Today marks the 54th anniversary of the world’s first major nuclear disaster—the Kyshtym Disaster. The incident was due to failing to keep nuclear waste cool, resulting in it overheating and causing a chemical explosion equivalent to 70 or more tons of TNT. Only 1986’s Chernobyl reactor explosions and this year’s Fukishima meltdowns are considered worse catastrophes.
Mayak, then called Chelyabinsk-40 after the region’s largest city and Mayak’s postal code, spewed Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 into the atmosphere, contaminating an area of about 800 km2 (309 sq. mi.) and killing at least 200. The affected area was marked off and called the Taganai Nature Preserve. The accident was kept secret until the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, we know the contaminated area as the East Ural Radioactive Trace (UART) and we classify Kyshtym as a level 6 event on the 0-7 international event scale.
In fact, the Mayak complex was an on-going disaster from it’s first days. From its start-up in 1948, the plant, which produced weapons-grade plutonium from uranium, dumped the nuclear waste directly into the Techa River. In 1951, Soviet officials surveyed the river, finding extremely high radiation levels within 4 miles of the plant, affecting 28,000 people. They relocated about 7,500 villagers and fenced off the river. Doctors regularly checked sick residents but told them it was the flu, poor lifestyles, or even made-up maladies while the Soviets gathered data on health effects of radiation and long-term exposures. The people figured it out after Chernobyl, but the Russian Federation still has not relocated them and continues to collect data. Some are bribed to stay in the area with so-called “polluted zone” stipends.
After they stopped dumping into the river, Mayak engineers stored the nuclear waste in tanks of water for initial cooling. A faulty design led to some tanks not being cooled enough, which led to the 1957 accident. After cooling, the radioactive slurry was deposited in a retention pond called Lake Karachary. A drought in 1967 resulted in half the lake drying up. As a result, the exposed radioactive sediment was spread by the winds across the region, adding to the fallout from 10 years earlier.
Ozyorsk (alternatively Oszersk) remains a closed city and Mayak site is still operating. Mayak’s primary activity is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from power plants. The facility also demilitarizes atomic weapons and has extensive research activities. Dubbed “Russia’s ticking time-bomb”, Mayak continues to experience routine radioactive contamination.
Radioactive contamination has made its way down the Techa and Ob Rivers to the Arctic Ocean. Mayak remains a festering, open wound that continues to maim, malform, and sentence to death thousands from its far-reaching, long-standing, and growing radioactive morass.