Shepherd Vlodya Lionchev works on a sheep ranch in Kazakhstan at the edge of the Semipalatinsk Polygon, the Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing site.Sixty years ago today, the Soviet Union began testing nuclear bombs on the steppe in northern Kazakhstan. Researchers detonated nearly 460 nuclear explosions above and below ground over a 40 year period, ending in 1989. The testing range was officially closed 18 years ago today, August 29, 1991.
The ranch where Lionchev works is across a small valley from Lake Balapan, also known as Atomic Lake, created when a nuclear test blew the top off of a mountain. The resulting crater filled with water and is one of the most radioactive sites within the Polygon. Recently, local shepherds have watered their sheep at the lake, not believing scientific warnings about the dangers of doing so.
I first visited the Polygon nine years ago (hard to believe!) to shoot a story for AP. I was fascinated and long wanted to return. This week I'm finishing editing a story I shot there about the people who live in and around the Polygon.