In 1957, there was a nuclear disaster in a city called Cheliabinsk-40 in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union, the blow came from an underground tank filled with radioactive waste. The “Kyshtym Disaster” is the third biggest nuclear disaster in history, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale, behind the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster in 1986 (which takes the top spot). How is it that the “Kyshtym Disaster” is widely unheard of?
Within the Soviet Union there were ten of these ‘nuclear cities‘, those employed within these cities were to keep their activities extremely secret and would be paid high wages for their dangerous work. Aside from the high confidentiality of their employment, families who lived in these cities enjoyed a wide range of functions provided by the state such as housing, health care, and good educational opportunities. Though, these communities were extremely high risk not only because they were in the midst of nuclear plants but also because the Soviet nuclear program was rushed in order to compete with America’s nuclear weapons technology. Conditions within these cities were unsafe to begin with. Another contributor to the danger of the nuclear city was that workers at the plant would also dump nuclear waste into the Techa River, other solid materials that were dumped on the site polluted the air along with smoke that came from the plant itself.
The plant at Cheliabinsk-40, called the Mayak Plant, had six reactors which processed nuclear materials to create plutonium for nuclear weapons. Specifically, what happened on the day of the explosion was that one of the cooling systems at Mayak failed. These cooling systems were integral to the processing of nuclear material at the plant because liquid nuclear waste is extremely hot, and the cooling tanks were meant to prevent the dangers of overheating. When one of the cooling systems failed, radioactive chemical dust was created when the waste tank got too hot and surrounding water evaporated. The product of the cooling system failure was radioactive ammonium-nitrate, which was released into the air when the waste tank exploded.
Although 270,000 people lived in Ozyorsk (the true name of the city) only 11,000 of them evacuated within two years after the disaster. Residents and those near the plant began to see the effects of the blast when they noticed that their skin was falling off or when they started to get sores on their skin. In order to lessen panic and doubt that the city wasn’t safe, Soviet authorities spent 11 million rubles (about $150,000 today) on public relations and also forbade any more people from coming in, including soldiers and clean up workers.
The population who felt the effects of the disaster the most were the farmers surrounding the city, which were about 87 villages who were in the process of harvesting their crop for the year. Farmers in the village of Korabolka had seen the nuclear blast, and some even believed that a nuclear war had started. Effects were seen quickly as 300 out of 5000 villagers died of radiation poisoning. Another favored population within the disaster were ethnic Russian villagers who were relocated, the remaining ethnic Tartars stayed in the contaminated villages. Soldiers also relocated the most contaminated villages, though, relocation proved to be too expensive if it were to be done for all the villages in the area so many were left behind. Later on, the people at Korabolka would experience five times the cancer rate of those who lived in uncontaminated villages, other contaminated villages would have higher rates of cancer, genetic abnormalities, and other radiation-related illnesses. Soldiers who arrived at the farms after the blast instructed villagers to bury that year’s contaminated harvest, the villagers themselves took on the hard task of doing so.
It is evident that the Soviet government purposefully left the most affected populations in the dark of what really happened at Mayak. To no one’s surprise, the Soviets would also keep the disaster at Kyshtym (the closest mapped city to Ozyorsk) a secret to the rest of the world. The Soviet regime could not afford to have its nuclear failure out for everyone to see.
In 1976 a Russian biologist named Zhores Medvedev exposed the Kyshtym disaster to the world and also brought to light other problematic science-related issues within the USSR. In his article named “Two decades of dissidence“, Medvedev begins by explaining Stalin’s mishandlings of science in his regime, specifically, he explains that Stalin supported scientists who professed to be able to achieve something extraordinary. This led Stalin to support scientists who were unqualified and had aspirations that were completely unrealistic, in response, a dissident scientist movement began. To be apart of the movement was extremely risky because it meant going against state-sanctioned science.
Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization movement allowed credible scientists to have more wiggle-room in the USSR. Though, under Krushchev’s regime the most elite of scientists were nuclear physicists and aerospace technologists, other scientists like geneticists were suppressed. Before the Kyshtym disaster, geneticists tried to warn nuclear physicists about the dangers of radiation and radioactivity on human populations. The lack of interest and scientific knowledge on radiation genetics and radiology became extremely evident in the aftermath of the disaster, when no one knew how to treat those who were affected by radiation from the blast. This forced the Soviet government to legalize genetics for radiology, radiobiology, and medicine.
The Kyshtym disaster is an episode in both world history and Soviet history on how the nuclear hubris of regimes can cost the lives of hundreds of people, and how its effects are felt after decades after an instantaneous blast. We may never know the true number of innocent people who were affected by the disaster, adding to the list of the many secrets from the Soviet Union that has continued to baffle the modern world.