Fifty-seven years ago today, on September 29, 1957, something happened in the former Soviet Union that is so frightening, shocking and horrifying that it’s almost beyond belief–but it really did happen. Many people have heard of the great nuclear disasters like Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but the words “Kyshtym Disaster” are virtually unknown, even in Russia. Yet it was the worst nuclear accident ever at that time, possibly causing directly and indirectly as many as 8,000 deaths, though it’s impossible to tell for sure.
The history of Kyshtym is closely linked to the Cold War. In the late 1940s, Stalin was eager to catch up to the United States in the number of nuclear weapons the USSR possessed. A nuclear bomb plant called Mayak was built not far from the town called Kyshtym, and a closed village, named Ozyorsk, was constructed around it to house the workers and facilities. Stalin’s Soviet system didn’t care much for environmental concerns, and from the day it opened in 1948 Mayak was an environmental catastrophe. The nuclear reactors that produced plutonium for Stalin’s weapons discharged radioactive wastewater directly into local rivers. In 1953, after Stalin died, the plant was changed to include several holding tanks for liquid nuke waste. The radioactive sludge was hot–literally. Atomic decay made the water heat up. This was supposedly ameliorated with cooling tanks surrounding the main waste tanks, but they didn’t work very well.
In September 1957, one of these shoddy cooling systems failed. The waste tank heated up and water evaporated, leaving behind radioactive chemical dust. The exact compounds formed happened to include a lot of ammonium nitrate–exactly the same stuff that terrorists used at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City in 1995. But in this case they were radioactive. When the waste tank exploded, it sent a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. This is, incidentally, exactly how a “dirty bomb,” a radiological explosive weapon, is supposed to work.
The Mayak nuclear facility, kept very secret by the Soviets, is now freely discoverable via satellite imaging. Here’s a rather ominous map of the area.
When the cloud from Mayak began drifting over Russia, the human-scale catastrophe began on the ground. Fallout from the toxic cloud ultimately affected an area inhabited by 270,000 people. Soviet authorities evacuated a few nearby towns within the following week, but they chose to ignore smaller populated places with less than 1000 inhabitants, and they did not evacuate some surrounding areas for two years. Residents who were evacuated weren’t told what had happened, so naturally those left behind were never warned. Mayak was a top-secret secure facility, and in the hostile climate of Cold War fear the Soviets were not about to disclose what had happened.
As radiation sickness spread throughout the affected area, in the absence of official warnings, people began to panic over this seemingly mysterious disease that caused people’s skin to fall off and sores to appear on their skins. After the fallout mostly settled, the worst was not yet over for the people living in the Kyshtym area. Over the next years and decades many were stricken with cancer; one source records 8,000 victims but we can never know for sure. As with any nuclear event, whether intended (Hiroshima) or not (Chernobyl), the killing power of the disaster can last far into the lifetimes of those affected. The numbers of those contaminated or the magnitude of the disaster was unmatched until the Chernobyl catastrophe 29 years later.
Incredibly, the Soviet government decided that they would simply cover up the Kyshtym disaster. Although some press reports leaked to the West in the spring of 1958, the Soviets never admitted that anything happened there. In the late 1960s they designated part of the contaminated area a “nature preserve,” thus giving a reason to move out its human occupants, but this was a sham. The whole thing was designed to keep people from noticing the cancers and environmental effects still lingering from the bomb site.
This is what the Mayak facility looks like today. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to work here.
Then, in 1976, a Soviet biologist, Zhores Medvedev, blew the lid off the story. A leading light in Soviet research in the 1960s, Medvedev was stranded–happily–in London when the USSR stripped him of his Soviet citizenship in 1972 while he was a visiting research fellow in the UK. He remained there and eventually published a book telling what he knew about Kyshtym. In 1989 the dying government of the USSR began declassifying documents related to the disaster, and after Communism fell two years later the information locked in Soviet archives became known. Only then was the true scale of what had happened near Kyshtym evident.
As it turned out, the American CIA knew all about the disaster at Mayak shortly after it happened. Why didn’t the U.S. government say something? In the 1950s and 60s, it was afraid that disclosure of the disaster would hurt public enthusiasm for building nuclear power plants in America. In other words, they squelched the story to avoid potential harm to the U.S. nuclear industry. This, in the hottest period of the Cold War.
Astonishingly, the Mayak plant was not completely destroyed by the explosion. In fact, it’s still in business, though not in building nuclear weapons; it now specializes in processing spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants. Its safety record has not improved. Dozens of incidents and accidents have occurred over the years, the most serious (besides Kyshtym) in December 1968. The sad history of what happened here in 1957 and in the decades since underscores the very serious problems with nuclear facilities, whether designed for war or peace, and the difficulty in preventing them from becoming, as Mayak did, an environmental and human tragedy.