Plutonium and Tritium for Soviet nuclear weapons is produced at three closely guarded locations, each of which includes a "closed" city of 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 was known by another name or names abroad as well as in the Soviet Union.
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 once called Beria, but today inhabitants call it Sorokovka("forties town").
Another Mayak 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 the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opened in the United States.
Chelyabinsk-65, was 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.
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 is 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 people of the Chelyabinsk Region have suffered no less than three nuclear disasters:
In 1957, the area suffered its next calamity when the cooling system of a radioactive waste containment unit malfunctioned and exploded. About two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing to radiation over a quarter million people. Less than half of one percent of these people were evacuated, and some of those only after years had passed.
The third disaster came ten years later. The Mayak complex had been using Lake Karachay as a dumping basin for its radioactive waste since 1951. In 1967, a drought reduced the water level of the lake, and gale-force winds spread the radioactive dust throughout twenty-five thousand square kilometers, further irradiating half a million people with five million curies.
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. The tanks were entirely immersed in, and cooled by, water. But the monitoring system was defective. The system failed in one of the tanks, however, and the waste began to dry out. 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.
There were 217 towns and villages with a combined population 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. There are no records of deaths caused by the accident.
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 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, where were too high to begin with: about 30 rem per year. (Standards for nuclear workers in Russia, as in the United States, are now about 5 rem per year, although they are about the 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.
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 river. 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 1,8000 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 being filled with hollow concrete blocks, rock, and soil to reduce the dispersion of radioactivity.
The Techa River was originally cordoned off with a wire fence and people were forbidden to fish in it, or to pick mushrooms and berries or cut hay nearby. Today, the shattered remains of the fence rust by the riverside and regulations are widely ignored by the population. 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."