Skip to comments.Soldiers of the Chelyabinsk Chernobyl
Posted on 04/15/2004 11:34:59 PM PDT by struwwelpeter
At the end of September, 1957, there was an explosion in one of the most secret facilities of a "city without name". This was kept classified for over thirty years, and was known but to a few who had been in the region during the catastrophy. Nowadays the name of the secret city is known - Chelyabinsk, and the facility where the explosion occurred - Mayak, which at the time was known only by the cover name Chelyabinsk-40. Later the birthplace of the Soviet Union's first nuclear activities was renamed Chelyabinsk-65, and nowadays is known by the name of Ozersk.
There are a lot of lakes around Ozersk, whose name is derived from the word 'lake'. For the longest time these beautiful spots belonging to the Russian industrialist Demidov. Some small smelting plants produced copper and pig-iron, and the products of Demidov's factories were in demand far beyond Russia's boundaries.
After WW II top-secret facilities were built in the region. "Cold War" with the US required the immediate construction of an atomic bomb as a counterweight to the American bomb. The scientific-industrial concern Mayak became the first facility in the Soviet Union to produce military plutonium. The successful test of the Soviet atomic bomb carried with it great political and military implications, alarming US President Harry Truman's administration. From 1949 on the secret facility was producing weapons-grade plutonium, and it's been said that a capsule containing the first grams of this deadly element was carried from the reactor by I.V. Kurchatov in his naked hands.
Little was known in 1957 about the possible fatal consequences of radiation. Scientists were confused by the mysteries of this "invisible death", and there had already been casualties - soldiers and officers of the interior ministry, who were tasked with guarding these unusual facilities.
On October 7th, 1957, then interior minister N. Dudorov received a secret report - an explosion of volatile gases has occurred in a special storage facility. Due to this blast, large quantities of radioactive particles were released, and a cloud of these particles contaminated site. Later, a wind picked up, and the cloud was carried away in a northeasterly direction. The immediate area of the catastrophy and all along the cloud's path was seeded with many tiny radioactive particles, creating a huge zone of contamination in the Kaslinskiy region.
For seven years after the development of the first Soviet atomic bomb, removal of nuclear wastes was performed by simply dumping them in the nearby Techa and Iset' rivers. Later wastes were tossed into lake Karachai, but this was determined to too hazardous, and wastes were sealed in huge metal vessels similar to boilers. Unfortunately, too much material was stored together in too large of an area, leading to radioactive over-heating, and the development of high-pressure steam. Eventually one of the giant metal vessels ruptured.
The authors of the book Sorokovki (People from 'Forty'), V. Novoselov and V. Tolstikov, write that September 29th, 1957, was a beautiful day, sunny and very warm. Residents of Chelyabinsk-40 occupied themselves with their usual activities, and many were located in the "Chemist" football stadium, where a match between the two city teams was underway.
"At about 4:30 PM we heard an explosion from the industrial complex, but few residents paid any attention to it. In those days many construction sites blasted holes instead of excavating, so it was not a rare occurence. According to some eye-witnesses, after the explosion a column of smoke and dust rose to the height of about a kilometer, and it shined with a red-orange color. It was like an imitation of the Northern Lights."
And so, almost thirty years before Chernobyl, one of the most serious nuclear accidents in history occurred at the Mayak chemical factory. For the longest time all information about the accident was kept a closely guarded secret. Practically no one knew about it in the West until in 1979 Soviet dissident and scientist Z. Medvedev published the book Nuclear Catastrophy in the Urals, which discussed the tragedy. Even after the book's release, many American specialists continued to believe that the Soviet Union tested their nuclear weapons on Novaya Zemlya, and the contamination in the southern Urals was fallout from one of these tests.
A large brochure and several articles have since been published, discussing the history of nuclear industry in our country, so these days it's hardly a secret. But back then no one knew that 20 million curies of radioactive materials had been released and that in the eastern Urals a territory of 250 thousand square kilometers with a populaton of 270 thousand was contaminated. (Chernobyl's nuclear footprint: 200 thousand sq. km.)
Eighteen million curies which had been blown out of the storage container fell within the industrial complex, while about 2 million curies of waste was tossed into the air and "gone with wind". The radioactive cloud covered many areas of the Mayak chemical plant: the reactor factories, a radiochemical production facility, the fire and security buildings, and the construction and prison labor barracks as well. In the construction and prison labor barracks at the time there were about three thousand workers.
Also located in the area of contamination were about 200 university students from Moscow, attending a secret course of studies at the plant. They were quartered in the construction barracks, and on September 29th were having a party with young soldiers from the security regiment. When the mighty explosion rang out, all of the windows in the barracks were blown inward and even the metal exit doors were knocked from their hinges. The soldiers first ran out into the street, and many rushed to the armory for weapons. The guard at the main gate jumped into a sewer manhole and took up a defensive position.
Over the nuclear waste storage site a cloud of dust arose, which was soon blown in the direction of the soldiers and students. Soon a thick, greyish-brown cloud hung over the barracks, and the sky darkened in the middle of the bright, sunny day. People were terribly frightened, and the guard dogs carried on as if it was the end of the world, howling without pause. Birds, which moments before had been singing and playfully flying about the roofs and trees, suddenly dissappeared.
During the first hours after the explosion, large particles fell onto the soldiers, students, workers, and prisoners. The radioactivity of these particles was the greatest. Smaller particles, some similar to cotton in appearance, continued to fall into the next day.
Geiger-counter specialists were summoned by telephone just as soon as the radioactive cloud covered the military base. After a few readings, the "dozimetristy" declared that everyone must immediately evacuate the contaminated area. As a precaution everyone was sent for a special scrubbing in the showers, but this had rather weak results.
On the next day, September 30th, they removed weapons and ammunition from the contaminated area. Some of the weapons were so heavily contaminated that it was necessary to toss them into old boilers, which were then welded shut and buried as deep as possible. Weapons which were less highly contaminated were washed. First the wooden parts were scrubbed with steel wool until all the lacquer was removed, then the metal parts rubbed down with sandpaper. But these weapons could not be completely cleaned, and the regimental armorer refused to accept "contaminated" weapons. And so, several soldiers continued to serve with radioactive weapons.
Less intense radioactive contamination fell across a larger area. The width of the Strontium-90 plume was about 8-9 kilometers, and a strong southwest wind blew the cloud over the forests, fields, and lakes of the Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tyumen districts. From twenty-three nearby villages it was necessary to evacuate more than ten thousand people.
In 1958 around 59 thousand hectares in Chelyabinsk district were removed from agricultural production, and another 47 thousand hectares in the Sverdlovsk district. For two years the lands were considered too contaminated to farm.
As a result of the accident about 124 thousand people received lethal exposures to radiation. In the spring of 1963, as if to add to the woes of the district, there was a drought and the normally shallow and swampy Lake Karachai dried out completely. A dust storm arose from the bottoms of the lake, where several years of nuclear waste lay waiting, and another forty thousand victims were added to the list. The Kyshtymsk tragedy - as these catastrophies came to be known - in total even dwarfs Chernobyl.
It's worth the clicks to the end.
I had heard of reference to the Ural incident, but never read anything on it. Thanks for the info.
Oh the Ironies of Soviet Communism. The Russian nuclear program kills almost as many Russians, if you include Chernobyl, as Japanese were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.