Kyshtym Disaster

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In 1957 a tank of liquid, highly radioactive waste left from reprocessing nuclear fuel, exploded in a region of the Soviet Union called Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains of Siberia. The accident was kept secret for several decades, but we now know that it was at a secret nuclear reprocessing site called Mayak. This accident resulted in a regional disaster and a radioactive cloud that contaminated more than 300 square miles… many people received very high radiation exposures, some suffered acute radiation syndrome. Because of secrecy in the nuclear establishment it is not clear what exactly happened but estimates are at least 200 people died of “excess” cancer and scores of villages and towns were permanently abandoned due to the sever radioactive contamination.[1]

The Kyshtym Disaster was an accident in the world's largest nuclear complex Mayak in Russia and is today one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world. Until Chernobyl, Mayak was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Unlike Chernobyl, it has received very little attention. The Mayak nuclear facility, until recently deleted from all Russian maps, is the size of a small city and has been used to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons and reprocess nuclear reactor fuel for over 50 years. Since the 1950s, accidental and deliberate releases of radiation have exposed over a quarter of a million people living around the plant to high levels of radiation. Thousands have died and many more live with its debilitating legacy: sickness, sterility and poverty. Now the Russian Government is considering plans to import nuclear waste to Mayak from around the world.[2]


The information in this section is extracted from the DVD "WASTELAND" by Greenworld, Sosnovy Bor Leningrad region.

The Kola NPP is located on the peninsula on the bank of Lake Imandra. There is no smoke visible from the NPP chimneys. (...) However, a price far too dear is paid for the wellbeing of the locals. Any nuclear power plant produces spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes which are extremely dangerous to all living things. Since the late 70-s the spent nuclear fuel from the VVER-440 reactors of the Kola NPP has been processed to produce new fuel for the RBMK reactors of the Leningrad NPP.

Alexey Yablokov, president of the Center for the Ecological Policy of Russia, Moscow:
People from North-West Russia, the Kola and Leningrad NPPs, Murmansk, from this whole region should not think that when the spent nuclear fuel is transported for re-processing elsewhere, their social responsibilities cease. Out of sight, out of mind. They all are responsible because Mayak is a highly polluting industry. It might be one of the worst offenders in polluting the environment.

The history of radiation accidents in the former Soviet Union originated in the Chelyabinsk region at the plutonium facility No 817 which is known today as the industrial enterprise "Mayak". The first nuclear reactor and radiochemical plant were built here in mid-40s of the 20th century. Here, on the southern bank of the Kiziltash lake, under conditions of total secrecy, in feverish haste burning out and wasting the workers the first Soviet atomic bomb was created. The liquid radioactive waste was discharged directly into the Techa river.

The managers of the enterprise knew that any remedial actions would have to be taken under conditions of high radiation but they silently reconciled themselves to possible victims. Actually, victims were expected. The high accident risk at nuclear facilities at that time was not so much due to complication and novelty of the process as to all pervasive urgency and disregard of human lives. Industrial equipment was seemingly much more valuable than health and the personnel lives and the dangerous impact of nuclear facilities on the environment and the residential population was not taken into consideration at all. A large number of people were involved in the accident mitigation process acting manually without even elementary means of protection.

On September 29, 1957 a liquid waste storage container exploded and released 20 MCi of radioactivity. Within 10 hours radioactive cloud spread over the Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tyumen regions over 23,000 km². This is usually referred as the East-Ural Radioactive Trace or the "Kyshtym disaster".

Conscript soldiers and even schoolchildren were involved in the decontamination effort of the accident area. Exposure standards were violated and maximum exposure limits were sufficiently exceeded. A lot of accident clean-up workers acquired lethal radiation doses of more than 100 Roentgen. The Kyshtym disaster is the second largest devastation after Chernobyl. After the accident 248 villages were resettled from the Techa river. The total number of officially registered casualties is more than 500,000 people not including the military personnel of the construction battalions.

After the Kyshtym disaster in 1957 the Karachay Lake on the territory of the Mayak facility was used for open-air "storage" of liquid radioactive wastes. In 1967 a strong wind raised the dangerous radioactive silt from the shallow banks of the Karachay Lake. As a result an area of approximately 1,800 km² was contaminated with radionuclides. It affected the same territory of the Eastern-Ural Radioactive Trace and again the residents of the local settlements became victims of radioactive exposure.

(...) A sadly famous village of Muslyumovo. It is located on both banks of the Techa River. There are 7 graveyards for only the four and a half thousand residents.

Gosman Kabirov, NGO "TECHA":
There is the mill of the merchant Zlokazov behind me. In 1941 a glue production factory was moved to here from Leningrad. In 1952 during strong flooding there were immediate releases of plutonium from the Mayak facility. Due to the contamination of the territory the plant was closed.

There is a similar half-ruined building nearby which housed on orphanage until the 1990-s. The children freely bathed in the river, fished and ate the fish. Later the orphanage was closed and the former pupils dispersed all over the country. No one knows their future ...

Gosman Kabirov, NGO "TECHA":
There is the highest radiation background in the village since the dam functioned until its closure in 1954. Whatever radioactive contamination that flowed was deposited here. Underneath here it shows up to 4,500 micro R/h. Old women were sitting here all day long pasturing geese. They received an annual maximum radiation dose in just one day, over and over again.

The people in Muslyumovo suffered from strange diseases, died mysterious deaths. It was called "river disease". In 1961 the Techa River banks were fenced with barbed wire. People were warned that it was prohibited to use the water from the river and they had to tend their cattle in another place.

Gosman Kabirov, NGO "TECHA":
The barbed wire worked only for cattle. We, children, always managed to find ways in. The river militia used to patrol and fine us. But what could they do to us? They could only take away our fishing rods. And during Perestroika any patrolling stopped. The barbed wire remained only in kitchen gardens.

However, Mayak continues to dump low-level radioactive waste directly into the Techa River. Medium level waste is discharged into the Karachay Lake from where along with subsurface water it migrates into the same Techa Cascade. According to the data of the Department of Natural Resources in the Ural Region just in the year 2000 alone more than 250 million m³ of water containing thousands of curies of tritium, also strontium and cesium-137 were discharged into the Techa River. According to expert research just the tritium concentration alone in the Techa River near the village Muslyumovo exceeds the permissible limit by 30 times. The authorities should have intervened and stopped the waste discharge. Unfortunately, people continue living on the river bank and pasture cattle in the overflow land.

Residents of the Muslyumovo village have a humiliatingly meager compensation. Non-workers, like children and pensioners, receive $2 per month, working residents receive $6 per month. The government uses the poverty of the aggrieved village to tie the people to the contaminated land. The people who leave Muslyumovo loose their rights for compensation, it is as if the health ruined by radiation could be restored at once.

Vitaliy Sadovnikov, Director General of PO Mayak until 2006:
At the moment there is no discharge of waste into the Techa River. Of course, it is not the Lake of Geneva, but the water in the river is pure.

Shortly after this interview the General Prosecuter's Office of the Ural Federal District initiated a criminal case against Vitaliy Sadovnikov, Director General of PO Mayak. In the investigation of the criminal case it was determined that through the body of the worn-out dam and side dikers 10 million m³ of liquid radioactive waste was discharged annually into the open hydrographic network. It resulted in increase of radiation background in the Techa River, dreadful environment contamination and threat to life of the residential population not only in Chelyabinsk, but, also in the neighbouring Kurgansk region. The data is confirmed by expert opinion and also by the research performed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. For the last four years the instrumentation systems recorded ever-increasing radiation background in the Techa River. In many places it exceeds the natural background by 100 times. The director general was granted an amnesty which marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian State Duma and it saved him from criminal penalty.

In 2006 a new management of Rosatom at last started a resettlement programme of the Muslyumovo village under the pressure from non-governmental organizations. Rosatom made a decision to resettle only a part of the village, another part, called Muslyumovo station which is only 2 km away and also unsuitable for life will stay where it was. A forcible argument designed to convince the residents of Muslyumovo to resettle to a new place is that they will retain all privileges. However, it only confirms that they remain to live on the same contaminated territory near the radioactive river.

Pharit Kurmashev, head of the Muslyumovo administration:
Today the most painful problem is regulations on repurchase of housing developed by Rosatom. People resent the situation. It is impossible to act only on the basis of these regulations while it is not governed by the law. Rosatom is just a department, it's an enterprise. They decide for themselves whether to purchase or not to purchase. Rosatom says that due to the recession they have no possibility to continue the resettlement process. Nobody knows whether in future they will do it or not.

(About the new houses provided by Rosatom:) The foundation is 15 cm deep and only one spade wide, the wooden walls are 18 cm thick. These measurements are not suitable for to a severe Ural climate. It creates an impression that they try to save maximum money on construction. An amount of 1 million rubles is appropriated for each house, but its real cost is at least 200,000 rubles less. It seems as if you could start living here happily, however, speaking kindly, a very strange place was chosen for this new village.

Gosman Kabirov, NGO "TECHA":
There was a directive prohibiting the construction on this site because of radon concentration up to 200 Bq per m³. I know that according to sanitary norms construction is prohibited in case the radioactivity level is 100 Bq - in this place and area is subject to compulsory resettlement in case of 200 Bq. This exact place has been chosen for the construction of the Muslyumovo new quarter.

Gosman Kabirov, NGO "TECHA":
We are in the Hudoberdinsk village of the Sargoyashskiy region in the Cheyabinsk oblast located 5 km from the Mayak facility in a downwind area. Until 1961 the directive of the sanitary and epidemiological service was effective and during that time it was prohibited to keep cattle, to pick up mushrooms and berries, and to keep gardens and farms. After Perestroika everything is allowed: they grow wheat and cut hay.

Spent nuclear fuel is still transported to Mayak and radionuclides are continuously released into water bodies of the Techa cascade. These water storage basins contain millions of curies. There is the Karachay Lake on the territory of Mayak which is used for open-air storage of liquid radioactive wastes. Specialists warn that the destruction of the Techa dams may lead to environmental disaster and it is fearful to imagine its devastating effect. 400 million m³ of radioactive waters and bottom sediments will spread over the villages downstream the Techa River and migrate into the open hydrographic network of Tobol-Irtish-Ob and the Arctic Ocean. According to research of the Mayak experts in the case of the dam destruction radioactive water will reach the Muslyumovo village in 8 hours.

The experts counted that 250 accidents had happened during 50 years of the Mayak activity. Furthermore, 39 of them occurred during the last 8 years (as of 2009). Under these conditions the so-called nuclear shield was created. Today Mayak is a nuclear fuel cycle facility on which the whole military and civil nuclear complex of Russia is based. The existing reality shows that transportation of spent nuclear fuel and fuel assemblies from submarines to another region is just a relocation of problems and it can not be a proper solution.

Further information

  1. extracted from a call-out for the 2010 International Mayak Action Day by Mary Olson, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, maryo AT
  2. as at April 3rd, 2010