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Ed Ou
Reportage by Getty Images

"under a nuclear cloud"

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Award of Excellence
Ed Ou
Reportage by Getty Images


During the Cold War the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon covering 18,500 square kilometers on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the site of a secret Soviet nuclear testing programme. Through four decades, the Soviet Union test detonated over four hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underground in preparation for a nuclear war that never took place.

The locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations. Villagers living close by were given no protection or warning of the dangers of radiation. The Soviet military prohibited doctors from attributing the sharp rise in illnesses and deaths from cancer, leukemia, and radiation exposure in the region to the nuclear tests.

Today, only the frenetic chirp of a Geiger counter warns us of the invisible radiation that makes this nuclear wasteland so dangerous that scientists hesitate to spend any amount of time there. Yet, almost two million villagers spend their entire lives in and around the affected area, roughly the size of Italy - drinking ground water, growing crops, and grazing their livestock off the highly irradiated land.

Radiation has silently devastated three generations of people in Kazakhstan, creating health problems ranging from thyroid diseases, cancer, birth defects, deformities, premature aging, and cardiovascular diseases. Life expectancy in the area is seven years less then the national average of Kazakhstan. Suicides are common. Even though nuclear testing ended twenty years ago, these conditions and genetic mutations are passed down for generations to come.

SEMEY, KAZAKHSTAN, NOVEMBER 24 Nurse Larissa Soboleva holds two-year-old Adil Zhilyaev in an orphanage in Semey, Kazakhstan Nov. 24, 2008. Adil was born blind and afflicted with Infantile Cereberal Paralysis (ICP) and hydrocephalia, as a result of his mothers exposure to radiation during years of Soviet weapons testing during the Cold War. He was abandoned by his parents, and is now cared for in an orphanage.



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