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13 July 2022

Brighter than a Million Suns: Contemporary Health Consequences of Atomic Testing in the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon

Authors: Charles Becker, Jeffrey Hill, Sultan Muratov

Abstract: Between 1949 and 1962 there were over 450 surface, air, and underground nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk nuclear polygon in north-eastern Kazakhstan, with underground testing continuing through 1989. As the region was heavily populated, there were major health consequences for the “treated” population, and this has been studied extensively. However, the full, long-run scope of the effects remains unexplored and this paper addresses the gap. Using a remarkable population health database from the Kazakhstan Ministry of Health from 2000 onward, and matching treated regions with similar but untreated areas, we find exceptionally large consequences for a wide range of health conditions many decades after the explosions ceased. Our propensity matching technique links demographic and economic conditions at the district – raion – level between treated and untreated areas, using a carefully constructed series of satellite night-light data from 1992 onward to measure economic characteristics.

About the authors: Professor Charles M. Becker joined the Duke faculty in 2003, where he directed the American Economic Association’s Summer Program and Minority Scholarship Program (2003-2007). He previously directed this program at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he taught from 19992003. Becker earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Princeton University (1981) and was an undergraduate at Grinnell College (BA, Economics and Russian language, 1976). He previously taught at Vanderbilt University and at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he directed the Economics Institute from 1990-96. In 1998-99, Becker served as Team Leader for the Asian Development Bank’s pension reform project in Kyrgyzstan; from 1999-2006 he served as an advisor to the Kazakhstan government on its pension reform program. International Academic Council of the Kyiv School of Economics from 2012 to 2015. (member from 2005 to 2017).

Jeffrey Hill is currently obtaining his Ph.D. in Economics from UCLA. His interests include the economics of education, networks, and existential risk. He earned his Masters in Economics at Duke University and was an undergraduate at Wheaton College (BA, Economics and Chemistry).

Sultan Muratov is now working as an Associate in Research at Duke University. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics with minor in Economics from Nazarbayev University and obtained Master of Arts in Economics degree from Duke.
His research interests lie in the fields of health, environmental, urban, and development economics.

Keywords: Kazakhstan, health, nuclear polygon
JEL classification: I10, P3.