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November 9, 2009

Kazakhstan's radioactive legacy

Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapon, nicknamed "First Lightning", at a test facility on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan (formerly the Kazakh SSR). The test site, named the Semipalatinsk Polygon, would go on to host 456 atomic explosions over its 40-year existence. Residents in the surrounding area became unwitting guinea pigs, exposed to the aftereffects of the bombs both intentionally and unintentionally. The radiation has silently devastated three generations of people in Kazakhstan - the total number affected is thought to be more than one million - creating health problems ranging from thyroid diseases, cancer, birth defects, deformities, premature aging, and cardiovascular diseases. Life expectancy in the area is seven years less than the national average of Kazakhstan. Photographer Ed Ou has graciously shared with us these photos from the area, with thanks to the excellent Reportage by Getty Images. (25 photos total)

Nurse Larissa Soboleva holds two-year-old Adil Zhilyaev in an orphanage in Semey, Kazakhstan November 24, 2008. Adil was born blind and afflicted with Infantile Cereberal Paralysis (ICP) and hydrocephalia, as a result of his mothers exposure to radiation during years of Soviet weapons testing during the Cold War. He was abandoned by his parents, and is now cared for in an orphanage. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)

The big dipper rises over the Nuclear Polygon with the lights of Kurchatov, Kazakhstan on the horizon on November 22, 2008. The Polygon was the site of almost 500 nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War. Villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers of radiation. The United Nations Development Programme says that over one million people were exposed to nuclear radiation over the forty years of nuclear testing. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Mayra Zhumageldina bathes her daughter, Zhannoor, in Semey, Kazakhstan on March 2, 2009. Zhannoor, 16, was born with microcephalia and sixth-degree scoleosis - a twisted spine because of exposure to high levels of radiation. The defect harmed Zhannoor's brain development as if she were in a permanent vegetative state. She cannot think, speak or perform basic functions. Mayra must bathe her every day because she cannot afford diapers. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Mayra Zhumageldina feeds her daughter, Zhannoor in their home in Semey, November 21, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Mayra Zhumageldina massages her daughter, Zhannoor, before bed in their home in Semey, Kazakhstan on November 23, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Mayra Zhumageldina kisses her 16-year-old daughter, Zhannoor outside their home in Semey, November 21, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Mayra Zhumageldina pushes her daughter, Zhannoor in a wheelchair in Semey, Kazakhstan November 27, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

The sun sets over Semey, Kazakhstan on March 3, 2009. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

A woman at a Russian Orthodox church in Kurchatov, Kazakhstan rings bells for Christmas Eve services January 6, 2009. Kurchatov was was once the epicenter of Soviet nuclear weapons research and development during the cold war, housing scientists and nuclear technicians. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Berik Syzdykov sits in bed in his mother in law's home inside the nuclear polygon in Kazakhstan February 25, 2009. He was born deformed, and blind as a result of radiation exposure in the womb. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Berik Syzdykov (right) reaches out for the hand of his mother-in-law, Bibigul, in her home in Kazakhstan February 25, 2009. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Berik Syzdykov, 29, sings and plays piano in an apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan November 19, 2008. Berik learned to play piano and fell in love with opera when he travelled to Italy for an operation on his face. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Berik Syzdykov is led outside by his mother in Semey, Kazakhstan on Tuesday, November 19, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Berik Syzdykov smokes a cigarette outside a hill overlooking the Kazakh city of Semey on November 24, 2008. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nuclear scientists use geiger counters to test radiation levels at the site of the first surface atomic explosion at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon in Kazakhstan January 6, 2009. Over four hundred nuclear weapons were test detonated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, leaving the area highly radioactive and dangerous to visit. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

A nuclear scientist uses a geiger counter to test radiation levels at the site of the first surface atomic explosion at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon in Kazakhstan January 6, 2009. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Autistic 7-year-old Valeria Zholdina plays with fiber optic lights in a rehabilitation center in Semey, Kazakhstan January 15, 2009. She was born with a developmental problems, and only recently learned to walk. The lights are designed to develop motor control skills. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

13-year-old Zhanbolat Turysbekov watches television as his sister Aida plays in their house in Semey, Kazakhstan November 26, 2008. Both were born with spinal amytrophy, and are unable to walk. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nikita Bochkaryov, 18, is bathed by his father in Semey, Kazakhstan January 12, 2009. Nikita, who has infantile cerebral palsy, cannot control his limbs and requires his parents' constant care. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nikita Bochkaryov is dressed by his father Andrei after being bathed in Semey, Kazakhstan on January 12, 2009. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nikita Bochkaryov uses his nose to tickle his younger brother Daniel in their apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan March. 3, 2009. Nikita can use only his nose when he and Daniel take turns pretending they are dogs wrestling each other. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nikita Bochkaryov types with a stick attached to a helmet during a Russian grammar lesson with a teacher, in his apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan January 14, 2009. His life exists on the Internet, where his mind is liberated from his physical disability, enabling him to write stories, letters and poems, and communicate with his loved ones. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Nikita Bochkaryov shares a tender moment with his mother Sybilla in their apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan on January 12, 2009. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Starlight illuminates the abandoned military town of Chagan, next to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon in Kazakhstan February 27, 2009. The city was once a military airbase during the Cold War, with planes ready to drop nuclear payloads. It was abandoned after nuclear tests ended following the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving a ghost town in the middle of the steppe. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

Sergey Zubritsky exercises in a care facility for the elderly and disabled in Semey, Kazakhstan November 20, 2008. Sergey, whose parents worked in the Nuclear Polygon during the cold war, was born with deformed hands and osteochondrosis. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images) #

 
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