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Temperature Anomalies at the Former Semipalatinsk Test Site


A Comprehensive Study of Temperature Anomalies at the Former Semipalatinsk Test Site

Tech Area / Field

  • ENV-WPC/Water Pollution and Control/Environment
  • ENV-EHS/Environmental Health and Safety/Environment

3 Approved without Funding

Registration date

Leading Institute
National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakstan / Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kazakstan, Almaty

Supporting institutes

  • Kazakh National University / Combustion Problems Institute, Kazakstan, Almaty\nInstitute of Space Research, Kazakstan, Almaty\nNational Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakstan / Institute of Geophysical Researches, Kazakstan, Kurchatov


  • Mouchel Parkman Services Ltd., UK, West Byfleet\nInternational Bureau for Environmental Studies, Belgium, Brussels\nUniversity of Nebraska / Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies, USA, NE, Lincoln

Project summary

Nuclear weapons tests conducted above/underground at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) in 1949-1989 caused a complicated radiation situation evolving with time. They generated not only a radiation exposure hazard but also a number of other hazards related, for example, to residual effects of the long-term geothermal activity in ground zeros of underground nuclear explosions (UNE). UNE post-explosion cavities existing at the Balapan site pose a real risk of spontaneous collapse. Signs of underground combustion imply a risk of sudden gas outburst complicated by inflammation.

The most disastrous demonstration of the gas presence beneath the Balapan site took place in the Glubokaya Borehole near-mouth area in April 1992 (UNE was conducted in 1977). Suddenly, the ground surface around the borehole mouth subsided (caved in) and a crater formed. A noise audible 5-7 km away and a fire visible for the same distance for two days accompanied the soil subsidence. A crater produced is now over 50 m in diameter (along the rim) and 18 m deep.

According to published data, there were totally 12 boreholes at the Balapan field that manifested spontaneous inflammation and continuous gas burning.

It should be stressed that such collapse can happen anytime and be followed by:

  • land surface subsidence;
  • gas outburst, explosion and burning; and
  • carryover of highly radioactive UNE products out of the post-explosion cavities.

The collapse can be provoked by seismic vibrations generated by mining equipment, blasting operations, etc. Any gas outburst can be followed by the carryover of highly radioactive UNE products to the day surface and, under unfavorable weather conditions, cause contamination of the areas adjacent and, subsequently, lead to accidental exposure of the population.

Currently NOAA satellites record a regional regularly occurring temperature anomaly over 20,000 square kilometers in area. Analysis of the Ch 4-identified thermal field structure showed clearly expressed spots where temperature is 10C higher than the background temperature of the snow cover around. According to some scientists, there are certain signs that allow them to directly link higher temperature zones to nuclear tests conducted here in the past.

Temperature (thermal) anomalies observed at the STS can be pided into regional and local ones. It is already known that local temperature anomalies correspond to underground test locations and are spatially bound by post-explosion cavities. The regional thermal anomaly, changes in its boundaries, and its reduction down to visible disappearance give rise to a number of questions which only thorough detail studies of the region using ground-based observations can answer.

Project Objectives:

  • identify and outline temperature anomalies within the STS using analysis of satellite data and ground-based measurements;
  • construct theoretical models of processes involved in formation and development of long-term thermal anomalies; and
  • develop flame-eliminating injection compounds.

To achieve the above objectives, the following tasks will be fulfilled:
1. Generalize and analyze archival information and specialized publications.
2. Identify and delineate regional thermal anomalies within the former STS.
3. Using field and laboratory works, identify and study local thermal anomalies confined within post-UNE cavities at the Balapan site of the former STS.
4. Perform basic and applied research into underground processes involved in burning of coal and rocks containing inflammable matter.
5. Analyze the information produced by the Project and predict possible effects of thermal anomalies at the STS.

The technical approach to identification and study of temperature fields at and around the STS consists of combination of various investigation methods – from remote satellite sensing through laboratory studies to ground-based measurements.

The Project is expected to produce the following results:

1. Archival information will be analyzed and areas that mostly fit for study of thermal anomalies at and around the former STS will be selected.
2. Methods for field and laboratory studies will be developed and used to elaborate recommendations on the content, scope and types of investigations to assess possible residual effects of the long-term geothermal activity in UNE ground zeros.
3. A database for analysis of the regional temperature conditions will be developed and incorporated into the GIS STS.
4. Maps and diagrams showing spatial and temporal variations of temperature fields at and around the former STS will be plotted.
5. Results of satellite observations and ground-based measurements will be used to map temperature fields of the former STS and areas adjacent. These maps will be used to analyze spatial features of the STS thermal conditions and identify presence (or absence) of correlation between underground nuclear test locations and temperature anomalies.
6. The ground-based survey of near-mouth areas of boreholes where spontaneous inflammation and continuous gas burning took place will be used to map temperature fields, mercury anomalies, soil air (combustion products), and radon emanation from the ground surface.
7. Data of geophysical investigations will be used to make a structural and tectonic basis for modeling the processes involved in development of thermal anomalies caused by UNEs and to provide reliable information on presence and dynamics of post-explosion geological environment, which is necessary to predict possibility and scenarios of the geological environment destruction process.
8. Project results will be used to elaborate recommendations on localization of burning and use of underground coal gas for industrial purposes.
9. A mathematical model of the long-term thermal anomalies will allow identifying their spatial-time nature depending upon the peculiarities of the tectonic structure of the rock mass and other factors.
10. Analysis of the information obtained to predict possible effects of the long-term geothermal activity in UNE ground zeros will result in recommendations on land use near UNE post-explosion cavities.

Results produced by the Project proposed will contribute to existing approaches to assessment of the radioecological situation and environmental impact in areas of nuclear testing.

Many IGR staff members directly participated in field and test operations at the STS during its operation. High skills of these specialists in the assessment of nuclear test effects will provide for an impartial statement of the problem.

High skilled personnel and high performance equipment available at the INP will ensure solving the problem. Assisted by international institutions (IAEA, ISTC, etc.), INP has established up-to-date equipment and method basis for determination of radionuclide and elemental composition of the environment. It has developed and successfully applies instrumental and radiochemical methods for assessment of the radioecological situation, which have been certified by the RK Gosstandart. An EPR-dosimetry technique has been developed to reconstruct dose burden of the population and various affected areas. INP has a State License GLA 0000017 of January 11, 1999, for radioecological studies and control of the radiation situation within the Republic.