms were reaffirmed to a strict 150 kilotons for individual explosions and a threshold of 1,500 kilotons for group explosions. Most recently, the UN General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in September of 1996, banning all nuclear explosions for any reason in any location; eight countries claim to honor the treaty but refuse to sign including China, North Korea, Iran, Israel, and the United States.[6]

Semipalatinsk’s last explosions were detonated in view of the approaching collapse of the Soviet Union. First and still serving Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered the abandonment of Semipalatinsk in 1991, a little over a year after his instatement.[7] In 1996, a classified joint operation between Kazakh, Russian, and American nuclear scientists and officials oversaw the sanitation of the site.[8]

The Chagan is a subsidence crater, meaning it resulted from the roof of a cavity sinking in immediately or consecutive to the explosion, rather than a direct above-roof blast. As with most nuclear explosions, a plume was created. Radioactive fallout exploded up and out of the crater, seeping into the stratosphere and contaminating within a considerable radius.[9] In fact, fallout from the Chagan was able to be detected as far out as Japan.[10] Additionally, the toxicity of the water that flowed in from the river is also of concern. Its lake bottom is composed of soil that came in direct contact with a nuclear explosion just a few short decades ago.

Unsurprisingly, these levels of nuclear fallout are deadly. In the long term, absorption of fallout into the stratosphere poses ozone issues, which can be a major factor contributing to climate change[11]. In the short term, the fallout wreaked havoc onto the plants, animals, and humans surrounding the Chagan. The area is known as a “radiation hotspot”, and rates of cancer here are off the charts. Reproductive issues plague women, many of whom lack the money or access to quality health care. But what really sets the region apart is the the visible defects affecting generation after generation of Kazakhs. Nuclear exposure has changed not only the health of one generation, but it permanently shifts the genome. As such, today, one in twenty children in modern-day Semey are born with some sort of birth defect.[12] Cerebral palsy is common. Many are born with disfiguration of the face. Orphanages are full of disabled children and infants whose parents simply cannot afford the sort of care required to sustain their medical needs.[13]

Research shows that these defects are caused by more than just contact with fallout. One article published in the Radiation and Environmental Biophysics Journal in December of 2004 reports data collected on the soil and vegetation within the vicinity of underground testing. In fact, the area was specifically chosen as a site by the Soviets for its many naturally occurring tunnels to be blown through with nuclear weapons. The experiment measured the levels of Strontium-90 in the soil, and, upon discovering high levels, determined the transfer of contamination from soil to vegetation. The same experiment also examined the milk produced from cattle in Semey, discovering high contamination levels; whether the cattle were contaminated via the consumption of the vegetation or by direct contact with nuclear fallout was undetermined.[14]

Seismic activity will follow any underground explosion. In fact, the Semipalatinsk site was widely used to follow seismological patterns, useful for the ability to pinpoint exact disturbance locations. These experiments proved that underground explosions do release tectonic stress, shocking the earth’s underground.[15] Furthermore, the case rose concerns amongst seismologists in parallel with fault lines, and the ability for the force from the explosions to cause earthquakes. Although this question is still highly debated, studies showed this theory to be false— at least at the TNT levels possible during those testing periods.[16]

Many of the health defects documented today are of the children of those exposed directly to results of tests such as the Chagan, meaning that these issues have high likelihood percentages of being passed on from mother and father to child. Most likely, these health issues will be present for generations to come. For Kazakhs and others whose health and quality of life was diminished by decades of nuclear testing followed by years of radiation and fallout exposure, the future seems meek.


[1] Kirsch, Scott. Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

[2] Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.

[3] United Nations, Two Hundred and Twenty-Sixth Plenary Meeting, General Debate (continued): speeches by Mr. Vyshinksy (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), Rahim Bey (Egypt), Mr. Stolk (Venezuela), Mr. van Zeeland (Belgium), Mr. Jooste (Union of South Africa). 23 September 1949, available from http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/PV.226

[4] Duan, Hontao, Yuanzhi Zhang, Bai Zhang, Kaishan Song, and Zongming Wang. “Assessment of Chlorophyll-a Concentration and Trophic State for Lake Chagan Using Landsat TM and Field Spectral Data.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 129, no. 1-3 (June 2007): 295-308. Springer Link.

[5] Peloso, Chris. “Crafting an Updated Non-Proliferation Treaty: Applying the Lessons Learned from the Success of Similar International Treaties to the Nuclear Arms Problem.” Santa Clara Journal of International Law 9, no. 2 (January 1, 2011). Santa Clara Law Digital Commons.

[6] United States. US Department of Energy. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions. By Milo D. Nordyke. Springfield, VA: National Technical Information Service, 1996. October 28, 1996.

[7] Grosche, B. “The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site: A First Assessment of the Radiological Situation and the Test Related Radiation Doses in the Surrounding Territories.” Biphysik, October 1997. Research Gate.

[8] Harrell, Eben, and David E. Hoffman. “Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-year Mission to Secure a Dangerous Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Testing.” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, August 2013. Belfer Center.

[9] Wilson, Glenn, D.M Ely, S.L Hokett, and D.R. Gillespie. “Recharge from a Subsidence Crater at the Nevada Test Site.” Soil Science Society of America, September 21, 2017. ResearchGate.

[10] YouTube. May 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9apugD-Fcc.

[11] “General Overview of the Effects of Nuclear Testing.” Ctbto.org, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

[12] YouTube. October 27, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrn_ekMx6cw&t=656s.

[13] Loctier, Denis. “Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Legacy.” Loctier.com. April 14, 2010. http://www.loctier.com/kazakhstans-nuclear-legacy/.

[14] Howard, B.J., Semioschkina, N., Voigt, G. et al. Radiat Environ Biophys (2004) 43: 285. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00411-004-0261-8

[15] Trabant, Chad, et al. “Ground Truth Seismic Events and Location Capability at Degelen Mountain, Kazakhstan.” Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, vol. 131, no. 2, 30 July 2002, pp. 155–171. ScienceDirect.

[16] “Can Nuclear Explosions Cause Earthquakes?” Usgs.gov, US Department of the Interior.

Image source: travelnotes360.com

About the Author

Elanur Ural is a junior fellow at the ERA Institute. Her research interests include gender, resource politics, and Turkic Eurasia.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).