RUSN 276: Environmental Crises in Former Soviet Space

Professor Walt Richmond
Fall 2005

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Chelyabinsk nuclear waste accident, 1957

compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston
last modified 27 June 2004

Date: 29 September 1957

Location: Mayak Scientific-Production Association, Kyshtym, Chelyabinsk, Russia, USSR

Type of event: chemical explosion in stored nuclear wastes


The accident occurred at a facility involved in processing and storage of nuclear wastes. Following removal of plutonium, liquid high-level nitrate-containing wastes were stored in underground stainless steel tanks in concrete trenches. The tanks were located about 2 km from the plant, each with a volume of about 300 cubic meters. The tanks included heat exchangers to remove heat buildup in the tanks. The heat exchanger on one tank was shut down in 1956 due to a fault, and it was concluded it was safe to leave the tank uncooled. However, water evaporation in the tank allowed a buildup of nitrates and acetates on the surface of the tank's contents, in contact with air, before a spark from monitoring equipment detonated the contents on 29 Sept. 1957. This chemical explosion had an energy release of 5-10 tons of TNT, releasing about 70-80 tons of wastes with a total activity of about 20 megacuries. Of this, about 18 megacuries was deposited in the immediate area of the explosion site and about 2 megacuries was dispersed over a large area downwind. The area with deposition of at least 2 curies per square km (about 20 times the level of global fallout) extended 105 km downwind and was 8-9 km wide, for a total of about 1,000 sq. km; this corresponded to an initial exposure rate of about 0.7 rad per day. About 600 residents were evacuated about 7 to 10 days after the accident, and by 18 months after the accident about 10,180 people had been evacuated. According to Russian reports maximum exposures reached 52 rem, with up to 150 rem to the gastrointestinal tract due to ingestion of radionuclides in food and water; some studies showed blood count changes, but no acute radiation injuries were observed. In 1958 590 sq. km in Chelyabinsk province and 470 sq. km in Sverdlovsk province were removed from agricultural use. Following ploughing under of surface soil, all but 220 sq. km was returned to agricultural use between 1961 and 1978. The Soviet government concealed evidence of the accident; it was first discussed in the West by Z. Medvedev in 1976, and first acknowledged by the Soviet government in 1989. The Soviet and Russian governments have denied reports that hundreds of casualties resulted from the accident.

Consequences: No confirmed casualties.

Chelyabinsk Nuclear Disasters

Plutonium and Tritium for Soviet nuclear weapons is produced at three closely guarded locations, each of which includes a "closed" city of workers.These cities do not appear on maps, and until recently, travel to and from them was all but prohibited.Even now, foreign visitors have been allowed to see only two of the sites.Each of the sites has an official name, often including a number that indicates a post office address, but each was known by another name or names abroad as well as in the Soviet Union. Children play next to the Irradiated Techa

The complex officially known as Chelyabinsk-40 is located in Chelyabinsk province, about 15 kilometers east of the city of Kyshtym on the east side of the southern Urals.It is situated in the area around Lake Kyzyltash, in the upper Techa River drainage basin among numerous other interconnected lakes.Between Lake Kyzyltash and Lake Irtyash is Chelyabinsk-65, the military-industrial city once called Beria, but today inhabitants call it Sorokovka("forties town").

Another Mayak laboratory, the All-Union Institute of Technical Physics, is located just east of the Urals, 20 kilometers north of Kasli.It is better known by its post office box, Chelyabinsk-70.It was opened in 1955, shortly after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened in the United States.

Chelyabinsk-65, was reported to have 83,000 inhabitants and "almost 100,000 people."Chelyabinsk-40, the reactor complex, covers some 90 square kilometers, according to a recent ministry report, and is run by the production association Mayak("beacon" or "lighthouse").All the reactors are located near the southeast shore of Lake Kyzyltash and relied on open-cycle cooling: water from the lake was pumped directly through the core.


Probably fashioned after the U.S. Hanford Reservation in the state of Washington, Chelyabinsk-40 was the first Soviet plutonium production complex.Construction was started on the first buildings of the new city in November 1945.Some 70,000 inmates from 12 labor camps were reportedly used to build the complex.It is here that the physicist Igor Kurchatov, working under Stalin's deputy Lavrenti Beria, built the first plutonium production reactor, called "Anotchka" or A Reactor, in just 18 months.

The people of the Chelyabinsk Region have suffered no less than three nuclear disasters:
For over six years, the Mayak complex systematically dumped radioactive waste into the Techa River, the only source of water for the 24 villages which lined its banks.The four largest of those villages were never evacuated, and only recently have the authorities revealed to the population why they strung barbed wire along the banks of the river some 35 years ago.Today, as a result of Kyshtym-57's (a local environmental group lead by Louisa Korzhova) fight for radiation victims, a new law was introduced which allows residents of Muslyumovo to resettle themselves elsewhere. Unfortunately, the new law is limited only to one village.

In 1957, the area suffered its next calamity when the cooling system of a radioactive waste containment unit malfunctioned and exploded.About two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing to radiation over a quarter million people. Less than half of one percent of these people were evacuated, and some of those only after years had passed.

The third disaster came ten years later.The Mayak complex had been using Lake Karachay as a dumping basin for its radioactive waste since 1951.In 1967, a drought reduced the water level of the lake, and gale-force winds spread the radioactive dust throughout twenty-five thousand square kilometers, further irradiating half a million people with five million curies.


Chelyabinsk-40, or the Kyshtym complex is best known to the outside world as the site of a disastrous explosion in 1957, only recently acknowledged by Soviet officialdom.The tanks were entirely immersed in, and cooled by, water.But the monitoring system was defective.The system failed in one of the tanks, however, and the waste began to dry out.On September 29, 1957, exploded with a force equivalent to 70-100 tons of TNT.Seventy or 80 metric tons of waste containing some 20 million curies of radioactivity was ejected -- about one-fourth the amount released in the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

About 90 percent of the radioactivity fell out immediately around the vessel.The rest formed a kilometer-high radioactive cloud that was carried through Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tumen provinces.

There were 217 towns and villages with a combined population 270,000 people in the area that was contaminated to greater than 0.1 curies of strontium 90 per square kilometer.By comparison, the total strontium 90 fallout at this latitude from past atmospheric tests is 0.08 curies per square kilometer.Virtually all water supply sources in the area were contaminated.Evacuation of the most highly contaminated areas, where 1,100 people lived, was not completed until 10 days after the accident.Other areas were evacuated a year later, after the population had consumed radioactive food.In the years following the accident, 515 square miles of land was plowed under or removed from agricultural use; all except 80 square kilometers was returned to use by 1978.

About 10,000 people lived in the 1,000-square-kilometer area contaminated with more than two curies of strontium 90 per square kilometer.One-fifth of these people eventually showed a reduction of leukocytes in their blood.There are no records of deaths caused by the accident.

This accident is only part of Chelyabinsk-40's deadly legacy, because there was no management of radioactive waste at all before September 1951: for years the high-level nuclear waste was simply discharged directly into the Techa River.And over the years, workers at the complex have been exposed to astonishing levels of radiation.

During 1949, the first full year of operation, workers at A Reactor received an average dose of 93.6 rem -- three times the standards then set by the ministry, where were too high to begin with: about 30 rem per year. (Standards for nuclear workers in Russia, as in the United States, are now about 5 rem per year, although they are about the be lowered in the United States to 2 rem.)Workers were exposed to an average of 113.3 rem in 1951, and a small percentage received more than 400 rem annually during this early period.

In 1951, radioactivity carried by the Techa River from Chelyabinsk-40 was found in the Arctic Ocean -- although 99 percent of the radioactive material was deposited within the first 35 kilometers downstream.This discovery prompted a change in dumping policy: The Techa and its floodlands were excluded from human use, some inhabitants were evacuated, and others were supplied with water from other sources.

Reservoirs were created to keep water from flowing out of the most contaminated areas, and plant wastes were discharged into Karachay Lake, which has no outlet, instead of into the river.The lake, actually a bog, eventually accumulated 120 million curies of the long-lived radionuclides cesium 137 and strontium 90.By comparison, the Chernobyl accident released one million curies of cesium 137 and 220,000 curies of strontium 90.In 1967, wind dispersed radioactivity from the lake, contaminating about 1,8000 square kilometers.Today, radioactivity in the ground water has migrated two to three kilometers from the lake.A person standing on the lake shore near the area where wastes are discharged from the plant would receive about 600 roentgens of radiation, a lethal dose, in an hour.The lake is now being filled with hollow concrete blocks, rock, and soil to reduce the dispersion of radioactivity.

The Techa River was originally cordoned off with a wire fence and people were forbidden to fish in it, or to pick mushrooms and berries or cut hay nearby. Today, the shattered remains of the fence rust by the riverside and regulations are widely ignored by the population.There are 400 million cubic meters of radioactive water in open reservoirs along the river.Fish in one reservoir are reported to be "100 times more radioactive than normal."

-This page consists of excerpts of an article "A First Look at the Soviet Bomb Complex",by Thomas B. Cochran and Robert S. Norris-

For forty-five years, Chelyabinsk province of Russia was closed to all foreigners.Only in January of 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin sign a decree changing that.Shortly afterwards, I made my first trip to this region, which later Western scientists declared to be the most polluted spot on earth.

In the late 1940's, about 80 kilometers north of the city of Chelyabinsk, an atomic weapons complex called "Mayak" was built.Its existence has only recently been acknowledged by Russian officials, though, in fact, the complex, bordered to the west by the Ural Mountains, and to the north by Siberia, was the goal of Gary Powers's surveillance flight in May of 1960.

The people of the area have suffered no less than three nuclear disasters: For over six years, the Mayak complex systematically dumped radioactive waste into the Techa River, the only source of water for the 24 villages which lined its banks.The four largest of those villages were never evacuated, and only recently have the authorities revealed to the population why they strung barbed wire along the banks of the river some 35 years ago.Russian doctors who study radiation sickness in the area estimate that those living along the Techa River received an average of four times more radiation than the Chernobyl victims.

In 1957, the area suffered its next calamity when the cooling system of a radioactive waste containment unit malfunctioned and exploded.The explosion spewed some 20 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere.About two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing 270,000 people to as much radiation as the Chernobyl victims.Less than half of one percent of these people were evacuated, and some of those only after years had passed.

The third disaster came ten years later.The Mayak complex had been using Lake Karachay as a dumping basin for its radioactive waste since 1951.In 1967, a drought reduced the water level of the lake, and gale-force winds spread the radioactive dust throughout twenty-five thousand square kilometers, further irradiating 436,000 people with five million curies, approximately the same as at Hiroshima.

In the past 45 years, about half a million people in the region have been irradiated in one or more of the incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims.

"The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet" is a journey, starting on a train which, after 36 hours, brings me from Moscow into the city of Chelyabinsk, the administrative center of the province and home to over a million people.The city sprang up during the Second World War, when Stalin moved weapons production to the isolated region.It would go on to produce 50% of the Soviet Union's tanks.This gave the city its nickname, "Tank City."

From there, the camera travels to the villages of Muslyumovo, Brodokalmak, Tishma, and the town of Argayash.The villagers of Muslyumovo and Brodokalmak were never evacuated from the banks of the contaminated Techa River.Authorities moved the villagers of Tishma in the late 1950's, but only a few kilometers, leaving the locals' grazing land along the banks of the Techa.Argayash is the home of the Sunrasin family resettled after the 1957 explosion.Through Idris Sunrasin, we learn the radiation's death toll on one family: his grandmother, parents, and three of his eight siblings have already died of cancer.Idris himself is dying of stomach cancer and Argayash, a town of 10 thousand, falls within one of the most radioactive zones in the province, according to Russian environmentalists.

We're all sick. As for the children, I
don't know.It's some kind of dying
-Lena Morozova, 32

The camera interviews people from all walks of life: Simple farmers and shepherds, teachers, doctors, factory workers and environmental activists from the association Kishtym-57.Officials who represent the Mayak complex and doctors who work for the infamous FIB, the institute devoted to testing the region's people for radiation, are also interviewed.Until 1988, FIB also kept secret the cause of the cancers and chronic illnesses, even from the patients themselves.

The private citizens tell us the stories of being kept in the dark, ineffectively resettled or not resettled at all, the deaths in their families from cancer, their children's chronic illnesses, and their inability to move out of this contaminated area.The mullah of the largely Muslim village of Muslyumovo says simply, "It is the will of God."The villagers tell us that they do not because their roots are there, because they have no money, because their fear the ability to get a job elsewhere, because they know no other life.One man says simply: "You can't escape your fate."

When the camera visits doctors, we learn that the horrifying illnesses faced by the people are compounded by the authorities' refusal, until about three years ago, to even acknowledge that cancer existed in the region.We visit a renowned osteopath whose patient tells us that many, many children in the area of the Mayak complex are born without hands, legs, and feet.

We're nothing but guneia pigs here... They don't give a damn about us.

There aren't many births, the women don't want
to have children.Who needs more cripples?
-Men gathered at the Muslyumovo store.

The camera visits Dr. Genady Romanov, the head of the nuclear complex's research institute.His reactions illustrate the official view of the continuing mismanagement of radioactive waste.When I mention my conversations with local doctors about the high cancer rate in the region, he replies: "What doctors?The Muslyumovo doctors?They're ignoramuses.They're all ignorant about nuclear biology and radiology."

Interviews with villagers reveal the presence of the Institute of Biochemistry, called FIB, which has been checking the residents for radiation since the late 1950s, but neither told them the cause of their illness, nor treated them.The camera travels to FIB and talks to Dr. Kosenko, who has worked in the institute for over 30 years: "They didn't know anything, and we had no right to tell them that they had been irradiated.All this information was top secret, because the factory produced weapons-grade plutonium... If someone had found out that in some area there were people who had been irradiated, then it would have been possible to find the factory.That's why these people weren't given any information about radiation."

The authorities' cover-up of the situation expands, as we learned from yet another doctor that until recently, doctors were not allowed to give cancer as a cause of death: "Write something else, either a stroke, or a severe heart attack, or even chronic heart disease, basically any of those accompanying factors.But to just put down cancer as a cause of death was just not allowed."

The camera returns to Dr. Kosenko at FIB, where we see her in a room with thousands of files.She explains that even at FIT they were not allowed to write "radiation sickness" on the patients' charts: "We were given instructions to indicate it with initials, and the three letters were ABC.Wherever we see that abbreviation... all of us who work here knew that it was radiation sickness."

When I left the region in March of 1992, I promised the friends I had made to return soon.When the next summer comes, I am once again on the train to Chelyabinsk.My camera revisits the people in the contaminated areas.I meet kids fishing on the Techa River, where my Geiger counter shows that the fish they've just caught contains twenty times the normal radiation."We eat these fish," they tell me, and add sarcastically, "It's like they say, 'you can't infect the infected'."

The camera then travels to the village of Tishma, which was rebuilt several kilometers from the contaminated Techa in the late 1950s.Anisa Nineeva explains that the village's problems have not been solved: "Only eight kilometers from us there's a radioactive waste containment facility...[the trucks that carry the radioactive waste] come right through our village... And right alongside [the Techa River] is our collective farm... That means we cut our hay there, drink that milk."

We go with Anisa to see her grazing land and Anisa is shocked to tears when our Geiger counter's needle repeatedly goes off the scale, showing forty times the normal background radiation."This is terrible news for me.What should I do now?This is where half the village has been cutting hay since 1956."

The cinema verite style encourages these disclosures.A woman talks casually in her own kitchen, Dr. Romanov in his office, Dr. Kosenko among her files.The people are unposed and unprepared to dissemble of put a good face on things.The camera allows us to see that the victims, who were so proud to live where the Soviet Union produced its first atomic weapon, to some degree collaborate in their own undoing: Faced with death and the increasing weakness of each generation, they do not move away, they do feel helpless, and they strive more for financial remuneration that for a cleanup or resettlement.In the final interview, Dr. Romanovinsists that nobody died as a result of the 1957 explosion.Because the interviews seem so informal both to the victims and their victimizers, the camera captures a glimpse not just of a black-and-white situation, but of something much more complex: The victims are not saints, and while the officials are unpleasant, they were also victims of the propaganda of the Cold War, fed on patriotism, and, of course, threatened with labor camps should they reveal the secret of Mayak.

When they evacuated us... they made us sign a
form saying that we wouldn't reveal state secrets.
Of course, we knew what that meant... People
knew where we were from, and were afraid of us;
they thought we might be contagious.They shied
away from us like people do now if you have AIDS.

-Sofiya Khrylenko, retired teacher from an orphanage

The reasons for making this film are clear: the story of these people needs to be told, and needs to be shown to the Western audience, as well as the Russian one.The film operates on three levels: the most immediate is that of a region in crisis, a region where people expect to live to be 50, perhaps 55, where as many as 90% of the children suffer from chronic illnesses.They deserve attention and help at least as much as the victims of Chernobyl.

But the story is also a cautionary tale.Because this is not one cataclysmic even, one explosion, one calamity resulting from short-term carelessness, but the effects of a long term policy of skewed priorities, the film also illustrates the dangers of allowing a government to put military secrets above its people.

Finally, it is a story about the dangers of nuclear power and the production of nuclear weapons.

Nobody knows anything about us.Chernobyl
happened, but that's Europe.The pollution reached
Europe, and the whole world was upset.But us,
out here in the backwoods of Russia?Nobody
knows about it, nobody in the world cares about
the fate we've sealed for ourselves here.
-Farida Shaimardanova, Muslyumovo teacher