Katie Purvis-Roberts

Nuclear Testing Research in Kazakhstan

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The Soviet Union used 19,000 km2 of land on the Kazakh steppe for its main nuclear testing center, the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS), and between 1949 and 1989 conducted 30 surface, 86 atmospheric, and 340 underground nuclear tests. Many people live in small villages directly surrounding the SNTS, and have suffered severe health impacts due to the testing. The site and its surrounding environs will continue to be contaminated with radioactive material including plutonium, strontium, and cesium for thousands of years to come, and yet people use the land of the SNTS to graze their animals, collect contaminated scrap metal, etc.

I developed a federal (NSF, Department of Commerce) and foundation (AAAS, NCEEER) funded research program studying the environmental and health impacts of nuclear testing at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. This program consists of a more interdisciplinary approach combining science, particulate chemistry, risk perception, anthropology, and medicine to understand how nuclear testing affected local populations living next to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.

During the summers of 2003-2005 I worked with Professor Cynthia Werner, from Texas A&M University, and Dr. Nurlan Ibraev, from the Densaulyq Agency in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan to collect historical environmental data and administer a risk perception survey to villagers, physicians, and scientists. The main goal of our project is to use environmental and health data to assess in more depth the perceptions of risk due to nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk. During preliminary interviews with villagers, physicians, and scientists who work on the test site, we discovered that each group has their own thoughts on risks due to radiation. These ideas range from the villagers, who are afraid to drink their well water and eat vegetables grown in their backyard due to potential radionuclide contamination, to some scientists, who think that radiation is actually good for you. Much of the fears of villagers are due to miscommunication, or lack of communication, as during the Soviet times. A peer-reviewed book chapter will be published this year.

Peer-Reviewed Publications

Half Lives and Half Truths Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia


Katie Purvis-Roberts
Associate Dean of Faculty at Pitzer College
Associate Professor of Chemistry & Environmental Science
W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges
925 N. Mills Ave.
Claremont, CA 91711
Phone: (909)607-9782
Fax: (909)621-8588