The spot where the Soviet Union blew up its first atomic bomb is an expansive, gently rolling part of the steppe in northeastern Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear tests, over 100 of which were atmospheric, meaning the device was detonated on the ground or in the air.
When I visited in August with a group of journalists, I was struck by the beauty of the place, as a patch of purple flowers caught the late afternoon light. The site is accessed by a rough and isolated dirt road, and filled with windblown grasses and scrubby, sage-like bushes. It is called the “experimental field,” and, not surprisingly, parts are still radioactive. At the most radioactive spot we visited, we wore thin blue plastic booties to keep the radioactive dust out of the treads of our shoes and light masks to keep any dust particles out of our mouths and noses.
To visit this breathtakingly beautiful part of Central Asia is to be reminded of a very different era: It was 13 years after that first test that the Cold War had its most dangerous moment: the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the United States marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it’s an apt time to look at one of his administration’s biggest foreign policy accomplishments: the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (and Great Britain) agreed to stop conducting nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in space.
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