Exposure to radiation was far greater in Kazakhstan, which had been the major nuclear testing site for the Soviet Union (of which Kazakhstan was part until independence in 1991). More than 450 nuclear tests had been carried out in Semipalatinsk - most of them above ground - by 1985, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a moratorium on testing. A scientific study published in 1992 estimated that 1.6 million people in Semipalatinsk had been affected by the radiation released during the nuclear testing.

Though Semipalatinsk - an area roughly the size of Wales - was the most active nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan, nuclear testing was widely carried out over almost half of present day Kazakh territory.

'Kazakhstan,' said its President Nazarbaev, 'was the only country in the world where an inhumane totalitarian regime carried out experiments without regard for the ecology or the health of the population, even though the problems were known.'

Studies of the region indicate higher rates of cancer and other diseases than in most other parts of the world. Lakes close to where the tests were carried out have an eerie glow. Babies stillborn with only one eye were just one example of how serious the situation had become in Semipalatinsk.

The instruments of nuclear warfare were originally placed in Kazakhstan to 'protect' the Soviet Union from neighbouring China. So, despite the health issues and the damage to the environment, the decision to close the testing sites and give up the nuclear arsenal was not easy to make. Some Muslim nations had been quick to congratulate Kazakhstan on becoming the 'first Islamic nuclear state.'

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