MOSCOW -- Angered by the reported leakage of radioactive gases after the Soviet Union's two most recent underground nuclear tests, a new movement led by writers, artists, physicians and scientists in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan is seeking an immediate halt to all nuclear testing there.
"No considerations of defense can justify any longer the silent atomic war the state has waged against its own people," four leading Kazakhstan writers declared in an open letter demanding the closure of the Soviet Union's main nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, in Central Asia.
Olzhas Suleimenov, head of the Kazakhstan Writers' Union and one of the country's most prominent poets, is leading the campaign against continued testing. He said in a telephone interview from Alma Ata, the republic's capital, that radioactive gas had escaped after underground tests on Feb. 12 and 17 and hovered for a time over the town of Chagan, about 45 miles from Semipalatinsk.
"The situation was very serious, very dangerous following those tests," he said. "We now consider it a most urgent matter to end all nuclear testing."
There was no immediate comment from Soviet authorities in Moscow. Suleimenov said he received the information on the leakage from "very reliable sources" last month, had spoken about it on television and then confirmed it on a visit this week to Semipalatinsk.
'Hundreds of Thousands' Join
The group in Kazakhstan is not the first unofficial anti-nuclear or peace group in the Soviet Union, but it could quickly become the largest. Suleimenov, 52, said that since the group was organized in Alma Ata on Feb. 28, "hundreds of thousands" of residents of Kazakhstan have signed up as members, paying a small membership fee (the equivalent of $1.60) and endorsing its basic program.
"The Soviet leadership must realize how vital this matter is to the people, particularly those in Kazakhstan," Suleimenov said. "We hope they are finally taking public opinion into consideration."
Suleimenov, a member of the Supreme Soviet, the national parliament, said he understands that the Communist Party's ruling Politburo will discuss the issue of nuclear testing, including demands for the closure of Semipalatinsk and another test site on the island of Novaya Zemlya, in the far north.
Another major initiative on international arms control is believed to be under consideration here, according to informed Soviet sources, and one thrust could be a renewed effort to secure a multilateral agreement further restricting or eliminating underground nuclear tests, perhaps linked to progress on cutting strategic arms.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev suspended Soviet nuclear tests for 18 months in an effort to secure such a multilateral ban to complement the 26-year-old treaty banning all above-ground tests. But in February, 1987, he ordered a resumption of testing after the United States, Britain, France and China continued their tests.
Peace Group's Goals
Suleimenov's group is seeking an end to all nuclear testing, the closure of nuclear test sites, the phasing out of plants that produce nuclear materials for military purposes, and independent, public inspection of facilities for storing radioactive wastes and publication of a map identifying contaminated land in Kazakhstan.
"The tests are the last link in the development chain for nuclear armaments, and thus a good place to start in eliminating these weapons," Suleimenov said.
"But we think nuclear technology as a whole has got out of control. We have tons and tons of radioactive wastes that we cannot dispose of from the nuclear power industry alone. What are we doing to our country, what are we doing to our planet? Nuclear waste is becoming a major danger for all mankind."
Calling itself the Nevada Movement, after the American state where U.S. nuclear tests are carried out, the group wants to cooperate with other anti-nuclear organizations around the world, particularly those in the United States.
"We think that to obtain our goals we will have to work with peace forces in the United States and that our efforts will reinforce theirs," Suleimenov said. "Clearly, it will be easier to halt nuclear testing if both the Soviet Union and the United States reach agreement on this question."
But the Nevada Movement also wants a unilateral Soviet decision to halt nuclear testing if a multilateral agreement cannot be reached with the other nuclear powers.
Soviets Reduce Tests
Suleimenov said that as a result of the release of radioactive gas in February, planned tests for March and April have been canceled and that Soviet authorities intended to reduce the size and frequency of future tests.
Two Soviet-American treaties, one restricting underground nuclear tests and the other limiting the use of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes, have remained unratified for more than a decade because of the U.S. desire to reach agreement on methods of verifying compliance. Agreement has been reached on such a verification protocol for peaceful nuclear explosions but not yet for the treaty that sets a 150-kiloton limit on nuclear weapons tests.
Although the United States has frequently accused the Soviet Union of discharging radioactive matter into the atmosphere as a result of underground tests, Suleimenov's was the first such public allegation made within the country.
In their open letter to the Supreme Soviet, the writers said that radiation-related illnesses have been on the rise for many years in Kazakhstan, that life expectancy has declined by four years and that measurable radiation has increased in Kazakhstan's soil and water and recently in its food products.
Strong anti-nuclear movements have developed in many European areas of the Soviet Union since the explosion and fire three years ago at the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station in the Ukraine, and the country's whole nuclear power program is being reviewed.