Coming in third behind the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima Disaster in 2011, the incident that happened in 1957 at the Mayak Nuclear Processing Plant registered as a six on the INES scale. Once again, not many villages surrounding the area were made known of the dangerous levels of radiation within the area due to the security measures at the plant and were evacuated from their homes about a week later without knowing the actual cause of their evacuation. The location of the plant has been known as the Mayak Plant within the town of Ozyorsk, Russia. We know it today as the Kyshtym Disaster due to Kyshtym being the closest populated city within the region in 1957 as the Mayak/Ozyorsk Plant was officially put on the map in 1994.
Once again, Mayak was a product of the post-World War Two nuclear race between the United States and Russia. Russia was rapidly falling behind of the U.S. so they dumped more and more resources into rapid research and development of nuclear technologies for both energy and defensive (offensive) purposes. Production began in 1945 and was not operational until 1948 while a clear misunderstanding of nuclear energy at the time also held Russian scientist back when it came to discovery as well as putting safety measures in place. Also, with being built in the 1940’s, many environmental precautionary measures were also not thought of when considering the likelihood of a miscue within operations at the plant.
When production first started the Mayak plant was simply dumping radioactive waste into a nearby river as they paid no mind to what affect it couple have on the surrounding ecosystems or village peoples who use the water systems of the area to survive. This initial dumping site leaked into the Ob River that was a main river in the area that linked directly into the Arctic Ocean. An estimated 100 PBq of radioactive discharge was released into the river system between the years of 1949 and 1956 (compared to Fukushima releasing 78 PBq into the Pacific Ocean). All six reactors within the Mayak plant were built alongside Lake Kyzyltash and they all used an open cycle cooling system, which resulted in the contamination of the lake itself. Basically the plant sucked in water from the lake to cool their reactors, then dumped it directly back into the lake after the water was tainted and essentially radioactive at this point. Once the water of Lake Kyzyltash reached an un-godly level of contamination, the plant decided to use Lake Karachay for an open-air storage system. This decision quickly turned Lake Karachay into one of the most polluted dumpsites on the planet. In 1953 Mayak finally decided to dispose of waste underground in several steel tanks and quickly ran into another issue, there were reactions taking place within the tanks, which heated the waste inside. As a counter-measure they built refrigeration units around the storage tanks a mere 25 feet underground, while not having the operational capacity to properly monitor these tanks.
September 29th, 1957 will be a day that the surrounding areas of Mayak will never forget. On this day, one of the tanks, which contained around 80 tons of liquefied radioactive waste, exploded when the cooling systems failed. The temperature inside the container started to rise due to reactions taking place and the absence of a cooling system and due to evaporation, exploded due to chemical reactions within the dried up radioactive waste. The initial explosion had the estimated force of around 100 tons of TNT and shot the 160-ton concrete lid of the tank into the air as if it is was weightless. Although no initial casualties occurred from the explosion itself, an estimated 20 MCi (800 PBq) of radiation was released into the atmosphere almost immediately following the explosion. Although most of the radioactive materials settled near the site of the explosion, 2 MCi (80 PBq) of radionuclides were released into the environment and was spread out over hundreds of kilometers surrounding the area. Over the next twelve hours a radioactive cloud moved north and carried radioactive material as far as 350 kilometers away from the initial blast site, primarily made up of Caesium-137 and Strontium-90. This area is now commonly known as the East-Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT) since the incident occurred and covers around 1500 square kilometers of land.
The surrounding areas were evacuated in the days following the incident but not in a timely manner to say the least, some villages took up to two years to be evacuated from the area with the quickest being evacuated within the first week of the explosion. In total around 20 villages where displaced along with over 10,000 residents having to move in order to escape the deadly effects that the radiation could have had on them and their offspring in years to come. Many reports came in the following weeks of a “catastrophic incident” that had occurred nearby but even as the villagers were being evacuated, they had no idea why. News of the incident did not hit the Western World until 1958 with details not surfacing until 1959 within a Viennese local newspaper. As mentioned before though, these were only vague reports with little detail as to what actually happened on that fateful day in September 1957. Finally, in 1976, a man by the name of Zhores Medvedev, a Russian biologist, made it clear to the world as to what exactly happened within the Mayak Plant. With the population having little to no facts or information after Zhores made the announcement, rumors and exaggerations of the effects of the explosion began to surface as people were claiming incidents of ‘mysterious’ diseases and reports of ‘skin melting off the faces of victims.’ Initially, Medvedev’s report was not recognized by Western scientists but was later confirmed by Professor Leo Tumerman, who is the former head of Biophysics at the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow, Russia.
Although it is unknown as to how many casualties occurred from this accident at Mayak due to radioactive induced cancers being indistinguishable from regular cancer cases, an estimated 8,015 people died as a direct result of the incident within the 32 years post-explosion. This does not seem like much of a number for 8,015 people to die within 32 years but compare this to the 6,000 death certificates from the same area, within the same timeframe, from all other causes of death. More than 60% of deaths within the EURT within that 32 timeframe were a result of the explosion within the Mayak Complex. Efforts to contain the spread of radioactive disease there were massive mounds of contaminated soil was excavated and piled within fenced enclosures dubbed as “Earth Graveyards.” In 1968, the Soviet government renamed the EURT to the East Ural Nature Reserve in an effort to produce a better image of the area and made it off-limits to any unauthorized personal to the radioactive areas. Reports also came out that the CIA knew of the incident in 1959 but kept it a secret from the population in order to avoid controversy surrounding America’s own nuclear endeavors and in 1989 the Soviet government started declassifying documents regarding the incident which made the official information available to the public for the first time. Today, radiation levels of most of the affected area are around 0.1 mSv per year and is claimed to be safe for humans once again, although the EURT is still contaminated and off-limits, as it would cause health damages to anyone exposed to the radiation of the area.