In the fall of 1957, 29 years before the accident at the Chernobyl plant, the first atomic disaster in the history of the USSR occurred in the classified city of Chelyabinsk-40 in the Urals. The exact Kyshtym disaster date was the 29th of September, the time children in Russia usually go to school. An explosion of a container at a radioactive waste storage facility resulted in a release of 20 million curies (compared to 50 million curies at Chernobyl). The Kyshtym disaster cloud covered an area of 20 thousand square kilometers. Part of it remains a closed territory to this day.
The first atomic weapon in the Soviet Union was made in a terrible hurry: the Americans had already dropped their bombs on Japan, and the USSR was struggling to catch up with the competition. The Soviet Union was extremely hard-pressed to overtake its rivals. 700,000 scientists and a dozen plants all over the country were working on the atomic project. The Mayak Chemical Combine, where the nuclear disaster of Kyshtym happened, was a top-secret production facility. However, by 1957 the “nuclear fever” had already died down: the USSR created the plutonium bomb, the uranium bomb, and the hydrogen bomb. According to witnesses, at that time calm and confidence reigned at the Ural Combine: the company worked more steadily every year, plutonium production was successful, thanks to creative research of scientists and engineers of the combine the capacity of atomic reactors was increased five times without any additional costs. However, the production had been facing a lot of problems later on.
Characteristically, various technical incidents, malfunctions, sometimes not safe at all, were taking place at the main production facility, hence, of course, the trouble was expected, and the staff was prepared. But in September 1957, the Kyshtym disaster came unexpectedly from the other side, from the radioactive waste storage site. One has to admit that the combine’s management paid less attention to storage and reprocessing of radioactive waste than to the main production.
The waste storage complex was a buried concrete “coffin” with cells for 20 stainless steel containers, they were called just cans. They were cooled by the water that circulated between the container walls and the concrete. All the containers were equipped with a ventilation system, as well as all kinds of sensors – heat, liquid level, etc. It is true that later Kyshtym disaster peer-reviewed that these devices, borrowed from the chemical industry, had broken down almost immediately after the storage facility was built in 1953: they could not withstand the harsh conditions. As a result, no one monitored the liquid level in the cooling system.
That time scientists did not know how to process highly radioactive waste. At first, the radioactive slurry was poured into the Techa River. This method was considered to be okay then – there was a lot of waste and no one cared about ecology.
Later, the soviet has dug a canyon eight meters deep near the mill for 20 concrete tanks. Hundreds of tons of waste were pumped in there and a cooling system was installed. After all, the nuclear reaction was not completed and all this mass had to be cooled. That led to the Kyshtym disaster result: explosion. A brigade on duty had descended into the underground gallery to the tanks half an hour earlier.
They were alarmed by the yellow smoke from under the ground. It was very hot inside. They thought it was a short circuit, but they could not find the problem and left. Turned out to be a broken cooling unit. The container was boiling to +330 degrees. At 4:22 p.m. there was an explosion. The explosion destroyed the tank and threw aside a one-meter-thick concrete slab weighing 160 tons and released about 20 million curies of radioactive material into the atmosphere, an estimated ten of tons in TNT equivalent. According to eyewitnesses, black soot fell from the sky all day after the explosion, covering everything around with a thick layer.
According to the map Kyshtym disaster, the contamination zone included several enterprises of the Mayak industrial complex, a military camp, a fire station, a penal colony, and a further 270,000 residents in 217 settlements in three oblasts: Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tyumen. Chelyabinsk-40 itself was not affected. 90% of the radiation contamination fell out on the territory of the Mayak Chemical Combine, and the rest dispersed further.
Within the first twenty-four hours after the explosion, the military personnel and prisoners were evacuated from the affected area. Evacuation of the population from the most affected villages began only 7-14 days after the accident. During the elimination of the consequences of the accident 23 villages of the most contaminated areas with a population of 10 to 12 thousand people were evacuated, and the buildings, property and livestock were destroyed. The territory was cleaned up around the clock. How many people died in the Kyshtym disaster initially? According to the official statistical data of that time, there were no Kyshtym disaster deaths. No one was directly affected by the explosion, but a huge number of people received a significant amount of radiation. In addition, military personnel, prisoners, and civilians were involved in the liquidation, who also received damage to their health. Some data mentions that the number of people who suffered radiation as a result of the disaster at the Mayak Combine was from 90,000 to 150,000.
The Kyshtym accident was a state secret for a long time. For example, after the explosion there was a column of smoke and dust up to a kilometer high, which shimmered with orange-red light. This created the illusion of northern lights. On October 6, 1957, the Chelyabinsk worker newspaper published an article confirming this information. So the catastrophe itself was known in the USSR at that time only from the words of the liquidators of the accident, who dispersed all over the country. For the first time, it was spoken about openly in the films of the director and biologist Elena Sakanyan. This movie from the 1990s revealed all the secret Kyshtym disaster facts.
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