Kyshtym-57: A Siberian Nuclear Disaster

Oct 10, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012]

On September 29, 1957 residents of the Chelyabinsk area in the extreme southwestern corner of Siberia saw a pillar of smoke and dust up to a kilometer high, glimmering with orange-red light. A week later, on October 6, a local Chelyabinsk newspaper published the following note (translation mine):

“Last Sunday night… many residents of Chelyabinsk observed a peculiar glimmer in the starlit sky. This shimmering light, very rare at our latitude, had all the characteristics of Northern Lights. Intense red light, sometimes crossing into pale pink and pale blue glow, first occupied a large portion of the southwest and northeast part of the sky. Around 11pm it could be observed in the northwest direction…”

This note optimistically closed with the following statement: “Northern Lights will be observable at the latitude of South Urals in the future as well”. Little did the writer – or the Chelyabinsk residents who witnessed these “Northern Lights” – know that this was no natural phenomenon at all, but rather signs of a man-made catastrophe: an explosion of a nuclear waste storage tank at the Mayak nuclear complex, followed by a release of an estimated 70 to 80 tons of radioactive materials into the air. This disaster is now categorized as Level 6 on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), making it the world’s third most serious nuclear accident ever recorded (after the Chernobyl disaster, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, both Level 7 on the INES scale).


The Kyshtym-57 disaster, as it became known, took place about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, but it might as well have been on another planet for all that people of the Soviet Union knew of its existence. The secrecy surrounding the event was so great that even its name bears the mark of a cover-up. The disaster occurred in the town of Ozyorsk, a closed city off-limits to foreigners, built around the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. To keep its existence a secret, the town was not marked on Soviet maps and did not even have its own name: until 1994, it was known simply as Chelyabinsk-65 (and even earlier, as Chelyabinsk-40), a name based on the nearest city and the last two digits of the postal code. Since neither Ozyorsk nor Mayak officially existed, the disaster was named after Kyshtym, the nearest town that was marked on maps. The first vague reports of a “catastrophic accident” causing radioactive fallout over the Soviet Union appeared in the Danish daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende in April 1958, which linked the fallout to an accident during a nuclear test in the preceding month. Some time later, American nuclear experts in Los Alamos came to suspect that the fallout was due to a large nuclear blast during military exercises. It was only in 1976 that the nature and extent of the disaster became known to the world, thanks to a book published by Zhores Medvedev, Russian biologist and dissident. In 1980 a group of American nuclear scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory published a paper in which they analyzed maps before and after the accident, which revealed that a number of settlements had disappeared. As a result, they concluded that a massive nuclear accident must have happened in that area in 1957-1958.

The chemical explosion at Chelyabinsk was caused by a fault in the reactor’s cooling system. In an incredible display of poor engineering and cavalier attitudes towards nuclear safety, the design of the nuclear waste storage tanks did not allow repairs of the cooling system if it began to fail. When the coolant tubing in one of the tanks started leaking in 1956, the flow of water was simply shut off. Predictably, the temperature inside the tank rose to 350 degrees Celsius, and eventually “the tank exploded due to a severe chemical reaction of sodium nitrate and acetate salts inside the tank” (Samuel U. Newtan, Nuclear War I and Other Major Nuclear Disasters of the 20th Century, p. 237). The force of the explosion, estimated at about 8-10 metric tons of TNT, threw the concrete containing lid – weighing 160 tons and buried 8.2 meters under ground – into the air, EURTreleasing large quanitities of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In the next 10 to 11 hours, the radioactive cloud moved to the northeast, reaching a position 300-350 kilometers from the accident. The fallout from the cloud resulted in the long-term contamination of more than 800 square kilometers, primarily with caesium-137 and strontium-90. This area, approximately 300 kilometers long and 5-10 kilometers wide (see map) is usually referred to as the East-Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT).

Though there were no immediate casualties from the explosion, 270,000 people in Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tumen oblasts were exposed to dangerous radiation levels. The exact fatality figures are difficult to find, as sources contradict each other. One study, published in Journal of Radiation and Environmental Biophysics in 2002, provides a conservative estimate of at least 200 deaths from cancer. But an earlier Soviet study, mentioned by Neil Schlager in his 1994 book When Technology Fails, concluded that 8,015 people had died within the preceding 32 years as a result of the accident. Regardless of the death count, twenty communities with a total population of around 10,000 had to be evacuated – and removed from Soviet maps. Houses, livestock, and personal property were simply destroyed. Soldiers were given orders to burn the houses in order to prevent people from returning to their old homes; due to the secrecy surrounding the disaster, local residents were never given any explanation for the evacuation,. The first expulsions started only a week after the accident, on the same day that the Chelyabinsk paper published the note about the “Northern Lights”. At other sites in the highly contaminated area, such as Krivosheino, Chetyrkino, and Klyukino, it took almost 2 years before evacuations even started. To further hide the traces of the accident, the Soviet government disguised the EURT area by creating the East-Ural Nature Reserve in 1968, which prohibited any unauthorized access to the affected area. Only in 1989, thirty-two years after the disaster and three years after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, did the Soviets officially admitted that Kyshtym-57 actually happened, declassifying documents pertaining to the disaster the year after that.

The root causes of this disaster were systemic. In the years following the American nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union, which lagged behind the U.S. in development of nuclear weapons, started a crash R&D program to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The Mayak plant was built in a great hurry between 1945 and 1948 to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Due to a poor understanding of nuclear safety issues as well as a general disregard for human life and environmental health, all six reactors at Mayak used an open cycle cooling system, discharging irradiated water directly back into Lake Kyzyltash. An equally nonchalant attitude was evident in the authorities’ reaction to the disaster. Not only were people in nearby settlements not evacuated immediately or even warned of the dangers, but little was done to prevent contamination from spreading in towns and villages around the site. According to one eye-witness’s recollection (translation mine),

“They didn’t pay attention to contaminated streets, dining establishments, shops, schools, kindergartens. In the first hours after the explosion, radiation was brought into town on the tires of cars and buses, on clothing and shoes of industrial site workers. The most contaminated were the centrally located Lenin street… and the School street, where the directorship of the complex lived.”


Measures to contain the spread of contamination were eventually taken: vehicles from the site were not allowed to enter the towns and workers were checked for radioactivity upon entering settlements. In a sense, this accident served as a warning for those running the Soviet Union’s nuclear facilities. But ultimately the lessons of Kyshtym-57 were never learned. Currently, the level of radiation in Ozyorsk itself, which is still a closed city, is claimed to be safe for humans, but the EURT area is still heavily contaminated. Nor was the 1957 disaster an isolated incident at this site. Direct releases of liquid radioactive waste into the Techa River, which discharges into the Arctic Sea through the Ob River, have been occurring from the beginning of Mayak’s operation to the present day, poisoning the drinking and agricultural water for 124,000 people. Ten years after the 1957 disaster, another accident spread radioactive dust from the bottom of the dried-up Lake Karachay, which served as an open-air storage vessel for liquid radioactive waste. All in all, an estimated 800-1,200 square miles of fields, grasslands, lakes, and forests – roughly equivalent to the land area of the state of Rhode Island – were contaminated and made unusable. More than 400,000 people in 217 settlements were exposed to dangerous radiation levels by the various accidents at this plant. Today, the Mayak nuclear complex remains in operation, is still government-run, and continues to be plagued by periodic malfunctions. According to a Greenpeace report, at least two accidents, although not on as massive a scale as the 1957 disaster, occurred in 2007 alone.


Nuclear accidents plague not only military installations like the Mayak plant, but nuclear power plants as well. For example, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnovy Bor some 70 km (43 miles) from the city center, has seen several accidents, including a partial nuclear meltdown in 1975, a leak of radioactive gases in 1992, and an explosion and fire in 2005. Naturally, such accidents fuel fears of nuclear contamination, influencing the continuing public debate about the merits and dangers of atomic energy. Currently, Russia receives roughly 16% of its electricity supply from nuclear rectors. Most of its nuclear facilities are in European Russia, but the Bilibino plant is located on the Arctic Sea in Chukotka in far northeastern Siberia. Elsewhere in Russia, six nuclear power reactors are currently under construction. In the wake to of Japan’s recent nuclear disaster, the Russian government is conducting “stress tests” of its existing facilities to see how they would fare in the event of a major earthquake.





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