The Worst Nuclear Accident You Haven't Heard Of

When you think of nuclear disasters

You probably think of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the Fukushima plant in Japan, and maybe Three Mile Island. But Kyshtym is the third worst nuclear accident after Fukushima and Chernobyl. Not familiar with it? This is because it happened in 1957, when the Cold War was at its worst, deep in the Soviet Union's eastern Ural Mountains. No one, not even the people who were affected, knew about the details. Even the name is misleading, since it didn't take place in Kyshtym. It happened in the town of Chelyabinsk-65, which changed its name to Ozyorsk in the early 1990s. The Soviets said this town didn't exist.

In the Chelyabinsk area of Russia, plutonium facility No. 817 is run by the Mayak Production Association. During the Soviet era, no one who didn't work there knew where it was. It was called Chelyabinsk-40 because that was its postal code, and the town next to it was called Chelyabinsk-65. After World War II, the facility was built quickly so that Japan could catch up to the United States in nuclear weapons technology. The plant, which had six reactors, used nuclear materials to make plutonium that could be used in weapons. At the time, not much was known about how radioactive materials affected people who worked with them, and even the risks that were known were ignored by Soviet leaders who were in a hurry to make nuclear weapons. Around this building, the town of Ozyorsk grew.

From the start, the plant was dangerous. People got rid of radioactive waste by throwing it into the Techa River. On-site trash was dumped, and smoke was let out into the air without caring what was in it. Workers had very little protection, and most of the work was thought to have been done by prisoners who were forced to do it. The first nuclear accident on record happened there in 1953, but no one noticed until a worker got sick from radiation (his legs were eventually amputated due to radiation burns, but he survived). There were also four other workers who were hurt. It was the first of many things that went wrong at the facility over many years.

On September 29, 1957, one of the cooling systems at the Mayak plant stopped working. Nobody knew about it until it was too late. A cloud of radioactive material fell over an area of 20,000 square kilometers after a waste tank exploded. Even though there were 270,000 people living there, only 11,000 left (and that took up to two years to accomplish). Those who stayed behind were forced to help clean up the mess by killing contaminated crops and animals. They worked without anything to protect them from the radiation, and then they went home.

Many of the peasants who lived near the Mayak plant didn't understand why the Soviets did what they did. When farmers in the village of Korabolka saw the explosion, they thought a global nuclear war had started. In just a few days, radiation poisoning killed 300 of the village's 5000 people. There were plans for an evacuation, but only people of Russian descent were moved. The Tatars who made up the other half of the village were left there. Since then, more than 50 years have passed, and many of the villagers still think they were left as an experiment. Korabolka, which is now called Tatarskaya Korabolka, has five times the rate of cancer of a village that is not contaminated. In other villages in the area, there are more cases of cancer, genetic problems, and other diseases.

The Western press didn't know much about what happened. There were rumors, but no real information about what happened until 1976, when biologist and Soviet dissident Dr. Zhores Medvedev wrote about the disaster in the magazine New Scientist. Even as late as 1982, scientists in the West were not sure that pollution in the area was caused by a nuclear accident and not by pollution from factories. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, information came out in small pieces.

Chelyabinsk is dirty for more than just the disaster at Kyshtym. From 1949 to 1956, trash was dumped in the Techa River. The villages downriver are still getting sick because of this. Those who didn't leave Muslumovo in the 1950s and 1960s were left there and cared for by national radiation experts. They studied the people as `a natural experiment` to learn more about how nuclear war affects people. The research was kept from the villagers, so they didn't know why so many of them were sick. When Soviet records were made public in 1992, it became clear what the Muslumovo experiment was all about. Even back then, one pediatrician thought that 90 percent of the children in the village had genetic problems and that only 7 percent were healthy.

In 1987, the Mayak plant stopped making weapons-grade plutonium, but it still works in Chelyabinsk, where it reprocesses used nuclear fuel that comes from all over Russia. The plant's safety features are much better now than they were during the Soviet era. Different people have different ideas about how dangerous the plant's radiation is right now.

People have said that the area around the reactor site is the most polluted place on earth. The people in the village who were hurt by the disaster and the long-term pollution from industry are still fighting to be moved and given money. We probably will never know how many people died because of nuclear contamination. There are many reasons for this, and it's also hard to figure out how bad the contamination was 50 years ago. And because the Soviet Union hid information and documents, it is very hard to study the event now. Even now, Russia doesn't like it when people question the official story.