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.

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.

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. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE

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. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE

(See historic pictures of the aftermath of the bombings Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

“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.

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." - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE

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. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE

“[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 everyday life - what that looks like, what that means.”

Birds fly over the cemetery on the outskirts of Semey during a winter storm. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL HATCHER-MOORE

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.”

Related Articles

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit