This Is What Nuclear Weapons Leave in Their Wake

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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Soldiers walk on a windswept road on the edge of Semey.
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Inside a former KGB building in Kurchatov, Kazakhstan.
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Alijan Imanbaev at home in Semey, Kazakhstan. Alijan suffers from epilepsy and learning difficulties.

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Ayman Norgazinova, 49, a lab worker, inspects a rat used for research testing in the State Medical University of Semey in eastern Kazakhstan. Staff here are researching the effects of radiation on the rats' organs. The animals were exposed to radiation through small manganese particles they breathed in to simulate radioactive dust.

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A family passes derelict housing blocks in the town of Kurchatov, Kazakhstan. The population of the town is half of what it was at the end of the nuclear testing.

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Archive photographs of atomic mushroom clouds are pictured on a wall in the Museum of the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kurchatov, Kazakhstan.

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Zulfiya Tunkushgojine, 35, at her home she shares with her mother and siblings in the village of Shakaman in eastern Kazakhstan. Zulfiya was born with cerebral palsy which doctors say was due to the nuclear testing conducted at the Semipalatinsk test site. Her mother used to live in Saryzal, close to the nuclear tests, until 1962.

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Kazbek Kasimov, 60, herds sheep and goats at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, south of Kurchatov in Kazakhstan. The area was used for 456 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989 and some areas are still heavily contaminated with radiation.

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Nurse Marjan Kasenova plays with Kanat Rahimov, 15, in a ward of the Children's Centre of Special Social Services in Ayagoz, eastern Kazakahstan. Kanat was born with cerebral palsy.
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Mass is performed at the Voskresenskij Cathedral in Semey.

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A rack for holding uranium fuel containers in the low-enriched uranium bank, currently under construction at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust'-Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan. The bank, owned and controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency, will hold a reserve of low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants, designed to reduce the need for countries to enrich fuel themselves and reduce the risks of nuclear proliferation.
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A woman walks through Soviet-era housing blocks in Semey.

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Balkiya Usabayeva, 64, receives treatment via a drip at the Institute for Radiation and Ecology in Semey, Kazakhstan. Balkiya has suffered from heart disease and high blood pressure for over 10 years, and has always lived in Semey. Doctors say even though she was not directly exposed to the testing at the Semipalatinsk test site, she received a chronic dose of radiation living in Semey during that period.

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A patient is prepared for gamma ray treatment for skin cancer in the Oncology Centre in Semey, eastern Kazakhstan.

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Passengers prepare to board the train in Semey.

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A staff member of the municipal government in Kurchatov shows a video about the nuclear testing conducted from the town during the Cold War.
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Kairat Yesimhanov, 35, sits at home in Sulbinsk, in eastern Kazakhstan. Kairat and his younger sister, Aygul, suffer from cerebral palsy.

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Dusk falls in Saryzhal, a village on the edge of the former Semipalatinsk Test Site. During the Cold War, scientists would come to the village and measure radiation levels. Residents remember seeing many animals losing their fur following the tests.

Tap images for captions

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.

Photographer Phil Hatcher-Moore spent two months documenting the region, and was struck by the “wanton waste of man’s folly.”

His project ‘Nuclear Ghosts’ marries the wasted landscape and intimate portraits of villagers still suffering the consequences.

The figures are astonishing – some 100,000 people in the area are still affected by radiation, which can be transmitted down through five generations. But with his intimately harrowing pictures, Moore sought to make the abstract numbers tangible.

Rustam Janabaev, 6, lies in his cot in a ward of the Children's Centre of Special Social Services in Ayagoz, eastern Kazakahstan. Rustam was born with hypdrocephalus.

“Nuclear contamination is not something we can necessarily see,” he says. “And we can talk about the numbers, but I find it more interesting to focus on individuals who encapsulate the story.”

Moore interviewed all his subjects before picking up his camera and learned that secrecy and misinformation plagued much of their experience.

top:  Zhaksilyik Abishulyi, 72, sits in his home in the village of Saryzhal. "I was born and raised here," he says. "Testing started in 1949 when I was five years old."

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Kapiza Mukanova, who is in her 80s, sits in her home in the village of Saryzhal in eastern Kazakhstan. Kapiza has lost three of her children which she attributes to effects of the Polygon nuclear testing.

“[During the 50s] one guy was packed up with his tent and told to live out in the hills for five days with his flock. He was effectively used as a test subject to see what happened,” says Moore. “They were never told what was going on, certainly not the dangers that they may be in.”

Though human stories were central, Moore also documented the scientific test labs that are still uncovering the damage. The juxtaposition of these labs alongside portraits of people disfigured by radiation makes for uncomfortable viewing. But this proximity is deliberate.

“There was a history of humans being used as live subjects,” says Moore. “I wanted to marry these ideas together; the way people were used by researchers at the time and how that trickles down into every day life - what that looks like, what that means.”

Birds fly over the cemetery on the outskirts of Semey during a winter storm.

While some of Moore’s subjects are severely deformed, many suffer from less visible health issues like cancer, blood diseases or PTSD. And the hidden, insidious nature of the thing is what is perhaps most troubling. “For a long time there hadn’t been much nuclear development but it is a very real issue right now,” says Moore. “But we don’t talk about what it takes to renew these weapons. These people are legacy and testament to what was done to meet those ends.”

Journey Inside Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone

See more of Phil Hatcher-Moore's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.  

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