Kazakhs urge caution around return to nuclear testing

STORY: This barren steppe in northern Kazakhstan was once the theater of devastating nuclear tests, causing radiation that impacted the local environment and people's health.

As Russia warns of the rising risk of a nuclear war, and relations with the United States sink into a deep freeze, communities close to the vast Soviet-era nuclear testing site have a message for leaders.

Serikbay Ybyrai is a local leader in the village of Saryzhal. He saw tests being carried out just miles away when he was a boy.

"We are the people who have witnessed the consequences of the nuclear test site. If the countries resume nuclear tests, if this is going to repeat itself, the population of the world would be killed. Let our sufferings teach others a lesson. It is necessary to convey our distress to other people. If this resumes, then humankind will disappear."

Between 1949 and 1989, hundreds of nuclear tests were carried out near Semey, a town close to the Kazakh-Russian border.

When devices detonated above ground, authorities ordered locals out of homes and schools because of fears that ground tremors might cause buildings to collapse.

Baglan Gabullin lives in Kaynar, another village that lived under the shadow of nuclear testing.

"I remember, I was five years old. I was very young. We were told training was supposed to take place. At a certain point in time, leave the house and do not look towards the Degelen mountain. But we were young and curious, so we looked in that direction. First, came a yellow flash, and a black "mushroom" after it. The adults tried to drive us away."

While villages such as Kaynar and Saryzhal were exposed to direct radiation, steppe winds carried nuclear fallout across an area the size of Italy.

The effect of the radiation continues to affect lives there.

Umit Bibasheva, also from Kaynar, says her sister was seriously impacted by the nuclear tests.

"This is my sister, Saule Bibasheva. She was born in 1961. At school she made it only to the third year. She is a victim of the test site. She has been sick since her childhood. We have showed her to different doctors. But she never left home after she finished the third year at school."

Kazakh authorities estimate up to 1.5 million people were exposed to residual radioactive fallout during testing.

Over 1 million received certificates confirming their status as victims of tests, making them eligible for a $40 monthly payout.

Today, radiation meters are still buzzing.

And much of the territory is still considered too contaminated to inhabit or cultivate.

Many proliferation experts believe a resumption of testing by either nuclear superpower is unlikely any time soon.

But tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine have led to an increasingly hostile rhetoric.

In early November, President Vladimir Putin revoked Russia's ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests.

Moscow says it will not lead to a resumption of testing unless the United States does first.