KURCHATOV, Kazakhstan—A few years ago, the nuclear research center here was dying. Its once thriving population of 40,000 was reduced to 5,000 and appeared to be headed to zero. The town of Kurchatov, where much of the Soviet Union's nuclear research was carried out during the Cold War in preparation for more than 400 nuclear test explosions, was returning to its origins as a place of oblivion, just another spot on the desolate steppe where little more than feather grass grows.

Long gone were the town's famous nuclear scientists—Igor Kurchatov, the director of the Soviet nuclear bomb projects and after whom the town is named; Yuli Khariton, father of the Soviet atomic bomb; and Andrei Sakharov, who originated the Soviet H-bomb. Gone, too, was Soviet secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, whose brutally efficient administrative management of the nuclear program delivered the bombs on time.

Today, Kurchatov, in Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk region, is undergoing a remarkable renaissance as old Soviet army barracks are refurbished to house scientists, technicians and businesspeople who will work in the recently launched Park of Nuclear Technology, a sort of Silicon Valley on the steppe. Entrepreneurs are already in residence in a sprawling complex of laboratories and development workshops that was once the site of Soviet atomic weapons programs designed to combat capitalist nations.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his science advisors chose Kurchatov as the site of the country's pioneering high-tech innovation center primarily because of its proximity to the country's scientists at the Kazakhstan National Nuclear Center (NNC), which has also been enjoying a renaissance of sorts in a cluster of new buildings. Whereas the NNC is focused on basic research, nuclear safety and nuclear energy projects, the Park of Nuclear Technology's purpose is to be an incubator of profitable businesses.

"The main facilities and radiation technologies of the Park of Nuclear Technology were designed and developed by scientists of the National Nuclear Center," Erlan G. Batyrbekov, first deputy in Kazakhstan's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and an NNC spokesman, said via e-mail. "Now scientists of the NNC together with the technology park are working in collaboration at two projects: the Radiation Sterilization Center and the NORM (naturally-occurring radioactive materials) Waste Cleaning Facility."

Plans for this business and technology center were promulgated by Nazarbayev in 2003, in an act that was initially viewed as folly but after some recent successes is now considered clairvoyant. Recent funding for joint ventures has come from South Korean, Russian, German and Ukrainian sources. Six companies have been launched and are already producing products. A recent trade show held at the center attracted representatives from 40 global companies.

These six Semipalatinsk start-ups are already well past the liftoff stage. Using industrial electron accelerators, the companies have developed an array of products—many of them irradiated—initially to meet needs in Kazakhstan and its trading zone of neighboring countries. Irradiation can be used to, among other things, kill bacteria or improve the mechanical, thermal and chemical properties of polymer-based products. One company backed by South Korean venture capital is producing polymer roofing and waterproofing materials designed to be tougher than competing products already on global markets. In fact, the harsh steppe climate inspires the development of extra-sturdy products, because they are more in demand there. Some of the companies are using ELV-4 and ILU-10 electron accelerators to develop sterilized medical instruments and supplies as well as to irradiate food and other agricultural products. Another effort seeks to develop nuclear-based pharmaceuticals.

Much of the early progress at the technology park is based on experience acquired by scientists at the NNC, also located in Kurchatov. In a recent presentation in Kurchatov, Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director general of the NNC, noted that Kazakhstani scientists acquired on-the-job nuclear training while they worked to dispose of the country's formerly huge nuclear arsenal, the fourth largest in the world when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War came to a close.

"Kazakhstan has 18 to 20 percent of the world's uranium deposits," according to Kadyrzhanov, who added that the country has put significant effort into developing nuclear safety measures in recent years and is now well positioned to participate in the peaceful development of nuclear energy. Kazakhstan closed its sole nuclear energy facility, near the Caspian Sea, years ago, and its abundance of oil and gas reserves removes any immediate rush to produce a reactor of its own, although Kurchatov scientists have voiced their hopes to build a mini-reactor for nuclear power in the 2015–2018 timeframe.

"Earlier Kazakh scientists have sent most of their know-how to a desk drawer," according to Abzal Kussainov, president of the business center. "Now in the technology park they will be able to test and implement their own discoveries. Our goal is to attract private investment and scientific ideas."

Kussainov envisions the once secret city of Kurchatov becoming an open "scientific center" where investors from many countries can participate in the technology park's start-ups. There are plans to broaden the scale of education and training programs already underway. The renovation of former Red Army barracks, also underway, will initially provide housing for some 1,200 employees, with more expected to come later. The production lines in the park's Innovation Center look like ones that could be operating in California's Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128—except, of course, for the employees' clothing. In winter, they are bundled up with big fur hats to protect against the steppe's regular minus-45-degrees Celsius temperatures. In summer the temperature often rises to 45 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's neighbor to the north, Russia, is also looking into the value of high-tech innovation centers, starting one up on the outskirts of Moscow. Recently, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev toured Silicon Valley for inspiration and partners, enlisting the aid of Google and Intel.

There is an element of the tortoise-and-the-hare race in all this: as Russia now rushes to create its high-tech innovation center, the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan has been plodding toward its own for the past several years. Kazakhstan might beat its former overlord to it.