It was August 1945 and the United States had just dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that devastated Japan and ended the war in the Pacific arena….Joseph Stalin ruler of the Soviet Union decided that the USSR was lacking in nuclear weaponry in comparison to that of the U.S. In complete secrecy Stalin built the means to ‘catch up’ with the United States’ nuclear arsenal… He created Mayak.
Mayak was a secret nuclear facility located about 800 kilometers from Moscow…It was set in the Southern Ural Mountains where it was away from the cities and could operate secretly. Until recently you could not find it on a map. About 80,000 people were sentenced to work at facility, they were brought in from nearby prisons. After the revolution’s excitement worn down, the Soviet people began to turn on their leadership when the promise of ‘empowerment of the workers’ fell short. During the 1930’s the Soviet people were starving and began to rebel against communism. Stalin was not kind to his dissidents. It is said that Stalin killed anywhere from 3-25 million people during his reign of terror. (1) Others were sent to prisons, gulags and labor camps.
A Cheap and plentiful source of labor for Mayak were these prisoners as the communists turned on their enemies (real or imagined). “A sentence of forced labor in the uranium mines became commonplace in the early 1950’s as the regime clamped down on dissent and unrest as it failed to deliver on its political and economic promises.” (2)
There was no consideration paid to worker safety or responsible disposal of waste materials. They dumped the waste in the Techa River and many small lakes in the area. Tons of contaminated materials were produced, optimized for plutonium production. The reactors used thousands of gallons of cooling water each day. Everything was set up quickly (18 months) so to be competitive with the U.S. (3)
This resulted in the explosion of “First Lightning” atomic bomb in 1949. “The first Soviet nuclear test, code named "First Lightning", detonated a plutonium bomb, the RDS-1. The code designation RDS was actually arbitrary and meaningless, but various people on the project gave it a variety of interpretations, one popular one was "Reaktivnyi Dvigatel Stalina" (Stalin's Rocket Engine), another was "Russia Does It Alone". The whole focus of the Soviet program at this point was to set off a Soviet atomic blast at the earliest possible time whatever the cost. At Beria's insistence, this device was an exact copy of the U.S. Gadget/Fat Man design.” (4)
On November 22, 1955 the Soviets exploded their first Superbomb, it was an H-bomb (hydrogen bomb). This device, designated RDS-37, was the Soviet Union's first test of a two-stage radiation implosion (aka Sakharov's "Third Idea", and Teller-Ulam) design. This was also the world's first air-dropped fusion bomb test (and the 24th Soviet test overall). After this test the Soviet Union used radiation implosion exclusively instead of the Sloika ("Layer Cake") approach. (5)
Along with the secret facility there was a secret city. This for scientists, workers and their families. It was the living facility along with Nuclear facility. Chelayabinsk-40 was created. It was also known as City 40, and was surrounded by guards, gates and barbed wired fences. It is now known as Ozyorsk. Until recently you could not find it on a map and the Russians denied it existed. No visitors were allowed. The city of 100,000 people were not allowed to send letters or make contact with the outside world. The Soviets erased them from their records and to their family back home they were missing. Working at the facility was a death sentence, people generally did not live more than 5 years….You could not refuse, because once invited you knew a state secret, and would executed.
From one site I visited I did get an eye-witness account of what it was like to visit (not sure how they were allowed access) the city:
The bus dropped the musicians off in an underground city, complete with buildings, streets, shops, and pedestrians. According to the musicians the underground structure was huge, described by some to be four-stories tall with massive overhead lights to illuminate and mimic natural daylight.
Conditions at Chelyabinsk-40 meant incentives were necessary to entice Russians to work there, and witness accounts reveal there were plenty. The stores were allegedly stocked 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 2 hour performance. Two accounts reported they had the most terrible headache they’ve ever experienced after only being there for a couple of hours. (6)
As I stated earlier, the waste from Mayak was dumped in the Techa River. This river was the water supply for 24 villages along the banks. The pollution became so bad it was discovered in the Artic Ocean. So Mayak started dumping in Lake Karachay, in part because it had no outlet. To limit the exposure, barbed wire was put up along the river. The government did not tell the people why.
The infamous explosion came in 1957. It was one of the biggest nuclear disasters in history… A containment sector failed and exploded. Radiation was spread immediately throughout the region affecting about 500,000 people. They did not evacuate them for 10 days. It happened underground, in a secret facility and the public knew nothing about it. The military burned crops and villages to the ground. They shot the farmers livestock….People were already looking ill in some cases as they evacuated the area. It is said the C.I.A. knew about the disaster but decided to keep it a secret so people that lived near Nuclear plants would not be concerned.
Since 1978, Russia has been trying to clean up Lake Karachay is the most polluted place on earth. They say anyone standing on the lake shore would receive a lethal dose of radiation (600 REM) in an hour. (7) The lake has migrated several kilometers and they have filled it with concrete blocks, and dirt to form a near surface permanent and dry nuclear waste facility. The radiation is going down they say. (7)
Brent, Jonathan (2008) Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. Atlas & Co., 2008,
- Nuclear History: The Forgotten Disasters, https://nuclear-news.net/information/nuclear-history/nuclear-history-the-forgotten-disaster/
- "Mayak Production Association | Facilities". NTI. Archivedfrom the original on 6 July 2017
- The Soviet Nuclear Weapons Program, http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Russia/Sovwpnprog.html
- The Most Contaminated place on Earth-Chelyabinsk-40, https://sometimes-interesting.com/2011/07/15/the-most-contaminated-place-on-earth-chelyabinsk-40/
- Russia’s Mayak Continues Clean-up of the Lake, http://www.neimagazine.com/news/newsrussias-mayak-continues-clean-up-of-lake-karachai-5684170