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Atomic Lake at Semipalatinsk Test Site


Integrated Assessment of “Atomic Lake” Condition Influence on Ecosystem of the Region

Tech Area / Field

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

  • National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakstan / Institute of Atomic Energy (2), Kazakstan, Kurchatov


  • Okayama University of Science, Japan, Okayama

Project summary

Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was one of the largest test sites for nuclear weapon tests in the world. More than 40-year activity of Semipalatinsk Test Site is one of the stages in history of nuclear arms race of the former Soviet Union. Nuclear tests took place at STS since 1949 till 1989. It is worth noting that ground and excavation explosions had the major contribution to local contamination of the test site rather than air nuclear ones had. The yield of all excavation explosions with ground discharge was 140 kt, while 99% yield of these explosions was for one “Chagansky” explosion. This explosion was carried out in January 15, 1965 in junction place of Chagan and Ashitsou rivers at 178 meters depth. Explosion yield was 140 kt. As a result of this explosion long-living radionuclides were accumulated as follows: Plutonium-239/240 – 8.5 Ci; Cesium-137 – 800 Ci; Cobalt-60 – 80 Ci; Europium-152 – 120 Ci; Strontium-90 – 400 Ci; Tritium– 4*105 Ci. 30-40% of accumulated radionuclides fell out in the place of bulk ground.

As a result of ground discharge during the explosion, a crater with 430 meters in diameter was generated; height of bulk ground was 20-35 meters; width of bulk ground was 400 m. Volume of visible crater: taking into account bulk ground was 10,300 thousand m3; taking into account initial surface – 6400 thousand m3. After spring flood waters filled the crater, two large basins were generated: internal basin in crater with 7 million m3 volume and area of water surface 0.5 km2 and external during rivers filling the basin with 10 million m3 volume and area of water surface 3.5 km2 (further in the text the system of internal and external basins is referred as “Atomic Lake”). Total head line of water basin is determined by experimental earth-and-rock-fill dam, rock-fill dam with bottom outlet and surface flood spillway. Bulk was considered as experimental earth-and-rock-fill dam, which was concentrically around the crater. This bulk covered main river-bed up to 315-335 m (320m in average). In the south part of the bulk, a canal was surveyed, which connects crater (internal basin) to main (external) basin. The generated water basin was the first hydro-system of such kind and was considered as experimental hydro-technical test site. Data that were obtained in the process of the basin operation and natural surveys had to serve as the base for further explosion method application for dam and large canals erection.

As a result of long deficiency of hydro-system operation and unauthorized human activity on metal picking at STS territory in 1994, water leakage out of experimental basin occurred due to dam washout and bottom outlet failure. Due to water lack in external basin, lack of flood waters and low-snow winters for the past years, the level of water in internal basin (crater) reduced to 8-10 meters out of initial one, having increased open surface of bulk for 12-15 thousand m2. Rainwater and melt water collection from the territory of underground nuclear explosions into internal basin (with area of 3.5km2) was carried out for 30 years. So, cesium content in bottom sediments of external basin was at level of 1000 Bq/kg in 2003. Today domestic cattle pastures, some specimen of local fauna inhabit former bottom surface. As a result of wind erosion of the dry soil, increase of radiation doses for human living in area of “Atomic Lake” is possible due to internal radionuclide penetration. Radiation impact on domestic and wild animals pasturing in this area and also on waterfowls (geese, ducks etc.) is possible due to radionuclide content increase in water, vegetation (on vegetation) and bottom sediments.

The goalsof this Project are as follows:

  • assessment of “Atomic Lake” and artificial basin conditions influence on ecosystem of the area;
  • proposals development on hydro-technical facilities reconstruction;
  • development of long-term program of “Atomic Lake” application in scientific and economical purposes.

Taking in account “Atomic Lake” hydro-technical object that was generated in 1965 and subsisted for almost 40 years with two artificial basins, it might be stated as follows:
  1. This ecosystem is of interest in scientific sphere and requires assessment of its environmental influence due to changes occurred after 1994.
  2. Taking into account 10-year period of basin water filling deficiency, hydrological survey deficiency on rivers water content, it is necessary to carry out survey of dam and to determine annual waterway to know the possibility for basin reconstruction.
  3. In order to evaluate the possibility to use basin for radioecology monitoring of the area and in order to evaluate the object radiation influence, it is necessary to carry out radioecology survey of this territory and to study bottom sediments both in internal and external basins.

In order to achieve these goals, the following tasks are supposed to be carried out:
  1. To generalize and process available archive data.
  2. Integrated assessment of “Atomic Lake” main negative features that influence on environmental condition and radioecology situation of adjoining territory.
  3. To determine possibility of hydro-technical facilities reconstruction for artificial basins water fillup.
  4. To analyze obtained data in order to develop proposals on “Atomic Lake” further application in scientific and economic purposes.

The following results will be obtained while the project completion:
  1. As a result of analysis and generalization of archive data on “Atomic Lake”, available radioecology data, materials on hydro-technical provisions of “Atomic Lake”, data on its economic use will be gathered and systematized.
  2. The following results will be obtained as a result of research on evaluation of main negative features of “Atomic Lake” that have influence on radioecology environmental situation of adjoining territory:
    • Data on radioecology contamination of lakesides and adjoining territory, distribution features and biological availability of man-caused radionuclides and heavy metals will be obtained; organic and biotic parts of bottom sediments have been studied;
    • Quantitative data of environmental objects EPR-dosimetry will be obtained; concentration of radiation-induced paramagnetic centers as free radicals in environmental objects was determined, possible degree and mechanisms of their impact on living organisms was also defined.
    • Radioactive environmental contamination, generated as a result of water leakage from artificial basin, will be evaluated according to survey data of Chagan river banks and beds at its output from “AL” till it falls into Irtysh river;
    • As a result of activities on radionuclides secondary transfer by air, process of wind erosion of “AL” bulk ground will be studied; quantitative data on radionuclides entry to atmosphere at various weather conditions to be obtained;
    • According to laboratory data of underground samples, selected at the closest hydrological and observatory boreholes, radionuclides migration features out of “AL” together with underground waters will be studied.
Based on the obtained data, distribution pollutants maps and forecasting maps of radioecology situation development will be compiled, which will serve as basis for assessment of spatial-temporal change of radioecology situation parameters in the area of “Atomic Lake”.

3. In the process of activities on possible artificial basin water fillup, the following data will be achieved:

  • Hydro-technical facilities and monitoring system over the dam condition survey (also in flood period) will be carried out to define integrity and water leakage places.
  • Quantitative data of possible incoming water balance in flood period will be obtained according to the results of snow-measuring survey and annual rivers (Ashitsou and Chagan) waterway monitoring.

Obtained data will serve as basis for proposals elaboration on hydro facilities reconstruction and rock-fill dam enhancement with bottom outlet for artificial basin water fillup.

4. Computer base of radioecology data will be created as a result of the obtained data processing and analysis, long-term monitoring system with selection and justification of reference points for field measurement activities and environmental samples will be developed, proposals for “Atomic Lake” further application in scientific and economic purposes will be developed.

The availability of highly qualified and skilled personnel in Institute of Nuclear Physics and Institute of Atomic Energy NNC RK will allow solving above mentioned problems. Modern equipment-and-methodic base for radionuclide and element contents determination was created in INP NNC RK together with International Organizations (IAEA, ISTC etc.). Instrumental and radiochemical methods were developed (certified by State Standard Agency of RK) and successively applied for radioecology situation study. EPR-dosimetry system is developed, which allow reconstructing radiation exposure for population and different areas. The institute obtained State License GLA 0000017 dated January 11, 1999 for radioecology survey and radiation situation monitoring at the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Institute of Nuclear Physics NNC RK implemented in 2003 management of quality corresponding to International Organization for Standardization ISO 9001:2000.

Institute of Atomic Energy obtained State License GLA 0000416 dated July 19, 2002 for activities and services execution related to atomic energy use. Applying this license the Institute of Atomic Energy may provide services for radiation survey and radiation situation monitoring at the objects of RSE “NNC RK”, at nuclear explosion sites and at the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Radiation research and fission products migration Laboratory of IAE NNC RK obtained Certificate #11-01 with a right to carry out activities on content measurement of gamma-ionizing and alpha-ionizing radionuclides and strontium-90 in air, water and ground and also to carry out field dosimetry activities. Specialists from IAE NNC RK had training on gamma-spectrometry equipment operation of “Canberra Industries, Inc.” production and have corresponding certificates.


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