A first look at the Soviet bomb complex.
By Thomas B. Cochran
and Robert S. Norris
After decades of secrecy, some information about the Soviet nuclear weapons
complex is now coming to light. The Soviet press has begun to report on
operations in the complex and on its appalling environmental problems, which
appear to be even greater than those in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
Foreign visitors were first invited to tour one of the sites in 1989.
Although significant gaps remain, we are now able to provide a general view
of the vast operation the Soviets set up to meet the Cold War challenge, and
the monumental task they face in cleaning up the devastation it left behind.
Nuclear weapons and the entire nuclear fuel cycles, for both civilian and
military purposes, are the responsibility of the Ministry for Atomic Power
and Industry-formerly the Ministry of Medium Machine Building. The current
minister is Vitali Konovalov. Under Konovalov, Evgeni I. Mikerin is
responsible for isotope production, including the production reactors and
Plutonium and tritium for Soviet nuclear weapons are produced at three
closely guarded locations, each of which includes a "closed" city for
workers. These cities do not appear on maps, and until recently, travel to
and from them was all but prohibited. Even now, foreign visitors have been
allowed to see only two of the sites. Each of the sites has an official
name, often including a number that indicates a post office address, but
each is also known by another name or names abroad as well as in the Soviet
Union. The sites are Chelyabinsk-40, near Kyshtym; the Siberian Atomic
Power Station located near Tomsk and sometimes called Tomsk-7; and a
mining-chemical combine near Dodonovo, a small town northeast of
Before 1987 there were 14 production reactors at these sites. Between 1987
and December 31, 1990, seven were shut down. That leaves a single
heavy-water reactor operating at Chelyabinsk-40 and three reactors, also
believed to be of the heavy-water type, at Dodonovo, as well as three
graphite reactors at Tomsk. The Soviets announced in October 1989 that they
planned to shut down all plutonium-producing reactors by the year
2000-presumably including the three Tomsk reactors. But this leaves
ambiguous the status of the four heavy-water reactors, which are believed to
be dedicated to tritium production.
The complex officially known as Chelyabinsk-40 is located in Chelyabinsk
province, about 15 kilometers east of the city of Kyshtym on the east side
of the southern Urals. It is situated in the area around Lake Kyzyltash, in
the upper Techa River drainage basin among numerous other interconnected
lakes. Between Lake Kyzyltash and Lake Irtyash is Chelyabinsk-65, the
military-industrial city built to house the workforce. The city was once
called Beria, but today inhabitants call it Sorokovka ("forties town" ).
In 1989 a visiting U.S. delegation was told that there were 10,000 employees
and 40,000 dependents at the site. But in 1990 the city, Chelyabinsk- 65,
was variously reported to have 83,000 inhabitants and "almost 100, 000
people."' Chelyabinsk-40, the reactor complex, covers some 90 square
kilometers, according to a recent ministry report, and is run by the
production association Mayak ("beacon" or "lighthouse"). All the reactors
are located near the southeast shore of Lake Kyzyltash and relied on
open-cycle cooling: water from the lake was pumped directly through the
core. A plume from hot water the reactor discharged into Lake Kyzyltash was
visible in a Landsat image taken before 1989.
Probably fashioned after the U.S. Hanford Reservation in the state of
Washington, Chelyabinsk-40 was the first Soviet plutonium production
complex. Construction was started on the first buildings of the new city in
November 1945. Some 70,000 inmates from 12 labor camps were reportedly used
to build the complex. It was here that the physicist Igor Kurchatov,
working under Stalin's deputy Lavrenti Beria, built the first plutonium
production reactor, called "Anotchka" or A Reactor, in just 18 months. The
graphite-moderated 1,168-channel reactor, designed by Nikolai Dollezhal, was
originally to operate at 100 megawatts-thermal but was later upgraded to 500
megawatts. It was loaded with all the uranium then available in the country
and began operating on June 19, 1948. Its plutonium was used to fabricate a
ball 10 centimeters in diameter, which was the core of the first Soviet
atomic bomb tested on August 29, 1949. A Reactor was shut down in 1987 and
is now being dismantled.
The next reactor built on the site was designed by Abram Alikhanov and is
heavy-water moderated. Shortly after it began operating, between late 1948
and late 1951, the heavy water in the two heat exchangers froze. Yefrim P.
Slaviski, then chief engineer of the complex, claims he had to enter the
radiation area and place his hand on one of the heat exchangers to convince
the designers that the heavy water had frozen. (2) This reactor is still
presumably used for tritium production and is the only operating reactor at
Four other graphite-moderated reactors-all presumably shut down by now-are
located on the site: The IR Reactor in building 701 is a small, 65- megawatt
reactor that was used for military and civilian purposes. It was brought on
line December 22,1951, and shut down May 24,1987. In addition to producing
plutonium, the reactor was used for fuel-rod research and for testing fuel
assemblies for the RBMK graphite-moderated (Chernobyl-type) civilian power
reactors. The AV-3 Reactor was brought on line in September 15, 1952, and
was shut down November 1, 1990. With 2,001 channels, its size is comparable
to C Reactor at Hanford, which had an initial power level of 650 megawatts
and was upgraded to 2,310 megawatts. Both the IR and AV-3 reactors are
located near A Reactor. The AV-2 and another reactor of unknown designation
(perhaps AV-4) are 2,001-channel reactors located in a separate area of the
complex. The AV-2 was brought on line in April 1951 and decommissioned July
14, 1989; the other was decommissioned August 12,1990.
A chemical separation or reprocessing plant went into operation at
Chelyabinsk-40 in December 1948, six months after the startup of A Reactor.
The plant separates plutonium and uranium from the highly radioactive
fission products contained in the irradiated reactor fuel elements. After
1978, however, fuel from the military reactors at Chelyabinsk was sent by
train to Tomsk for reprocessing. The Chelyabinsk plant was modified to
process fuel from civilian power reactors and naval reactors for use in an
ambitious civilian breeder reactor program.
Mikerin says "around 20 tons" of plutonium have been stockpiled for use in
liquid-metal fast-breeder reactors, although the breeder program is
floundering. Even the program's backers cheerfully admit that
breeder-generated electricity is "2.5 times more expensive" than power from
conventional power plants,' and the program has been plagued by safety
concerns. At one time two breeder reactors were under construction at
Chelyabinsk and a third was planned; only the concrete footings are in place
for the first two, and no progress has been made at the site since 1987. A
600-megawatt breeder at Beloyarski, just north of Kyshtym, is operating with
highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium.
The 1957 explosion
Chelyabinsk-40, or the Kyshtym complex, is best known to the outside world
as the site of a disastrous explosion in 1957, only recently acknowledged by
Soviet officialdom. According to Soviet accounts, when the chemical
separation plant first began operating, the irradiated fuel elements were
treated by an "all-acetate settling arrangement."' After the fuel had been
dissolved in nitric acid, and the uranium and plutonium had been isolated
from the solutions, highly radioactive waste solutions were formed which
contained as much as 100 grams per liter of sodium nitrate and 18 grams per
liter of sodium acetate' The solutions were stored in tanks for a year in
order to reduce the radioactivity and to cool before further treatment to
extract more plutonium and uranium. After treatment, a portion of the
solutions was returned to the storage tanks, and the less radioactive part
was dumped into a "storage reservoir," presumably Lake Karachay.
An intermediate storage facility put into operation in 1953 consisted of a
rectangular underground concrete canyon with walls 1.5 meters thick,
designed to hold 20 stainless steel tanks, each 300 cubic meters in volume.
The tanks were entirely immersed in, and cooled by, water. But the
monitoring system was defective. As the solution in the tanks evaporated,
the tanks rose, breaking seals in the waste transfer lines and contaminating
the cooling water. In attempting to clean the cooling water a "periodic
cooling mode" was used, that is, the tanks were cooled intermittently. (5)
The system failed in one of the tanks, however, and the waste began to dry
out. Nitrates and acetates precipitated, heated to 350 degrees celsius,
and, on September 29, 1957, exploded with a force equivalent to 70- 100 tons
of TNT. Seventy or 80 metric tons of waste containing some 20 million
curies of radioactivity was ejected-about one-fourth the amount released in
the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
About 90 percent of the radioactivity fell out immediately around the
vessel. The rest formed a kilometer-high radioactive cloud that was carried
through Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Tumen provinces. A kilometer away,
radiation levels were 20 roentgens per hour. Guards received the largest
reported doses, about 100 rem-20 times current limits for nuclear workers in
There were 217 towns and villages with a combined population of 270, 000
people in the area that was contaminated to greater than 0.1 curies of
strontium 90 per square kilometer. By comparison, the total strontium 90
fallout at this latitude from past atmospheric tests is 0.08 curies per
square kilometer. Virtually all water supply sources in the area were
contaminated. Evacuation of the most highly contaminated areas, where 1,100
people lived, was not completed until 10 days after the accident. Other
areas were evacuated a year later, after the population had consumed
radioactive food. In the years following the accident, 515 square miles of
land was plowed under or removed from agricultural use; all except 80 square
kilometers was returned to use by 1978.
About 10,000 people lived in the 1,000 square-kilometer area contaminated
with more than two curies of strontium 90 per square kilometer. One- fifth of
these people eventually showed a reduction of leukocytes in their blood. In
rare cases, thrombocyte levels were also reduced. But Soviet investigators
claim to have found no deviation in the incidence of blood diseases and
malignant tumors in the affected population. There are no records of deaths
caused by the accident.
A population at risk
This accident is only part of Chelyabinsk-40's deadly legacy, because there
was no management of radioactive waste at all before September 1951: for two
years the high-level nuclear waste was simply discharged directly into the
Techa River. And over the years, workers at the complex have been exposed
to astonishing levels of radiation.
During 1949, the first full year of operation, workers at A Reactor received
an average dose of 93.6 rem-three times the standards then set by the
ministry, which were too high to begin with: about 30 rem per year.
(Standards for nuclear workers in the Soviet Union, as in the United States,
are now 5 rem per year, although they are about to be lowered in the United
States to 2 rem.) Workers were exposed to an average of 113.3 rem in 1951,
and a small percentage received more than 400 rem annually during this early
period. (6) According to ask estimates recently established by the U.S.
National Research Council, workers at the A Reactor during its first decade
of operation have a 14 percent higher chance of contracting cancer than the
normal population, and the cancer risk for separation plant workers is
elevated by 26 percent.
One official report explains blandly, "During the first five years of the
operation of the enterprise in this branch of industry there was no
experience or scientific development of questions of protecting the health
of the personnel or the environment. Therefore, during the fifties there
was pollution of individual parts of the territory and around the
In 1951, radioactivity carried by the Techa River from Chelyabinsk- 40 was
found in the Arctic Ocean-although 99 percent of the radioactive material
was deposited within the first 35 kilometers downstream. This discovery
prompted a change in dumping policy: The Techa and its floodlands were
excluded from human use, some inhabitants were evacuated, and others were
supplied with water from other sources. Reservoirs were created to keep
water from flowing out of the most contaminated areas, and plant wastes were
discharged into Karachay Lake, which has no outlet, instead of into the
The lake, actually a bog, eventually accumulated 120 million curies of the
long-lived radionuclides cesium 137 and strontium 90. By comparison, the
Chernobyl accident released one million curies of cesium 137 and 220, 000
curies of strontium 90. In 1967, wind dispersed radioactivity from the
lake, contaminating about 1,800 square kilometers. Today, radioactivity in
the ground water has migrated two to three kilometers from the lake. A
person standing on the lake shore near the area where wastes are discharged
from the plant would receive about 600 roentgens of radiation, a lethal
dose, in an hour.
The lake is now slowly being filled with hollow concrete blocks, rock, and
soil to reduce the dispersion of radioactivity. A vitrification plant was
put into operation in 1986 and ran 13 months before it broke down: about 162
tons of phosphate glass containing 4 million curies of radioactive waste
were poured into 366 canisters and stored on site. The facility is expected
to be restarted this year. The government is looking in the Ural region for
a permanent granite burial site for the waste.
The Techa River is cordoned off with a wire fence and people are forbidden
to fish in it, or to pick mushrooms and berries or cut hay nearby. There
are 400 million cubic meters of radioactive water in open reservoirs along
the river. Fish in one reservoir are reported to be "100 times more
radioactive than normal." (7) By using contaminated water to cool reactors,
the production complex has regulated the water level in the reservoirs. But
with most reactors shut down, a new danger is that the reservoirs will
overfill with natural water and dams may fail, sending contaminated water
into the rivers of the Ob basin. The breeder reactors, which may never be
built, would have helped solve this problem by using radioactive water to
cool turbine condensers, thus increasing evaporation.
The Siberian Atomic Power Station is located in the closed city of Tomsk-7,
also called Seversk, on the Tom River, 15 kilometers northwest of the city
of Tomsk. The station houses five graphite-moderated reactors, built in the
1950s and 1960s; a chemical separation plant; and an enrichment plant. At an
international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy in 1955, the
Soviets said the nuclear reactors at this station were used solely to
generate electric power. In 1981, however, a Soviet official admitted that
the reactors produce plutonium for warheads as well.
The reactors have 2,101 channels; the total output of the units probably
exceeded 600 megawatts-electric annually when all were operating. One of the
five was shut down last August 21, and a second reactor was shut down
December 31. According to the news agency Tass, "As a result the amount of
harmful effluent going into the Tom River has been halved."
The chemical separation (reprocessing) and fuel storage facilities probably
date from the mid-1950s, when the reactors went on line. When the
Chelyabinsk-40 separation plant was shifted from military to civilian
operations, to produce plutonium for breeders, the Tomsk separation plant
began receiving military reactor fuel from Chelyabinsk for processing.
Problems with defense waste at Tomsk date back to the 1970s, when a senior
engineer discovered a "vast quantity of radioactive output" at the plant.
Izvestiya claims that the engineer was reprimanded and threatened with
expulsion from the party when he wrote to the Central Committee and Leonid
Brezhnev about the problem. But the public learned of it only in April 1990
from a report on Tomsk-7. (8) Izvestiya also reported that the radioactive
waste burial site at Tomsk-7 is poorly fenced and contaminated water areas
are not fenced at all. Elk, hares, ducks, and fish are contaminated, and 38
people were found to have higher than permissible levels of radioactive
substances in their bodies. Seven have been hospitalized.
Dodonovo. Little is known about the production reactors operating on the
mountainous shores of the Yenisey River in the Siberian taiga, 10 kilometers
north of Dodonovo and 50 kilometers northeast of Krasnoyarsk. Three reactors
are reportedly operating at the site, which is known either as Dodonovo or
Krasnoyarsk. Two streams of thermal effluents into the Yenisey are shown on
a composite of 1989 Landsat images, but the reactors themselves are not
visible and are apparently underground.
In 1975 authorities decided to build a reprocessing plant and a storage
facility for irradiated fuel at Dodonovo's Site 27. The plant was to handle
spent fuel elements from pressurized-water civil power reactors and "other"
reactors-presumably the military reactors at this location. But
construction of the reprocessing plant has been delayed by controversy and
is only 30 percent complete. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported in June 1989
that about 60,000 people in Krasnoyarsk signed a protest against the plant.
One reason for their anger was a revelation that the scientific study
justifying the site selection was produced nine years after construction
started. The proposed method of handling waste at the site has also
generated controversy. According to Moscow Trud, waste is to be injected
between layers of clay at a depth of 700 meters, some 20 kilometers from the
reprocessing plant on the opposite side of the Yenisey River. A tunnel has
already been dug 50 meters under the river to carry the waste. (9)
Meanwhile, spent fuel elements from power reactors have been shipped to the
site and stored pending the plant's startup, now scheduled for 1997 or 1998.
Laboratories. The All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Experimental
Physics, the older of two principal nuclear weapons design laboratories in
use today, is located at Sarova, 60 kilometers southeast of Arzamas, and
dates back to 1946. In his memoirs Andrei Sakharov refers to it as "The
Installation." It is known unofficially as Khariton's Institute, named after
its longtime scientific director, Yuli B. Khariton.
The second laboratory, the All-Union Institute of Technical Physics, is
located just east of the Urals, 20 kilometers north of Kasli. It is better
known by its post office box, Chelyabinsk-70. It was opened in 1955,
shortly after Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States.
The current scientific director is Evgeni Avrorin, who has been at
Chelyabinsk-70 since its beginning.
Nuclear weapons are tested at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan and on the Arctic
island of Novaya Zemlya. The status of the program remains unclear as
controversy over testing continues in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Current locations of the principal warhead assembly plants are not publicly
known, although some are presumed to be in the Chelyabinsk area. Others may
be at Novosibirsk and Sverdlovsk.
How much plutonium?
During a 1989 visit to Chelyabinsk-40, American scientists asked Evgeni
Mikerin how much plutonium the Soviet Union had produced for weapons. He
replied, "A little bit more than you," implying just over 100 metric tons.
Because the sizes and startup dates of some Soviet production reactors have
not been made public and the production efficiencies are unknown, estimating
production is difficult. Assumptions based on intelligent guesses about
these unknowns would suggest that the total Soviet inventory of weapon- grade
plutonium is on the order of 115-140 metric tons.
Another method of estimation leads to a similar conclusion. The maximum
plutonium-equivalent (plutonium and tritium) production can be determined
from the quantity of krypton 85 the Soviets have added to the earth' s
atmosphere. Krypton 85 is an inert, gaseous product of the fission of
uranium 235 or plutonium 239 which is ordinarily released into the
atmosphere when spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed. The U.S. intelligence
community monitors atmospheric concentrations of krypton 85 and estimates
the Soviet contribution by subtracting the contributions of other known
sources from total releases. The Soviets also presumably use a certain
amount of their production capacity for tritium and for civil and research
purposes. If these portions are similar to U.S. uses, the best estimate of
how much plutonium the Soviets could have produced for weapons is 115 metric
Since the Soviets will continue to produce plutonium at least for a few more
years, the current inventory will grow at a rate of one or two tons per
year. Mikerin also told visiting Americans in 1989 that, if a cutoff in the
production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons were
negotiated, the Soviets would still need "two to three tritium production
PHOTO: It took only 18 months-but 70,000 slave laborers-to build the
"Anotchka," or A Reactor. Shown is part of that first plant, which opened
in June 1948.
PHOTO: Soviet test sites are at Novaya Zemlya and Semipalatinsk; reactors
are at Chelyabinsk, Tomsk, and Dodonovo. Also shown, China's nuclear test
PHOTO: Evgeni Velikhov, vice-president of the Soviet Academy, and Cong.
James Olin, Virginia Democrat, drew a crowd at Chelyabinsk-65 in 1989.
PHOTO: Chelyabinsk director Boris Brokhovich (left), and Evgeni Mikerin, the
official in charge of nuclear material production, in front of a statue of
Detailed documentation may be found in Thomas B. Cochran and Robert S.
Norris, "Soviet Nuclear Warhead Production" (Washington, D.C.: Natural
Resources Defense Council, Oct. 19,1990).
1. Nucleonics Week reported 83,000 inhabitants (July 26,1990), p. 12; the
Soviet television newscast Vremya reported "almost 100,000" (Aug. 14,1990).
2. "Annals of the Fatherland: A Reactor for Submarines," discussion recorded
by Capt. S. Bystrov, Krasnaya Zvezda (Oct. 21, 1989), 1st ed., p. 3.
3. "Kyshtym and Soviet Nuclear Materials Production," fact sheet obtained
during visit to Chelyabinsk-40, July 7-8, 1989, Science and Global Security,
vol. 1, nos. 1-2 (1989), p. 174.
4. B.V. Nikipelov and Y.G. Droozhko, "Explosion in the South Ural
Mountains," Pirorda (May 1990), pp. 48-49. 5. Ibid.
6. Boris V. Nikipelov, Andrei F. Lizlov, and Nina A. Koshumikova,
"Experience with the First Soviet Nuclear Installation," Pirorda (Feb.
7. Nucleonics Week (July 26, 1990), p.11.
8. "Urgent Warning: Radioactive Waste Available to All," Izvestiya, May
4,1990, p. 6.
9. "Secret Site," Moscow Trud, July 11, 1989.
Thomas B. Cochran directs the Nuclear Weapons Databook project for the
Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., where Robert S.
Norris is a senior staff analyst.