The third most serious peacetime atomic/nuclear disaster in history took place on September 29,1957, at the Mayak Nuclear Plant in south-central Russia. It is known as the Kyshtym Disaster. Like its two (2) infamous cohorts, the Kyshtym Disaster likely could have been avoided. Unlike the other two (2) tragedies, the world did not find out about this accident until well after it had occurred. In fact, the Soviet Union did not even officially acknowledge it happened until 30 years after the fact.
Rumors and unconfirmed stories of an atomic/nuclear mishap swirled around Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it wasn’t until the book, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals by Zhores Medvedev was published in 1979 that world community became fully aware of the scale and scope of this hidden atomic disaster. According to the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority’s report:
“On the 29th September the cooling systems of one of the waste storage tanks failed and the temperature began to rise inside the tank. Evaporation of the cooling liquid in the tank and the rise in temperature of the 70 to 80 tonnes of radioactive waste present resulted in a chemical explosion within the tank at around 4:20 pm in the afternoon, which later became known as the Kyshtym accident. This explosion resulted in a considerable loss of the tank’s integrity and the ejection of radioactive material into the surrounding environment. The resultant aerosol plume attained an altitude of some 1000 m and resulted in wide ranging dispersal of the ejected material. Approximately 90% of the 740 PBq of mixed fission products released were deposited as particulate material within 5 km of the tank whilst the remaining 74 PBq of radioactive material was deposited as dry fallout over an area some 30-50 km in width and some 300 km in length stretching north-north east of the Mayak facility.”
As the map directly above depicts, an enormous area (more than 300 square miles) located to the northeast (downwind) of Mayak that was contaminated as a result of the disaster. This included numerous towns and villages which had to be evacuated either temporarily or permanently.
Beyond the extensive initial impacts from the explosion, the tragedy was amplified by poor emergency planning and responsiveness, continued shoddy operational procedures, and dangerous cleanup efforts that exposed many residents of the region to further doses of radiation. Among the horrific examples are:
A post-war population of mostly women and children [along with conscripts] were given rags and mops – and no protective gear – to sop up what they were told was the mess from a coal boiler explosion in the village of Kyshtym. The actual accident happened a few kilometers down the road in the closed city of Ozersk. Many clean-up workers faced lethal radiation doses of more than 100 Roentgen.
The fallout coated more than 200 towns and villages and exposed 272,000 people, a small portion of which were quietly evacuated over the subsequent two years, to radiation.
Government data now indicate that, as many as 400,000 people continue to struggle with continued contamination from the accident, made worse by a legacy inadequate waste handling practices and ongoing official negligence.
For decades after Mayak was founded to produce plutonium for Soviet atomic bombs, it dumped untreated radioactive waste directly into the nearby Techa River. Russian regulators say the plant stopped its dumps in 2004 – after a lawsuit and criminal charges unseated the plant’s scandal-tarred director.
a. bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/2017-10-the-worst-nuclear-disaster-youve-never-heard-of-celebrates-its-60th-birthday; and
The list provided below identifies those communities that were largely abandoned with all but one permanently depopulated. A number of these places were located in what is now known as the approximately 64 square mile East Ural Nature Reserve (see map above). Other cities and towns on the periphery of the reserve have been largely left to live with and/or adapt to the new contaminated paradigm in which they now exist.
Village/Population in 1957/Status
- Alabuga = 486 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Berdyanish = 421 – residents relocated and town demolished
- Boyovka = 573 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Bryukhanovo = 89 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Chetyrkino = 278 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Fadino = 266 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Galikayevo = 329 – residents relocated and town demolished
- Gorny = 472 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Gusevo = 331 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Igish = 223 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Kirpichiki = 160 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Klyukino = 346 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Krivosheino = 372 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Mal. Shaburovo = 75 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Melnikovo = 183 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Metlino = 631 – evacuated and then re-occupied
- Russian Karabolka = 458 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Satlykovo = 219 – residents relocated and town demolished
- Skorinovo = 170 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Troshkovo = 81 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Tygish = 441 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Yugo-Konevo = 2,045 – residents relocated – town abandoned and/or demolished
- Mahaffey, James. Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters, Simon & Schuster (Pegasus Books), 2015.