Chelyabinsk, Russia

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Chelyabinsk, Russia

Chelyabinsk is the name of a province and its capital city in west-central Russia. It covers an area of about 34,000 mi2 (88,060 km2) and has a population of about 3.6 million. Chelyabinsk city lies on the Miass River on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains. Its population in 1990 was about 1.2 million.

Chelyabinsk is best known today as the home of Mayak, a 77-mi2 (200-km2) complex where nuclear weapons were built for the former Soviet Union. Because of intentional policy decisions and accidental releases of radioactive materials, Mayak has been called the most polluted spot on Earth.

Virtually nothing was known about Mayak by the outside world, the Russian people, or even the residents of Chelyabinsk themselves until 1991. Then, under the new philosophy of glasnost, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev released a report on the complex. It listed 937 official cases of chronic radiation sickness among Chelyabinsk residents. Medical authorities believe that the actual number is many times larger.

The report also documented the secrecy with which the Soviet government shrouded its environmental problems at Mayak. Physicians were not even allowed to discuss the cause or nature of the radiation sickness. Instead, they had to refer to it as the "ABC disease."

Chelyabinsk's medical problems were apparently the result of three major "incidents" involving the release of radiation at Mayak. The first dated from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, when radioactive waste from nuclear weapons research and development was dumped directly into the nearby Techa River. People downstream from Mayak were exposed to radiation levels 57 times greater than those at the better-known Chernobyl accident in 1986. The Gorbachev report admitted that 28,000 people received radiation doses of "medical consequence." Astonishingly, almost no one was evacuated from the area.

The second incident occurred in 1957, when a nuclear waste dump at Mayak exploded with a force equivalent to a five to 10 kiloton atomic bomb. The site had been constructed in 1953 as an alternative to simply disgorging radioactive wastes into the Techa. When the automatic cooling system failed, materials in the dump were heated to a temperature of 662°F (350°C). In the resulting explosion, 20 million curies of radiation were released, exposing 270,000 people to dangerous levels of radioactivity . Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States government, which had detected the accident, revealed the devastation at Mayak.

The third incident happened in 1967. In their search for ways to dispose of radioactive waste, officials at Mayak decided in 1951 to use Lake Karachay as a repository. They realized that dumping into the Techa was not a satisfactory solution, and they hoped that Karachaywhich has no natural outletwould be a better choice.

Unfortunately, radioactive materials began leaching into the region's water supply almost immediately. Radiation was eventually detected as far as 2 mi (3 km) away. The 1967 disaster occurred when an unusually dry summer diminished the lake significantly. A layer of radioactive material, deposited on the newly exposed shoreline, was spread by strong winds that blew across the area. This released radiation equivalent to the amount contained in the first atomic bomb explosion over Hiroshima.

[David E. Newton ]



Cochran, T. B., and R. S. Norris. "A First Look at the Soviet Bomb Complex." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 47 (May 1991): 25-31.

Hertsgaard, M. "From Here to Chelyabinsk." Mother Jones 17 (January-February 1992): 51-55+.

Perea, J. "Soviet Plutonium Plant 'Killed Thousands'." New Scientist 134 (20 June 1992): 10.

Wald, M. L. "High Radiation Doses Seen for Soviet Arms Workers." New York Times (16 August 1990): A3.