The following is an adapted excerpt from Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, just published by Haymarket Books.
It was a warm fall day on September 29, 1957, not much unlike any other in the deep Russian interior. Residents in the Chelyabinsk oblast cared for their crops of wheat and potatoes, others herded cattle. Women hung out their family’s clothes to dry as the winds picked up before the sun descended. In the distance, along the ridge in the southern sky, streams of dark colors began to appear. The town paper would speculate that the natural polar lights were responsible for the odd aura along the horizon. But there was a problem: the strange hues were not where the Northern Lights typically appeared. Those lights appeared north, not south of Chelyabinsk—plus, the Northern Lights were shades of blue and green, not gray and black. Something was off, but there was no panic in Chelyabinsk. In the Southern Urals, where Chelyabinsk was located, the local strain of late-1950s culture was not unlike that in the rural farming communities of the American Midwest: people were hard-working, church-going, family-oriented, patriotic, and tough. Their lives, however, were about to change forever.
Government workers quickly descended on the small towns in and around Chelyabinsk, twenty of which were soon evacuated. Around ten thousand people, mostly peasants, were forced out, leaving their pets and possessions behind. Farmers were instructed to slaughter their cows, destroy fertile farmland, and kill off their crops. Their livelihoods and way of life were destroyed, and no reason was given as to why they had to take such drastic measures without warning.
Mayak was constructed in 1946 and helped procure the Soviets’ first atomic bomb in 1949 under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Like virtually all of Russia’s nuclear projects during the Soviet era, and just like the United States’s Manhattan Project, Mayak was built and operated in total secret and with outright disregard for local communities and ecology. As one of the Soviets’ covert “plutonium cities,” Mayak became known as Chelyabinsk-40, a sort of dehumanizing code name that would soon become synonymous with disaster.
“Starting in the late 1940s, the Russians released a great deal of radioactive waste into the waterways near Mayak, including lakes, streams, ponds, and reservoirs,” recalls Don Bradley, author of Behind the Nuclear Curtain: Radioactive Waste Management in the Former Soviet Union. “For many years, radioactive effluent at Mayak was released directly into the Techa River, a major source of water for twenty-four villages along its banks.” Every one of these villages, Bradley notes, do not exist. All surviving residents were evacuated years ago.
Today, Mayak no longer makes plutonium, but the facility is still operational and serves as a reprocessing site for spent nuclear fuel. The act of reprocessing spent fuel was banned in the United States in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, whose administration believed doing away with spent fuel reprocessing was an important step in reducing nuclear arms proliferation. Even though Mayak is no longer an active production site, from the radioactive waste all around it, you’d think that it’s still churning out plutonium.
The body of water that received the most contamination from Mayak’s production was Lake Karachay. “Contamination [in Chelyabinsk] is perhaps the highest in the world, and the most acute problem in that region is at Lake Karachay,” Thomas Nilsen, a researcher at the Bellona Foundation, an environmental organization headquartered in Oslo, Norway, said in 2001, fifteen years after the accident at Chernobyl, but ten years before the Fukushima meltdown. He continued: “The Soviets started dumping waste from reprocessed plutonium into Karachay in the early 1950s, and extreme levels of radiation are still being monitored there.”
In fact, an isolated corner of the lake was at one time so chock-full of radioactive particles that human survival after a mere thirty minutes of exposure was fifty-fifty. Over 120 million curies of radioactive waste polluted the body of water. In the 1990s, Don Bradley, along with other researchers, visited one of the least polluted areas of the lake. “We drove out [to] … the lake with a guy holding a Geiger counter and a watch,” recounted Bradley. “After ninety seconds, we came back. In that brief time, we received the equivalent dose of radiation of an airplane flight from Moscow to New York.”
However, the danger does not just exist in the lake itself. If levels are low, the lake has the potential to dry up during the hotter summer months, leaving open the possibility that the wind could carry radioactive dust across the region. This happened in 1967 when low snowfall resulted in a drastic decline in Lake Karachay’s water levels, producing something of a nuclear summer. Wind currents blew particles from the toxic lake bed across a 1,800 square mile stretch of Chelyabinsk, contaminating upwards of a half-a-million unwitting people. To this day, little is known about what sort of impact the wind-blown particles had on the health of people or the land. In recent years, workers have placed large concrete blocks and stones on the lakebed to keep the dust at bay. There’s no easy solution, of course, and this rudimentary fix could spawn another problem. “The stones help prevent the dust, but the weight also presses the sediments down and moves them closer to the groundwater,” says Thomas Nilsen. “It’s a catch-22.”
Over a ten year period, from 1948 and 1958, over 17,245 Mayak workers were exposed to radiation overdoses. Dumping of radioactive waste in nearby rivers was also responsible for a number of nuke-related illnesses downstream, where drinking water and agricultural production depended on irrigation.
While residents were aware that the secret site of Mayak was a problem, they had no idea what had caused those mysterious lights in the sky on that fall afternoon in 1957. The secret was that something had gone terribly wrong at Mayak, where the site had instituted a cooling system early on that continually kept its hot nuclear waste from reaching a critical point. But the waste in a holding cistern buried twenty feet underground began to heat up fast. The system had failed, but nobody knew what was happening until it was far too late. As the radioactive slop reached 350 degrees Celsius, its 160-ton concrete lid began to tremble, and finally blew. The cistern and the eighty tons of boiling gunk inside exploded in a volcanic eruption filled with radioactive steam and soot a half-mile into the air. The black cloud darkened the sky, spreading twenty million curies of blistering atomic particles across 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of West Virginia, and contaminating the homes of an estimated 270,000 people. Later, the accident at Mayak became known as the Kyshtym disaster, after the name of the closest town to the blast. In the immediate aftermath, the first wave of forced evacuation, encompassing nearly 10,000 people, was initiated, but it took upwards of two years for other evacuations to be carried out in nearby towns that had also been exposed to the radioactive fallout.
The horrific blast was measured as a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which places the Kyshtym disaster behind Chernobyl and Fukushima (both Level 7s) as the third-most significant nuclear disaster ever. It is certainly the least well-known. At the time, just as the United States government kept the inner workings of their own nuclear program shrouded in secrecy, the Soviet government kept Mayak under wraps. Mayak, according to many Soviet maps, did not even exist.
It wasn’t until 1976, when dissident scientist Zhores A. Medvedev wrote an article for the British journal The New Scientist, that the Western world was made aware of what happened.
For many years nuclear reactor waste had been buried in a deserted area a few dozen miles from the Urals town of Blagovehsnesk. The waste was not buried very deep. Nuclear scientists had often warned about the dangers involved in this primitive method of waste disposal, but nobody listened. Suddenly there was an enormous explosion. The nuclear reactions had led to overheating in the burial grounds. The explosion poured radioactive materials high into the sky. It was just the wrong weather for such a tragedy. Strong winds blew the radioactive clouds hundreds of miles away.
Tens of thousands of people were affected, hundreds dying, though the real figures have never been made public. Many villages and towns were only ordered to evacuate when the symptoms of radiation sickness were already apparent. The irradiated population was distributed over many clinics. But no one really knew how to treat the different stages of radiation sickness, how to measure the radiation dose received by the patients and their offspring. Radiation genetics and radiology could have provided the answer, but neither of them was available.
Not all believed Medvedev’s account. Sir John Hill, chairman of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority, called the report “rubbish” and “a figment of the imagination.” However, Medvedev’s story was later confirmed by ex-Soviet physicist Leo Tumerman, who stated he had seen firsthand the devastation of Kyshtym only a couple of years after the incident. “The area was filled with radiation,” admitted Tumerman. “And you couldn’t drink the water or eat the fish.” Tumerman added that “All the people with whom I spoke, scientists as well as laymen—had no doubt that the blame lay with Soviet officials who were negligent and careless in storing nuclear wastes.”
One anonymous witness wrote of what happened immediately following the atomic explosion. “Very quickly all the leaves curled up and fell off the trees.” The observer also described a gruesome scene at a local hospital. “Some of the [victims] were bandaged and some were not. We could see the skin on their faces, hands and other exposed parts of the body to be sloughing off. These victims of the blast were brought into the hospital during the night. It was a horrible sight.”
The explosion was indeed horrific, but radiation doesn’t always have an immediate impact. It can take weeks, months, or even years to make itself known. The fallout from the Mayak explosion landed throughout the region, most of which descended on an area four miles wide and thirty miles long. Streams, lakes, and acres of farmland were blanketed with radioactive soot. In villages closest to Kyshtym, men jumped in space suit-like garments from military helicopters, instructing those tending to the fields to continue to dig out their crops. Entire families worked without proper safety gear. Not even shoes or protective masks were provided. They were told to dump what they had harvested into holes that had been dug by bulldozers. Throughout that fall, these families harvested and stacked wheat and hay into large piles, which were then set on fire. In other villages outside the immediate blast-zone, life appeared normal, until investigators began to look a bit more closely.
Another anonymous eyewitness, who surveyed the area shortly after the blast, discovered a ravaged scene. “[We] crossed a strange, uninhabited, and unframed area. Highway signs along the way warned drivers not to stop for the next twenty to thirty kilometers because of radiation. The land was empty. There were no villages, no towns, no people, no cultivated land; only chimneys of destroyed houses remained.”
In one village, a full week after the accident, monitors discovered something startling. Children there were literally steaming with radiation. S.F. Osotin, who had been a member of the team that carried out those initial findings, recalled that a colleague placed a Geiger counter up to one child’s belly and got a reading of 40-50 microroentgens per second. They couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. Cows that munched on atomically-charged grass were visibly sick, bleeding at the mouth. Soldiers shot them on sight. Chickens too were loaded up with atomic particles, but were still being eaten by locals because they had no idea what was going on. Other unwitting villages had astonishingly high levels of radiation as well. One such town, Berdianish, produced readings of 350-400 microroentgens per second—amounts that will kill you after four weeks of exposure.
Though kept a secret by the Soviets, the CIA discovered the Kyshtym nuclear accident a few years after the fact through a network of spies and on-the-ground informants, along with aerial photographs of the wreckage. In May, 1960, U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet Air Defense Forces attempting to capture high altitude photographs of the devastation at the Mayak site. Powers was captured and sentenced to three years for espionage, and in 1962 was exchanged for Soviet officer Rudolf Abel.
It wasn’t until 1978, after the Critical Mass Energy Project acquired fourteen heavily-redacted documents, that the CIA admitted they had known about the Mayak disaster all along. Like the Soviets, the United States government kept what they had learned a secret and did not share what they knew with the public—not only to protect their sources, but also, critics argued, in order to avoid raising concern about the United States’s own nuclear program.
“Absent any other reason for withholding information from the public,” nuclear critic Ralph Nader said in a 1978 interview, “one possible motivation could have been the reluctance of the CIA to highlight a nuclear accident in the USSR that could cause concern among people living near nuclear facilities in the United States.”
According to one estimate by the Soviet Health Ministry in Chelyabinsk, the ultimate death toll caused by the Mayak explosion was 8,015 people over a 32-year period. The long-term impacts of the singular event are difficult to quantify, as the facility released an insurmountable amount of radiation for over three decades.
The Mayak disaster of 1957, while covered up by both the Soviets abroad and the US government at home, should have raised serious alarms about nuclear safety and the risks associated with radioactive contamination. However, being truthful about the danger associated with producing atomic bombs and storing radioactive waste would have also meant having to confront the reality that Hanford, Mayak’s sister facility in the United States, along with other nuclear sites around the country, was putting local populations and environment in serious peril. Keeping the war machine running meant putting a positive spin on nuclear technology, from weapons to nuclear energy. In a sense, American power was based on the myth that there was little downside to nuclear proliferation, only endless potential. The mythical capabilities of atomic energy continue to permeate debates today about combating climate change and challenging our fossil fuel addiction.
Listen to Joshua Frank discuss Atomic Days with Karl Grossman.