Former secret military city in Kazakhstan now a center for civilian nuclear power

by Sakiko Masuda, Staff Writer

Kazakhstan is home to a large number of people who were exposed to radiation as a result of nuclear testing by the former Soviet Union and it continues to appeal to the international community for the elimination of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it has been actively pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

I paid a visit to the city of Kurchatov, a secret military city in former days where researchers involved in the nuclear testing program once lived, and learned that Kurchatov has been transformed, with the full support of the government, into a center for civilian nuclear power.

I traveled to Kurchatov from Semey, the new name for the city of Semipalatinsk, and the trip took about 40 minutes by helicopter. From the sky, many abandoned buildings could be seen. When we landed, I was taken to a number of newly-constructed buildings by Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director general of the National Nuclear Center. One of the buildings is the Park of Nuclear Technologies, established in 2005, where research institutes and other facilities are located. On the park grounds is a nuclear fusion reactor known as Tokamak, now in an experimental stage, as well as an exhibit of panels which shows the cooperative ties between Kazakhstan and Japan in the field of nuclear energy.

For the time being, Kazakhstan is planning to construct one nuclear power station. Roman Vassilenko, 40, deputy director of the Nazarbayev Center, a government-affiliated think tank, accompanied my visit. He stressed, “Even following the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, our plans have not changed. Nuclear power is essential for the future of our nation because it’s a less expensive source of energy and emits less carbon dioxide [which contributes to global warming].”

The sentiments of Kazakh citizens, however, seem to be mixed. Kazbek Kazkenov, 64, is the head of the Center of Analysis, Forecasting and Social Initiatives, under the auspices of the Nur Otan Party, the nation’s ruling party. Mr. Kazkenov was active in the movement to close the country’s nuclear test site. “There are a number of people who are opposed to the construction of the nuclear power plant,” he said. But after explaining that Kazakhstan purchases electricity from its neighbors and that the demand for electricity has grown in line with the nation’s economic growth, Mr. Kazkenov pointed out, “We have no choice but to build the plant. Therefore, it’s vital to provide oversight in all respects so that the sort of tragedy which occurred in Fukushima won’t be repeated here.”

Kazakhstan produces the largest quantity of uranium, a fuel for nuclear power plants, in the world. Despite the large population of sufferers from nuclear tests, it seeks to take advantage of its abundant underground resources and adopt the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Although Hiroshima suffered the devastation of the atomic bombing, it once condoned the peaceful use of nuclear energy, too. From my perspective, the current situation in Kazakhstan mirrors Hiroshima’s experience of nuclear energy in the past.


The city of Kurchatov was named after Igor Kurchatov, a nuclear physicist. Dr. Kurchatov, who led the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons development program, has been called “the father of the Soviet atomic bomb.” In those days Kurchatov was a “secret military city” of restricted areas where only military personnel involved in nuclear testing and their families lived. The city was established in 1946, one year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, a vast tract of land to the south of the city. With the closure of the test site in 1991, at one time the population of 20,000 dropped to less than half. Recently, as a result of the push to make Kurchatov a center for nuclear energy, the population has climbed to roughly 10,000 people.

(Originally published on September 11, 2012)