The Mayak nuclear plant is still one of the dark secrets of the cold war. On September 29, 1957 not far from the town called Chelyabinsk-65, the third biggest nuclear disaster happened — known as the “Kyshtym Disaster.” When we think of nuclear disasters, we think of Chernobyl and Fukushima, maybe even Three Mile Island. However, at the height of the Cold War, deep in the eastern Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union, a disaster occurred that is so frightening and horrifying that it’s almost beyond belief.
Yet even though it was the worst nuclear accident at the time, the Soviets disclosed details to no-one, not even the people who it affected. Even the name “Kyshtym Disaster” is a misdirection, as it happened in the town of Chelyabinsk-65 (renamed Ozyorsk in the early 1990s). This town, however, according to the Soviets, never existed.
The Mayak nuclear plant was the Soviet Union’s key nuclear complex, with a massive set of plutonium production reactors (for nuclear weapons), fuel production facilities, and reprocessing and waste storage buildings. It was regarded as Russia’s most important nuclear weapons factory.
Before the event
In their long decades of anonymity, the engineers at the site spent most of their time having nuclear meltdowns and dumping radioactive waste into the river. Between 1948 and 1956 radioactive waste was poured straight into the Techa River ultimately flowing into the Ob River, which was the main source of drinking water for many villages.
The diluted waste was a cocktail of radioactive elements, that included long-lived fission products like Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 — each with a half-life of around thirty years. The actions exposed 124,000 people to medium and high levels of radiation. The waste was also dumped into the lakes of West Siberia, where storms had blown nuclear dust across a massive area around the lake.
The cooling system in one of the tanks that contained around 70–80 tons of liquid radioactive waste had failed, and was never repaired. The temperature inside the tank started to rise, resulting in the liquid evaporating. What was left was dried waste, consisting mainly of ammonium nitrate and acetates. The result was a chemical explosion (non-nuclear) which had the estimated energy of around 75 to 100 tons of TNT.
Although there were no immediate casualties as a result of the explosion, it had released 740 PBq (20 MCi) of fission products that drifted off the site, creating a plume that measured 31 miles (50 km) wide and 621 miles (1,000 km) long, measuring as a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
A few of the villagers were evacuated, however, most were not. There were at least 270,000 people that were exposed to chronic levels of radiation. Soviet authorities did evacuate a few towns within a week, although for most of the other towns it took over two years. The authorities had also chosen to disregard the smaller populated places that had less than 1,000 inhabitants. Because Mayak was a top-secret secure facility no-one was told what had happen.
As radiation sickness spread throughout the population of the affected area, panic began to settle in. People became scared of this mysterious disease that caused people’s skin to fall off and sores to appear on their skins. However, little did they know, the worst was yet to come for the people living in the Kyshtym area.
What was to come
In the village of Muslumovo, the people who weren’t evacuated were looked after by national radiation experts that were studying the subjects of “a natural experiment” to gain knowledge on the effects of nuclear war on humans. However, they were never informed of the research and were kept in the dark as to why so many people were sick.
It wasn’t until 1992, when Soviet records were declassified, that the true nature of the Muslumovo experiment was uncovered. Even then, one pediatrician had estimated that 90 percent of the village’s children were suffering from genetic abnormalities, with only 7 percent being considered healthy.
Over the next few decades after the “Kyshtym Disaster” many became stricken with cancer. Villagers affected by the disaster and the long-term industrial pollution are still fighting for relocation and compensation.
In the late 1960s the Soviets labeled part of the contaminated area a “nature preserve,” using this as a reason to move out its human occupants. However this was designed to keep people from noticing the cancers and environmental effects that still linger from the bomb site.
We will probably never know how many people died from nuclear contamination, as the killing power of radiation can last far into the lifetimes of those affected.
Even though the Mayak plant stopped processing weapons-grade plutonium in 1987, it remains in operation reprocessing spent nuclear fuel shipped in from all over Russia and the world. Its safety record has not improved with dozens of incidents and accidents occurring over the years.
There are around 7,000 people who still live in direct contact with the highly polluted Techa river (radioactive waste is still being dumped to this day) or on contaminated land. In Muslyumovo, studies have shown genetic abnormalities are 25 times more frequent there than in other areas of Russia.
The incidents of malignant cancer are also significantly higher, with the number of residents from Muslyumovo on the Russian national oncology registers nearly 4 times higher than in the rest of Russia. In other surrounding towns and villages people have cancer rates that are more than double the Russian average.
Yet we still have not learnt
Knowing what has happened, there would be no country that would allow this to happen again. Yet there are countries sending their nuclear waste to this place, fully knowing that strands are not what they are meant to be.
It was only after President Boris Yeltsin had signed a 1992 decree opening up the area that Western scientists were able to gain access, where they quickly declared it the planet’s most polluted area.
Foreign fuel, which has been processed in Mayak, has so far led to three million cubic meters of radioactive liquid, which is being dumped and released into the environment. Mayak has reprocessed over 1,540 tons of spent nuclear fuel from several countries; these include Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland, and the Czech Republic.
Now Russian authorities are hoping to negotiate future contracts with Switzerland, Spain, South Korea, Slovenia, Italy, Belgium, and Slovakia. Knowing the horrors of its contamination legacy, are we seeing the real face of the global nuclear industry?
Even today, Russia doesn’t welcome any challenges to its official version of the story. Over half a century later, Mayak remains one of the most radioactive places on Earth, with the accident continuing to have a devastating legacy.