This Is What Nuclear Weapons Leave in Their Wake

Concrete structures are pictured approximately 650 feet away from the site of the first Soviet nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, south of Kurchatov, in Kazakhstan. PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE
A remote area of Kazakhstan was once home to nearly a quarter of the world’s nuclear testing. The impact on its inhabitants has been devastating.

By Alexandra Genova | National Geographic

Decay and desolation scar the landscape of a remote corner of the Kazakh Steppe. Unnatural lakes formed by nuclear bomb explosions pockmark the once flat terrain, broken up only by empty shells of buildings. It appears uninhabitable. And yet, ghosts – living and dead – haunt the land, still burdened by the effects a nuclear testing program that stopped nearly 30 years ago.

The site, known as the Polygon, was home to nearly a quarter of the world’s nuclear tests during the Cold War. The zone was chosen for being unoccupied, but several small agricultural villages dot its perimeter. Though some residents were bussed out during the test period, most remained. The damage that continues today is visceral.

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Berik Syzdykov, 38, sits at the kitchen table in the apartment he shares with his mother in Semey, Kazakhstan. Berik was born with birth defects after his pregnant mother was exposed to radiation from a nuclear test blast conducted by the Soviet Union in the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. He is blind, and has had several operations to reduce the swelling in his face. PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE