The Most Contaminated Place on Earth: Chelyabinsk-40
We’re quite familiar with the lore of various secret United States nuclear facilities; their storied history and operations being shrouded in secrecy has fascinated us for decades. What we seldom hear about are the secret nuclear laboratories and test facilities of our greatest Cold War opponent – the former U.S.S.R. One particular installation – Chelyabinsk-40 – was the first Soviet plutonium production complex and the site of three separate massive nuclear incidents. Until recently this area was not on maps and the Russian government denied its existence. No visitors were allowed under any circumstances, and all residents worked in the facility (later referred to as Chelyabinsk-65). With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90′s, Chelyabinsk-40 was finally publicly acknowledged by the Russian government and granted town status. In 1994, Chelyabinsk-65 was finally given a name: Ozyorsk.
70,000 prisoners from 12 labor camps began construction of the underground city in 1945. The first nuclear reactor, named “Anotchka,” was constructed in 18 months. Additional nearby facilities would be constructed around the area later known as Ozyorsk (or Ozersk), which would house nearly 100,000 people and encompass some 90 square kilometers. This region chosen by the Soviet government was called “the Mayak complex” and was to serve as secret headquarters for nuclear research and development.
Aside from the nuclear scientists, most of the workers in the underground nuclear facility were prisoners who agreed to work and process plutonium in exchange for a lesser sentence. Russian convicts were given the option to work 25 years hard labor in Siberia or 5 years underground in Chelyabinsk-40. It really was a death sentence, however; no workers would live beyond five years with that level of radioactive exposure. Of course at the time, the convicts did not know what they’d be doing at this facility nor were they aware of the ramifications of increased exposure to radioactive material. Ultimately, the entire Mayak complex would be closed to all non-residents for nearly 45 years.
During the first six years of operation, the entire Mayak complex dumped all radioactive waste into the Techa River, which happened to be the only source of water for the 24 villages along its banks. By 1951, it became obvious the nuclear run-off was damaging the river and surrounding population, and nuclear waste from Chelyabinsk-40 was found in the Artic Ocean. This prompted a decision to start dumping radioactive waste elsewhere. Lake Karachay (more of a bog than a lake) was chosen, in part because the lake had no outlet. To limit future issues with residents and the radioactivity of the Techa River, authorities strung barbed-wire fences up and down the river banks restricting any human habitation – but they did not disclose the reasons why to the local population.
In 1957 a radioactive waste containment sector failed and exploded. Radiation was immediately spread throughout the region, affecting over 250,000 people. This was long before the Chernobyl incident and it occurred in a secret underground facility; less than half of one percent of the population was evacuated, and public awareness of the incident – or even consequences of nuclear exposure at all – was virtually nil. Experts have said the explosion itself was a force of 70-100 tons of TNT, although the radioactivity released into the atmosphere was “only” one-fourth that of the later Chernobyl disaster.
The first evacuations didn’t take place until ten days later, and other areas were not evacuated until a year later – after the population had been unknowingly consuming contaminated food and water during that time. By 1959 every tree within a 12-mile radius of Chelyabinsk-40 was dead. Later, the government would finally plow 515 acres of radioactive land in an attempt to re-start agricultural use, but this would not be completed until 1978.
In 1967, a drought reduced the water levels in Lake Karachay where radioactive waste was being dumped, exposing radioactive dust which was spread by gale-force winds in the area. The dust was spread over 25,000 square kilometers, exposing another 500,000 residents in the area to nuclear fallout. The lake would eventually accumulate over 120 million curies of radionuclides. To put that in perspective, the Chernobyl accident released “only” one million radionuclides.
There is little in the way of published first-hand witness accounts; most likely due to guaranteed death of anyone that worked there combined with the Soviet oversight of all information written or published about Chelyabinsk-40 . We do have accounts from some traveling musicians, however, who were shuttled to the secret location by the Soviet government to entertain the workers.
One account described the trip to the location as being extremely protected – after a security checkpoint where IDs were checked and musicians questioned, curtains were drawn on the transporting bus so that the musicians could not see where they were going. They were driven into darkness and could tell they had descended underground, but did not know where they were.
The bus finally dropped off the musicians in an underground city – complete with streets, shops, pedestrians, and buildings. The underground structure was huge – described by some to be four-stories tall with huge overhead lights to illuminate and mimic natural daylight. Conditions at Chelyabinsk-40 meant special perks were required to entice Russians to work there – and witnesses share that there were plenty. The stores were stacked with rare and exotic foods. Premium wines and liquors adorned the shelves, and expensive clothing and jewelry seemed to appear there before it hit other major cities – and all for unusually low and affordable prices.
The musicians did not know what the workers at Chelyabinsk-40 did or why they were offered such wonderful merchandise at bargain basement prices, but they did know they were sick immediately following their two-hour performance there. Two accounts in particular stated they had the most terrible headache they’ve ever experienced – and this was only after two hours of exposure. You can imagine what it must have been like for the prisoner workers who did not get to leave.
Effects of Activities
Throughout the development and operation of the Mayak complex there appeared to be little concern by the Soviet government for the effects of its activities there – both in regards to the health of the population and ecological effects on the area. Unfortunately we have no information regarding injuries or fatalities at the Mayak complex during its years of operation. In fact “official” records don’t indicate any deaths due to radiation exposure, but we know this to not be true. Talking to local residents paints a far different picture. One man in the nearby town of Argayash shared that he lost his grandmother, both parents, and three siblings to cancer; sadly, he was also recently diagnosed as well. Local lore calls them the “dying generation.” A local osteopath admits he treats many children around the Mayak complex born without hands, legs, and feet.
Current nuclear doctrine states nuclear workers should not be exposed to more than 2 Roentgen Equivalent Man (REM) per year. What we do know is during the first year at Chelyabinsk-40, workers were exposed to 93.6 REM – over 45 times the recommended maximum radiation exposure by today’s standards. By 1951, workers were exposed to 113.3 REM a year with some of the more extreme cases alleging 400 REM.
Today, radioactivity in the ground water around Lake Karachay has migrated several kilometers from the lake and it is said anyone standing on the lake shore would receive a lethal dose of about 600 roentgens of radiation in an hour. Since 1978, Soviet authorities have been working on the cleanup, filling the lake with hollow concrete blocks, rock, and soil to help reduce the dispersion of radioactivity. Due to Soviet cleanup efforts, today the lake has been almost completely filled; now only a small reservoir remains. (click thumbnails to enlarge)
The Techa River’s barbed-wire fences have long since rusted and local residents rarely observe the warnings posted. There is still 50 times what is considered “normal” radiation levels on the banks of the Techa. Experts say there is still over 400 million cubic meters of radioactive waste water in open reservoirs around the river, where fish are still caught today that have 100 times the radiation of normal fish. In 50+ years it is believed over a half million people have been exposed to 20 times the radiation suffered by Chernobyl victims.
Perhaps the most tragic fact is the residents of the area were never told what was going on underground nearby, and even through the following decades when residents were increasingly visiting doctors and death tolls from cancer were rising – no one explained to the residents there was a nuclear facility in their backyard. Dr. Kosenko, an official who had worked with the Federal Institute of Biochemistry (FIB) admitted “All this information was kept top secret because the factory produced weapons-grade plutonium. If someone had learned that residents were becoming irradiated, it would have exposed the location of the factory to our enemies. That’s why these people weren’t given any information about radiation.” The oversight by the Soviet government was so extreme, doctors were not even allowed to cite “cancer” as a cause of death on any death certificate.
Friends and relatives gather on the banks of the Techa for a memorial service. In the distance: abandoned village and remnants of barbed-wire fencing
Interesting fact: U.S. pilot Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down over Russia in 1960 conducting surveillance of the Mayak complex at Chelyabinsk-40.