An unlikely tourist trail into the world’s decaying cold war nuclear sites

Our own PD Smith in The Guardian:

Screenhunter_03_aug_17_1400In 2001, a Russian arms-control researcher contacted the energy ministry to arrange a visit to the nuclear weapons design centre at Sarov. Three hours later they phoned back and told him to go to a specific ticket booth at Moscow’s Kazan train station. When he got there, he was handed a ticket for an overnight train to a totally different destination. In the middle of the night, his carriage was decoupled from the train and shunted on to another track. Eventually his train arrived at the main entrance to Sarov, a secret city during the cold war known only by its postcode, Arzamas-16. Uniformed guards entered his compartment and, after searching him and his belongings, they handed him his entry permit.

This story is told by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, a husband-and-wife team of US defence reporters turned nuclear tourists. It could have come from a John le Carré novel, and it serves as a vivid example of the “culture of suspicion” that still dominates Russia’s nuclear establishment. Indeed, by the time Hodge and Weinberger visited in 2006, the level of paranoia had increased and their attempts to gain access to such sites were rejected. They had more luck, however, in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. When it declared independence in 1991, it was the proud owner of the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal: 104 ICBMs and 40 bombers, a grand total of 1,360 warheads. Fortunately it agreed to give them up in 1994 and today, keen to reveal the full extent of its nuclear victimhood, Kazakhstan promotes the Semipalatinsk Test Site as a tourist destination. As Hodge and Weinberger discover, the site is still highly radioactive. Most of the scientists who lived in the nearby secret nuclear city of Kurchatov have now returned to Russia, but some technicians remain. Asked about the measures they took to protect themselves from radioactivity, one replies dryly: “Before every test, we drank grain alcohol.”

More here.