SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakhstan — By most accounts, the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk is unfit for life. Across roughly 7,000 square miles of barren Kazakhstan steppe, there are hardly any people. Even animals and birds, it seems, intuitively know they should stay away. Decades-old craters pockmark the earth, remnants of the more than 450 nuclear explosions that took place here between 1949 and 1989. Broken vodka bottles scattered in the grass near "Ground Zero," the site of the area's first nuclear test, hint at the dread associated with Semipalatinsk: Vodka, some nearby residents believe, can guard against the effects of radiation exposure. Visitors are warned to cover their shoes with protective plastic before stepping onto the soil, and to shield their faces with masks.
But in this poisoned place, on a small patch of land near a few downtrodden trailers, there's an unexpected hint of vitality: bright yellow sunflowers, clustered together near rows of corn, and a barn full of plump sheep. Here, scientists from Kazakhstan's Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a governmental organization that studies the medical and biological interaction between radioactivity and the environment, have developed an experimental farm. Their goal is to measure the transference of radioactivity from contaminated soil into edible crops, and from those crops into the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat them.
The farm is an attempt to answer a question with far-reaching implications: Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the question provokes both scientific interest and deep public anxiety. The researchers at Semipalatinsk, which is only slightly smaller than the state of Israel and has some of the world's worst nuclear contamination, want to quiet fears with data and inspire new agriculture, while also providing evidence that could jumpstart farming in other places exposed to radiation. "This territory is very huge, and we think most of it is clean," said Zhanat Baigazinov, the head of the project's Farm Animal Radioecology Group. "But before we give it to farmers, we have to prove that it is safe."
Seminpalatinsk's nuclear legacy began in 1947, when Lavrenti Beria, the political director of the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project, chose it as a site to experiment with nuclear weapons. Beria claimed the region was "uninhabited," but he was wrong: Roughly 700,000 people lived in nearby villages, cities, and nomadic communities. Over the next four decades, hundreds of above- and below-ground nuclear tests contaminated the soil and poisoned residents, causing birth defects and increased rates of cancer that plague the area to this day. (Precise statistics about population change in Semipalatinsk during the nuclear-testing period are impossible to determine, in no small part because the test site officially did not exist. But it's safe to assume that most residents of nearby villages did not have the option to move far away.) After President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's post-Soviet leader, closed Semipalatinsk in 1991, the government outlawed farming in the area.
But scientists at the experimental farm find the prohibition excessive and based on assumption rather than fact. The farm launched four years ago, after several local residents petitioned authorities to investigate the safety of the area. Ten people now live semi-permanently on the site, gathering data about the radioactive qualities of crops they grow and animals they raise at a cost of about $500,000 per year. Experiments have been conducted both at the farm and in different areas of the former test site under a wide variety of circumstances. According to Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, preliminary research results indicate that at least 80 percent of the land (roughly 5,800 square miles) at Semipalatinsk could be used to grow food for human consumption. They anticipate that, within the next few years, they will have collected enough data to try and persuade the government to end the ban on agriculture. The scientists are so confident in their findings thus far that they have eaten vegetables and meat from the farm.