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The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War student movement has a history of spreading its message through bike tours in various regions around the world. This year, as PSR’s student coordinator, I worked with three other students—from Kazakhstan, Estonia, and India—to coordinate an International Peace Bike Tour in Kazakhstan. Eighteen activists from eight countries signed on. After landing in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, we journeyed for 17 hours by train to Semey to launch the tour on August 10.
Semey, better known as Semipalatinsk during the Soviet era, was the site of the first Soviet nuclear explosion in August 29, 1949. Over the next 40 years, some 467 nuclear weapons were tested at Semipalatinsk, 120 atmospheric tests and 347 underground. The United States exploded similar tests, first at the Trinity site in rural New Mexico, and then chiefly at the Nevada Test Site, but also in Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico and the Marshall Islands.
Bike tour participants learned that, just as the United States hid data on the Hiroshima bombing by deeming it classified and subsequently losing of some of it, the Soviets destroyed the scientific records for their nuclear tests just before Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991. It was evident to us all how the lack of information affects research today. At the Kurchatov Museum, Semey Oncology Center, and in presentations at the IPPNW Student Congress and the IPPNW World Congress, sources cited varying numbers of nuclear tests and statistics for the population affected.
After our visit to the Kurchatov Museum, we navigated the bumpy road to the nuclear testing site. Our guide quickly rattled off the history of the site, as we took in a landscape of one destroyed building and scraps of metal scattered across the land. He also showed us a radiation measurement of 7.1 microsieverts per hour where we stood. Afterward, he took the men in our group who were wearing closed-toe shoes to the epicenter of the site, where they took a reading of 16.0 microsieverts per hour. (One chest X-ray is approximately 100 microsieverts.) To avoid excess exposure they were required to wear masks over their noses and mouths and were limited to 5-8 minutes outside the vehicle. Most of the women decided to stay behind because of the vulnerability of female reproductive organs to damage from excess radiation. After our visit, we washed all our clothes, and the men showered immediately to remove loose uranium particles.
In Semey, we held a press conference that was picked up by national and local television, newspapers, magazines, and digital news sources. Our delegation and the deputy mayor of Semey spoke about the necessity for global nuclear weapons abolition and called on education administrators across the country to support their medical and allied health students in the formation of an IPPNW student chapter in Kazakhstan.
Finally, on August 14, it was time depart Semey on our 800 km (nearly 500 mile) journey back to Astana to participate in the 21st IPPNW World and Student Congress. Along the way, we experienced the usual flat tires and dusty roads, but also surprises such as elderly women in traditional clothing who sang while throwing candy at us, and also plenty of delicious food—heavy in horse meat. Along the way, we held more press conferences and meetings with local mayors to call for nuclear abolition. And we were refreshed by a visit the Bayanoul National Park, with its small mountains, trees, and a lovely lake where we could swim, a break from the typical tundra-like Kazakh steppe.
One of the most memorable moments was in a small village, Kanonerka, where we stopped for lunch. After a homemade meal of garlic-filled vegetables, bread, soup, and chicken, we gathered with eight local citizens, who shared personal stories with us as we sat outside under the shade of a few trees. One of the most striking things we heard was that the mushroom clouds from the nuclear weapons test explosions had been plainly visible. The local people had not known whether they were under attack or what was happening. The Soviets later told them that all the explosions were earthquakes.
Our bike tour came to a close on August 24, when we cycled into Astana to be greeted by local medical professionals and IPPNW members. As I looked around at our group, it was clear that new friendships had formed that would span the globe, and that the energy we need to advocate for a nuclear-free world was ignited for some and reignited for others. We had accomplished our goals, and we look forward to sharing what we’ve learned with our fellow Student PSR members.
Student Physicians for Social Responsibility (sPSR) members Michelle Gin and Kami Veltri attended the 21st International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) World Congress in Kazakhstan. The IPPNW Congress was preceded by the IPPNW World Student Congress where, Gin hosted a successful training workshop on Maternal and Child Health Outcomes from Nuclear Radiation that will be used by IPPNW throughout the world.