The Kyshtym Explosion

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Subject essay: Kate Brown

On a sunny warm September day in 1957, an explosion rocked the pleasant, leafy, closed nuclear city called Cheliabinsk-40. The city was one of ten closed, nuclear cities in the USSR, known under the acronym, ZATO. Closed nuclear cities were well-supplied, comfortable, child-centered communities where workers received higher wages, better health care, housing, and educational opportunities for their children. To work in a ZATO, employees were vetted for their political reliability and medical health. They signed oaks of secrecy. The factory the workers at the closed city served made plutonium for Soviet nuclear weapons.

The source of the September 29 blast was an underground storage tank at the Maiak Plutonium Production Plant. The tank held highly radioactive waste which overheated and blew, belching up a 160-ton cement cap buried twenty-four feet underground and tossing it in the air. A column of radioactive dust and smoke rocketed skyward for a half mile, which sent down a sooty fallout. The blast issued into the earth’s atmosphere 20 million curies.

The plant leadership was out of town on that day. Later, they were located at the Moscow circus. No plans were in place for a nuclear emergency. Soldiers were sent in to clean up the blast. Prisoners in barracks living nearby were left in place. Several dozen people suffering radiation poisoning were rushed to the local hospital. Plutonium plant workers, as they heard rumors and saw fallout fall from the sky grew nervous. In the months that followed, three thousand employees quit their top-secret and well-paid jobs and left. Plant managers spent 11 million rubles on public relations programs to assure residents of the city’s safety. They also used the closed city’s gates and security measures to bar contaminants from entering the city. They turned away vehicles at the city gates registering high levels of contamination. They also banned soldiers and temporary clean-up workers from entering the closed city. Those measures worked. Valuable employees ceased to leave, and ones who had left asked to return after they realized how hard it was to live outside the closed city, where stores were empty and services miserable.

In the farmland surrounding Cheliabinsk-40, however, the accident was less successfully “liquidated.” In the hours after the explosion, a thick cloud of radioactive gas spread two million curies of radioactivity onto neighboring farmland, leaving a trace of contaminated territory four miles wide and thirty miles long. The fallout blanketed the territory where farmers in 87 villages were harvesting the year’s bumper crop. Villagers heard the blast and noticed the “gray rain,” and continued working. The next day, soldiers in protective jumpsuits arrived and instructed farmers to bury their crops in pits. Children, women and men all undertook this task with bare hands and often bare feet. The children became the first children to serve as liquidators of a nuclear disaster. Radiation monitors followed. They measured fields, homes, animals, bodies, and found all of it contaminated. The bellies of children registered 40-50 microroentgen a second. In several villages that recorded 400 microroentgens a second the levels were high enough to get a life threatening dose in a month. Three of the most contaminated villages were evacuated in the following ten days. By the end of 1958, soldiers resettled four more villages and planned to resettle more, but because the costs of rebuilding villages were high, they set up a brokerage system whereby monitors purchased and destroyed produce that registered above a threshold. Villagers that were not resettled have been trying with little success since the early 2000s to win lawsuits against the Russian government for damages for what they claim are increased rates of disease, birth defects and cancers in the region because of their exposures.

Abroad, American intelligence got wind of the disaster and in 1979 the Zhores Medvedev, a Russian dissident and biologist published a book about the disaster in the United States, and it became known as the “Kyshtym disaster,” named after a nearby village, the only population point on published maps. The closed city of Cheliabinsk-40, now called Ozersk, only appeared on maps in 1989. Medvedev’s book was the first public mention of the cloistered city.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Soviet officials created a research station in the East Urals Radioactive Trace, the world’s first outdoor radio-ecology laboratory.  Scientists studied how to clean soils of radioactive elements and grow produce clean enough for human consumption as a way to learn how to survive nuclear war. This research proved valuable thirty years later for a different reason when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in April 1986 and contaminated large portions of Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia.

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