Before information about it saw the light of day, the Soviets hid it for over 30 years. The explosion at the Mayak combine was the first nuclear accident in human history. A huge area was contaminated, and thousands of people suffered the health consequences of radiation. The Soviets' negligence and lack of knowledge endangered the health and lives of unsuspecting Soviet citizens. The priority was the nuclear race with the United States, and the loss of life, numbering in the hundreds and thousands, was a "calculated risk."
The combine's activities led to the displacement of more than 20,000 people, the exposure of more than 400,000 to radiation, and the destruction of more than 30 villages, and served up trace amounts of radioactive isotopes in bone tissue to European residents born after 1957.
The Manhattan Project was a secret U.S. government plan to obtain nuclear energy and use it to produce nuclear weapons. The program began in 1942 and ended in August 1945 after the successful use of two charges on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Soviets did not have the data to produce nuclear weapons but received them from American scientists sympathetic to the Communists.
Beria was the head of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR), Joseph Stalin's main instrument of genocide and terror.
Kurchatov was a nuclear physicist. He is considered the father of the Soviet atom.
The Soviets received plans for the construction of a nuclear bomb, as well as information about the materials needed to make the bomb. Based on the plans they received, they learned that they needed nuclear reactors, uranium, and plutonium, but had none of the above.
It accounted for 0.7% of natural uranium, and the required purity of uranium 235 in a nuclear bomb had to reach at least 80%.
To create a nuclear bomb, scientists would have to enrich uranium, but this was both difficult and expensive.
It takes one ton of uranium to produce 500 grams of weapons-grade plutonium (plutonium 239), and 5-10 kilograms of plutonium are required to make one nuclear bomb. The USSR in 1945 did not have such large uranium resources.
To this end, in 1945, they received orders from Stalin to build a suitable nuclear infrastructure to refine and process weapons-grade plutonium - the Mayak combine.
In 1945, the construction site was selected. The route chosen was between Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) and the industrial center of Chelyabinsk. The closest major urban center at the time was the city of Kyshtym (hence the name used to describe the disaster).
Construction of the combine began in 1946. Tens of thousands of people, including Gulag prisoners or captives, were involved in the construction. The construction site was closely guarded by NKVD foremen, as the entire installation had a "top secret" classification. Most workers had no idea what they were working on.
The construction site was located in the middle of the taiga, surrounded by lakes and rivers. Winter temperatures dropped below -30 degrees Celsius. Workers lived in dugouts, tents, barracks, and barns. They had no access to regular supplies of food, hygiene, or medical supplies. In addition, the equipment at their disposal constantly broke down, and horse-drawn carriages were used to haul away debris.
Work took place 24 hours a day, regardless of the prevailing weather conditions.
The October Revolution was an armed coup by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Republic in 1917 that led to the overthrow of the government and began a bloody chapter in Russian history.
Stalin's order was not carried out, the complex was put into operation almost a year late. In April 1947, only the excavation for the nuclear reactor was completed.
Initially, the town was called Base-10 (until 1954), Chelyabinsk-40 (until 1966), and Chelyabinsk-65 (until 1994) and was not visible on maps of the USSR. In 1954 it was granted city rights, and the official name of Ozyorsk was established in 1994.
The complex was given the name "Mayak Combine" at a much later stage, when not only the number of reactors increased, but also the radiochemical plant was expanded.
Estimates showed that the complex had enough neutrons necessary to convert uranium into weapons-grade plutonium.
Inadequate cooling of the reactor caused the fuel to fuse with graphite. Pressure from Stalin meant that the reactor's operation was not halted, and with the reactor on, inexperienced workers at the combine tried to fix the malfunction. The level of radiation around the reactor far exceeded standards.
Despite the constant malfunctions and high radiation, after six months of operation, they managed to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to construct the first bomb.
The RDS-1 bomb was detonated at the Semipalatinsk atomic training ground, with an explosive power of approximately 22 kilotons. It was a faithful copy of the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki.
The number of reactors was increased, and consequently, the rate and amount of weapons-grade plutonium produced from nuclear fuel increased. The amount of radioactive waste also increased proportionately.
Initially, the liquid waste, which included isotopes of Cesium (Cs-137) and Strontium (Sr-90), was poured into the Techa River. This practice was also used by the Americans - they poured waste from the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state into the Columbia River, but not in the same quantities as the Soviets.
The difference between the two rivers fundamentally affected the danger - the current of the Columbia River allowed the isotopes to travel faster toward the Pacific Ocean and spread evenly. The much weaker current of the Techa River caused radioactive isotopes to settle on its banks and in the river sediment.
More than 28,000 people lived along the river in 38 villages. For most of them, the Techa River was the only source of drinking water, they bathed in it and washed their clothes. As much as ¼ of the radioactive waste was Cesium and Strontium isotopes. They were deposited in bones and soft tissues, causing lesions leading to chronic radiation sickness.
The disease was regularly found in residents of riverside villages.
In 1953, the evacuation of people began. By 1960, some 7500 residents of 19 of the 38 villages with the highest number of sick people had been resettled.
Metal liquid waste tanks with a capacity of 300 cubic meters were located inside a cylinder made of cement. Between the tank and the cement wall was a free space into which water was poured to cool the tanks. The structure was covered with a layer of earth two meters thick. However, technicians working at Mayak did not spend enough time inspecting and maintaining the infrastructure. Nor were regular radiation measurements taken.
There were 20 radioactive waste tanks at the complex. As a result of radiation exposure, one of the metal tanks began to gradually corrode, leading to a loss of containment. About five months before the explosion, the tank contained 256 cubic meters of liquid waste. As a result of the loss of containment, the tank's contents began to seep into the cooling water, which intensified the corrosion of the steel. Measuring consoles indicating the state of the tank's contents and its temperature were damaged.
About an hour and a half before the explosion, yellow smoke began to escape from the tank, which was noticed by the technician on duty. He, along with the manager and three duty officers, decided to check the condition of the tank. The corridor leading to the tank was filled with smoke, so the technicians only made a quick verification of the electrical system.
Despite the increasingly poor visibility and rising temperatures in the building, the technicians decided that there was no danger.
Due to the lack of authority, no order was given to evacuate the workers and employees of the combine. The order came directly from Moscow after 24 hours. Most people were evacuated, but a sizable number stayed to ensure that the reactor's work was not interrupted.
Workers who stayed in Mayak were told they had to shower and change into clean clothes to counteract the radiation. Reports on the workers who remained in Mayak have not survived, and may not even have been written. Most likely, the hot showers accelerated the absorption of radioactive isotopes, which could have translated into the occurrence of radiation sickness, disability or even ended in death.
Livestock, dogs, and horses were kept in the vicinity of the Mayak combine. All of them were killed.
Within 100 meters of the blast's epicenter, gamma radiation exceeded 360 R/h, exceeding the annual norm by 18 million times. It thus took about 30 minutes to receive a lethal dose.
Within a radius of 55 kilometers from the epicenter of the explosion, gamma radiation exceeded the annual norm by 1080 times - it could take 3 to 5 years to receive a lethal dose of radiation.
A meter-long mound of earth was prepared at the epicenter of the explosion. Then Soviets drilled into the remaining cooling chambers and flooded them with water.
It is worth mentioning that at the same time, the reactor continued to operate, and its shutdown was not considered at all. Moreover, new reactors were being erected, increasing the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
A kilometer-long column of red-orange smoke rose above the tank that exploded.
Up to 10,000 people worked daily in the vicinity of the epicenter in three shifts. They were constantly exposed to absorbing a potentially lethal dose of radiation, but this did not prompt any precautions.
A "daily radiation standard" was set that a worker could take, but this was not verified in any way - working hours were extended, and many workers were not tested.
At the same time as external radiation, the process of irradiation continued continuously from within as well. Isotopes of cesium and strontium were deposited in the soft tissues and skeletal system, causing numerous survivors to develop malignant tumors over the following years.
Along the line of the radioactive footprint lay 217 settlements inhabited by more than 270,000 people.
Approximately 12,000 people lived in the evacuation area, and roughly 2000 in the area of the highest concentration of radiation. Resettlement decisions were not made immediately, and for some settlements it took as long as several weeks. Many residents at the time of resettlement had already absorbed a dose of radiation sufficient to develop radiation sickness.
Four villages - Bierdianysh, Saltykovo, Galikayevo, and Kirpichiki were evacuated within 7-14 days, and another 20 villages were evacuated within 8-22 months of the disaster.
The destroyed buildings were placed in pits and then buried. The villages were razed to the ground, and currently, none of them appear on the map.
Not only the atmosphere but also the soil, grass, and water were contaminated. In the villages closest to the epicenter of the explosion, such as Bierdianysh, cows or geese indicated very high radiation standards. Soldiers placed the animals in barns or silos and shot them.
Farm crops, fruits, vegetables, meat, or dairy products were confiscated. Some were disposed of, but a large percentage was consumed or sold in other parts of the country.
One of the settlements that was not resettled was Tatar Karabolka, located about 30 kilometers from the epicenter of the explosion. The village was inhabited by the Tatar minority. Residents born in the 1940s now believe that the decision not to resettle the village was made deliberately and that the residents of Tatar Karabolka were treated as a control group to study the effects of radiation on people.
Fortunately for the settlement, the wind bore the radiation away from Ozyorsk. Nevertheless, radiation in the town grew due to Mayak workers, who returned from work in irradiated shoes and clothes.
A fence was erected around the city, cutting it off from the outside world. Workers at the combine were required to sign a confidentiality clause, and any departure from the city was thwarted.
Due to the secrecy clause that Mayak was under, propaganda information about the accident and its aftermath was presented to residents. A week after the explosion, an article was published in a local newspaper that considered the column of smoke hovering over Mayak to be the aurora borealis.
The Soviets, despite the huge number of irregularities, expanded the combine by adding new reactors and increasing the production of weapons-grade plutonium. This affected the amount of waste produced, much of which was not stored in tanks.
For decades, excess waste was poured into Lake Karachay - the most radioactive place on the planet.
They also began to backfill the lake. However, they did it very ineptly and explained it by lack of funding.
With the funding received from the West (the US and the EU) after the collapse of the USSR, the plan to backfill Lake Karachay was successfully implemented in 2016. Currently, there are about 60 million Ci of cesium and strontium in the former lake.
It is now considered the third most serious nuclear disaster, behind Chernobyl and Fukushima. However, if the amount of Caesium (Cs-137) and Strontium (Sr-90) isotope emissions from both disasters is analyzed, it turns out that the Kyshtym disaster ranks second.
The Mayak tank explosion released 1,080,000 Ci of Cs-137 and Sr-90 into the atmosphere, while the Fukushima explosion released "only" 350,000 Ci of these isotopes, of which 280,000 Ci into the ocean and 70,000 Ci into the atmosphere.
The person responsible for providing this information was prosecutor Lev Ivanov, who was investigating the mysterious case of the Dyatlov Pass incident. Two of the participants in the tragic mountain expedition had worked at the Mayak combine, and one of them - Georgy Yuri Krivonishchenko - had participated in the cleanup of the 1957 explosion.
Ivanov was initially "encouraged" to close the investigation, and after the collapse of the USSR, he revealed information about the Mayak incident in a press interview.
The area of the reserve is 166.16 square kilometers. On its territory, the radiation index is still high. It is forbidden to hunt animals or collect berries and mushrooms, as well as any agricultural activity is prohibited, but this ban is often violated.
Some 217 species of birds are currently found there, including the bald eagle and the gray heron.
Aid was provided by the Americans and the European Union by implementing a number of financial instruments, including TACIS (Technical Assistance Program for the Commonwealth of Independent States) and, subsequently, ENPI (European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument).
The main thrust of the funding was to support radioactive waste disposal and neutralize the environmental threat. To this end, support was provided, among other things, for the construction of an advanced waste repository, which allowed the Mayak Combine to be transformed into a center for processing radioactive waste, but also for the production of commercial radioactive isotopes for medicine and industry.
A large area of the European Union was contaminated with the radioactive isotope ruthenium-106. Luckily, small amounts of the isotope did not adversely affect the health of European residents. The Russians have denied reports by scientists and analysts, claiming that the contamination occurred due to the failure of an orbiting satellite.
Official reports from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR indicate that during the 40-year history of the Mayak combine, 10,000 people experienced symptoms of radiation sickness, and 4000 died as a result of its acute course.
The disaster itself was said to have caused the deaths of "only" 200 people. The significant underestimation of these results is evidenced, among other things, by the failure to keep records of the catastrophe's liquidators and deaths among prisoners working at the combine. Reports from people working at the Chelyabinsk facility indicate that the death toll could have been more than 10,000, and those exposed to radiation sickness, disability, or malignant tumors even more than 400,000.
In 1996, information circulated the world from a resident of the Kaolinovo village (about 15 kilometers west of the Mayak combine) near Kyshtym, Tamara Prosvirina, who found a strange creature measuring 25 centimeters in the forest. The creature's body was covered with sparse hair, and its head was shaped like an onion. In addition, it had two teeth and no eyelids or genitals. Prosvirina took the creature home, fed it, and named it "Alyoshenka." Witnesses described the creature as not of this earth, and the press called it a "Kyshtym Dwarf."
Tamara suffered from mental disorders. After her health deteriorated, she was taken to the hospital, and Alyoshenka left alone in the house, died after about 10 days. The corpse of the creature was dried in the sun.
The mummy of the Kyshtim Dwarf was the subject of numerous studies.