The Kyshtym disaster: The Soviets kept the giant nuclear accident a secret, guarding the site to this day

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When, thanks to the protests of intellectuals from the Soviet Union and abroad, he went “free” again and was able to travel to England, the Soviet regime decided that it would be best to get rid of Medvedev permanently. Fortunately for him, he was not murdered, but only stripped of his Soviet citizenship. Even after England became his home, Medvedev did not stop publishing about the insidiousness of the Soviet regime. On the contrary. In his new home, he told the world about the details of one of the biggest Soviet secrets – the Kyshtym disaster. It took place on September 29 exactly 65 years ago.

The extent of this disaster – at that time the largest nuclear accident in history (only years later the accident in Chernobyl a Fukushima) was so large that at first even Western experts did not want to believe what Medvedev claimed about it in his article in the magazine New Scientists. “Although it was finally possible to collect enough evidence about the disaster thanks to Medvedev’s almost detective work, the Soviet Union denied it until 1989. And even then, the representatives of the newly established Russian Federation always downplayed the extent of the damage,” encyclopedia Britannica outlines.

Construction activity at the classified Majak nuclear complex.  In 1957, the so-called Kyštym disaster took place in this complex.Construction activity at the classified Majak nuclear complex. In 1957, the so-called Kyštym disaster took place in this complex.Source: Wikimedia Commons, Carl Anderson, US Army Corps of Engineers, free work

The Kyshtym disaster took place in the highly classified Majak nuclear plant, where plutonium was produced for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons.

A city that doesn’t exist

The history of the Majak nuclear complex dates back to the second half of the 1940s. When the Americans ended World War II by using nuclear weaponsthe Soviet leadership realized that its greatest adversary now had a weapon in its arsenal that could not be matched by any of the Soviet weapons of the time.

“Stalin therefore ordered the development program to begin Soviet atomic bombs. Several top secret nuclear complexes were established throughout the Soviet Union. Among the most important was the Majak nuclear power plant, it was from it that the material used in the first Soviet atomic bomb came from,” historian Jeronim Perovic described for the BBC. The lighthouse was built in record time by prisoners from the nearby gulag.

The complex located in the Chelyabinsk region, in which radioactive materials were processed, was really large. Even so, the Soviets managed to keep it perfectly secret. “After completion, it spread over approximately ninety square kilometers (roughly the area of ​​Jihlava, editor’s note), and due to secrecy, there was still a protection zone of approximately 250 kilometers around it,” describes the video of the YouTube channel Cold War, which is dedicated to the Cold War period .

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Everyone who lived around Majak had to pretend they didn’t know anything about it. A new city was created for the workers and engineers working in the combine. Today it is known as Ozjorsk, in the past it was also referred to as Chelyabinsk-40 and the combine then as Chelyabinsk-65. Ozjorsk was and is a so-called closed city. In practice, this means that only its permanent residents can get in and out of it, and only with special passes. “Neither the combine nor the city was marked on the maps. They did not officially exist, and the inhabitants of Ozjorsk – the employees of Majak and their families – did not officially exist either,” outlined historian Perovic.

The people of Ozjorsk knew very well that their lives depended on their ability to remain silent. “My first childhood memory is that the city I lived in was very nice and very rich compared to the surrounding cities. I asked my mother why our town is different. And she told me that we don’t ask such things. I knew there was a complex there, most people from the city were employed there. But that was all. My grandmother worked as a nuclear engineer and was among the first employees and builders of Mayak. Dad also worked there as an engineer. Both died of cancer. And I didn’t ask why,” Nadežda Kutepová, a former resident of Ozjorsk, told the BBC.

Safety? No one thought of that

It wasn’t talked about in Ozjorsk or other towns around Majak, but there were always a lot of cancer cases there. “The problem with the Majak complex was that it was built in a big hurry. Stalin in his desire to match the US to the Soviet nuclear program, he gave the highest priority, and so when building the complexes necessary for this program, no one paid much attention to security measures,” said historian Perovic.

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It is telling in itself that such a giant complex was built in just three years. “Radioactive waste from it was then discharged directly into Lake Karačaj and the Teča River in the first years, which served as a drinking source for the inhabitants of all nearby villages,” the BBC outlines.

When the Soviet leadership and experts realized that the release of such dangerous substances could have dire consequences, underground tanks were built specifically for the storage of radioactive waste. And it was one of those reservoirs that became the cause of the Kystym disaster.

A tank that overheated

Dangerous radioactive material from the reactors was stored in the tanks for years and no one cared much about it or the places where it was stored. “It was later discovered that the cooling system of one of the tanks had failed and was not repaired for a year,” outlines the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The tank gradually began to overheat and the material in it reacted sharply to the increase in temperature. On the twenty-ninth of September 1957, the tank could no longer hold. “There was such a violent chemical explosion that a huge amount of radioactive material was thrown into the air,” radiochemist George Steinhauser summarized for the BBC.

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Even the 160-ton layer of concrete above the tank did not contain the explosion. Modern science assessed the explosion as a level 6 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). This makes it the third most serious nuclear accident in history, with only the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents from later years behind Level 7.

Secrecy above all else. Even over lives

Despite the obvious seriousness of the situation, after the explosion, the Soviet leadership tried to do one thing – to cover up the whole thing. “It was clear that the radioactive cloud would affect a region with tens or hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, but the authorities were very vague about the evacuation,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica.

Estimates of the number of people affected by the radioactive cloud vary, but there is also talk of half a million inhabitants. The regime finally decided to gradually evacuate approximately eleven thousand people from the twenty-three nearest villages. By the way, the city of Ozjorsk, from which employees were called to clean up the damage in Mayak, was not affected by such a thing. “The Soviet regime at the time was obsessed with keeping information secret. So even though there was an evacuation, residents were not told the real reason. They were told, for example, that they had to leave because some strange disease was spreading in the area,” noted historian Perovic.

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In addition, the evacuation was extremely slow. “The first forced evacuations of people from the surrounding villages did not begin until a full seven days after the explosion,” according to a video by the Cold War channel. The last of the demarcated villages was then evacuated almost two years after the accident.

Nothing was rushed and nothing was released even after the surrounding hospitals were overwhelmed with cases of radiation sickness. “Secrecy was maintained at all costs. There were two main reasons for this. First, the nuclear weapons development program was classified, the entire Majak complex was classified. Second, at the time, the Soviets managed to put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space, which was a tremendous (propaganda) success. So to talk about any accident at that moment would have been a disaster for the Soviet Union – which certainly wouldn’t have fit into the story promoted at the time about how technologically advanced the country was,” explained historian Perovic.

The child with six fingers

In the Western media, the first news about the Kyshtym disaster (named after a nearby town whose existence, unlike Ozjorsk, was known) appeared already in 1958. However, the details were not known, so no one looked into the news in depth.

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Medvedev’s expert article published in the 1970s caused a much greater stir. Scientists managed to trace a strangely increased level of radioactivity in the Chelyabinsk region, as well as an increased number of cancer cases there. “Around the time his article came out, an anti-nuclear group led by attorney Ralph Nader in the US approached the CIA with a request to release the information. The agency managed to discover these when it carried out several spy flights over the Ural region. Following this request, the CIA partially confirmed the suspicions that Medvedev mentioned in the article, but provided very few details. The American government also kept silent about the accident for a long time, apparently out of concern for its own nuclear program,” encyclopedia Britannica reminds us.

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When, after 1989 (albeit again with minimal details), the Russian media also published the news about the disaster, people were left in shock. After years, the evacuees finally learned at least part of the story. “I was shocked. I asked my mom if she knew. And she told me, yes, I worked there, I knew. I asked if my father and my grandmother died of cancer because of this accident. And she replied that yes, they were among the liquidators and received large doses of radiation. And so I asked how she could have lived in such a lie for years,” said Kutepová, a former resident of Ozjorsk.

By the way, she added that the consequences of radiation are also borne by generations born later in Ozjorsk. For example, her son was born with six fingers. “The sixth finger was cut off during the operation,” she said with tears in her eyes.

The employees of the Majak nuclear complex live in the long-secret town of Ozjorsk.  The picture is from 2008.The employees of the Majak nuclear complex live in the long-secret town of Ozjorsk. The picture is from 2008.Source: Wikimedia Commons, Sergey Nemanov, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, even if people learned that an accident had taken place at all, the details remain secret to this day. The lighthouse still works today, albeit with a smaller number of employees (around 15,000). And it is still among the largest Russian plants for the processing of radioactive materials. So even the leadership of the Russian Federation is not too eager to know more about the activities of this complex than is absolutely necessary.

A big unknown in the whole story remains (and will probably remain) how many victims the disaster actually had. “It is very difficult to determine how many people succumbed to diseases caused by the release of dangerous substances after the explosion, especially cancer. There are no official statistics. We can only estimate, and we estimate that there may be tens of thousands of victims,” ​​confirmed the historian Perovic.