A conversation with Togzhan Kassenova about how Kazakhstan became a world leader in nuclear disarmament

By Jon Letman, Outrider

Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union conducted at least 450 nuclear tests in Kazakhstan. In doing so, it spread nuclear contamination across an area five times larger than New York’s Long Island.

Astana Kazakhstan

Over four decades, the USSR detonated more than 17 megatons (a yield greater than one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs) at the Polygon nuclear test site, just 75 miles from Semipalatinsk, a city of 120,000. Not only did testing cause widespread environmental damage, it led to dramatically elevated rates of cancer, abnormal fetus development, miscarriages, and an epidemic of suicides among people living near the site.

But just as the Soviet Union was breaking apart, the people of Kazakhstan had embarked on a grassroots movement weaving denuclearization and the quest for national independence into an international effort with other nuclear-affected peoples.

The extraordinary story of how Kazakhstan transformed itself from a nuclear testing ground and home to the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal into an independent, nuclear-free global leader in denuclearization is told in Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave up The Bomb by Togzhan Kassenova.

Kassenova, a senior fellow at the University of Albany, SUNY, and a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke with Outrider about her book.

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