Feature: Untold Nuclear Contamination

Chapter 2: The Soviet Union

In the little-known history of Soviet atomic energy, there is an accident which predates Chernobyl by thirty years. Known as the Ural Nuclear Disaster, the accident took place in 1957 at a nuclear waste dump at the Kyshtym nuclear weapons manufacturing plant in the eastern Urals. The explosion only became known to the outside world in 1976, nineteen years after the event, when the dissident biologist Zhores Medvedev wrote an article about it for the British scientific journal New Scientist. It took another thirteen years before the accident was officially acknowledged by the Soviet authorities, in June 1989.

The Truth about the Ural Nuclear Disaster

The accident known as the Ural Nuclear Disaster occurred on the evening of September 29, 1957, at the Kyshtym nuclear weapons facility in the city of Kasli, approximately sixty miles north of Chelyabinsk, one of the Soviet Union's numerous industrial centers. A tank containing waste material produced during the processing of plutonium for nuclear weapons exploded, and of the twenty million curies of highly radioactive material released, two million were discharged into the atmosphere.

When we spoke to Medvedev in London, where he is continuing his research, he informed us that he had known about the disaster since the late fifties, but at that time had only been able to obtain fragmented information. Since his arrival in Britain he had finally managed to put together the whole picture of what had happened at Kyshtym.

According to him, the accident occurred when there was a failure in the waste cooling system, causing highly radioactive liquid waste to heat up and eventually explode. The force of the explosion caused the yard-thick concrete cover to blow off the tank, which had a capacity of over one thousand cubic feet, leaving a crater thirty-five yards wide and five yards deep. The explosion was said to be equivalent to a blast using seventy tons of dynamite.

According to the Soviet account the radiation blown three-quarters of a mile into the air was carried off by a southwesterly wind, and radioactivity continued to fall for almost half a day. Contamination by strontium-90 amounted to 0.1 curie per square kilometer and was spread over fifteen thousand square kilometers, an area home to 270,000 people. The worst-affected region was a strip almost a kilometer wide and 105 kilometers (66 miles) in length for which the reading was over 2 curies per square kilometer. The 10,700 residents of thirteen villages living in this area were evacuated, starting with those in the three villages nearest the site. Within ten days, approximately one thousand people had left their homes. The radiation levels within their bodies averaged between 50 and 52 rems, with the highest recorded being 72 rems.

The remaining residents were evacuated within a year. Of the first batch of evacuees, six hundred of those with the highest absorption levels were hospitalized for checkups. Tests showed that their white blood cell counts were down to sixty percent of the level immediately after the accident, and within eighteen months normal levels had been recovered. According to the Biophysics Research Section, which has conducted follow-up surveys on those exposed to the radiation for the past thirty-three years, there has been no increase in cancer, infant mortality, genetic defects, or any of the other problems generally associated with high doses of radiation. Signs have been put up in the 167-square-kilometer area worst affected by nuclear fallout advising against hunting, and the region is still strictly off limits to former residents. The area is still contaminated, and in some parts gamma rays of 50 microroentgens per hour have been detected, five times the level of natural background radiation.

The topsoil of farmland outside the restricted area was dug up and buried deep under the ground. As a result of this measure, farming has begun once again in some parts. According to the researchers, produce grown in this area complies with Soviet standards for safe levels of radioactivity.

The intelligence services of Britain and the United States knew about the Ural nuclear disaster not long after its occurrence. Medvedev claims in his book Nuclear Disaster in the Urals that the CIA was aware of the accident by 1958. The question is, why was the American public not informed?

Medvedev believes there were two reasons for withholding information of an accident involving radiation. Firstly, at around the same time as the Ural disaster, an accident occurred at the Enrico Fermi reactor near Detroit which had received extensive coverage from the media. Secondly, there was a fire in a plutonium pile at the Windscale (now known as Sellafield) nuclear complex in Britain. Consequently, the fear of exposure to radiation from nuclear power plants was already growing among the citizens of both powers, without being fanned by reports of disaster in the Urals. As Medvedev commented, "The publicizing of the Soviet accident could only do harm to the nuclear policies of the Western nations, so it was deliberately kept a secret from the people."

The year after the Ural disaster, in 1958, the premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, suddenly announced the suspension of all nuclear testing. Medvedev's view is that this move was motivated not by any antinuclear ideals on the part of Khrushchev, but rather by the accident, which had put an abrupt halt to weapons production at Kyshtym.

As the arms race gathered momentum, there was a corresponding escalation of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. At that time the Kyshtym plant was known among the Soviet authorities by the code name "Chelyabinsk Forty," and it was the subject of increasing attention from the CIA. A well-known incident occurred in May 1960, three years after the accident, when an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory. The plane had in fact been flying over Chelyabinsk.

According to Medvedev's account, the town of Kasli where the accident took place is still veiled in secrecy, and the river Techa, which flows through it, is still heavily polluted, making the water unsuitable for household use.

"The government has repeatedly stated that there were no damaging effects on the health of the residents, but a look at the reports submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that the rate of infant mortality is abnormally high, as is the incidence of leukemia in adults. Problems have also been observed in the health of prisoners and soldiers who helped in the cleanup operation."

Medvedev's view of the aftereffects of the accident is much more pessimistic than the official stance. For Medvedev the dangers of withholding information from the public are well illustrated by the long list of accidents. If the government had informed the public earlier of the accident in the Urals, instead of thirty-two years later, Medvedev believes the knowledge gained could probably have prevented the tragic accident at Chernobyl.

Additional Accidents Brought to Light

In August 1989, the Soviet government revealed that there had in fact been another accident involving nuclear waste at Kyshtym, previous to the Ural Nuclear Disaster of 1957. According to this disclosure, before the tank which exploded in 1957 was built, over 100 million curies of radioactive waste were released into nearby Lake Karachay. This amount of radioactive contamination is on a totally different scale to that of the Ural disaster (2 million curies) and the Chernobyl disaster (50 million curies). The government has said it will take around 60 million rubles and a period of three to four years to clean up the contaminated lake. There has been no word, however, on the health of local residents or the damage done to the environment, even though the local water supply is under threat.

In 1989, it was also announced that during the fifties the army had exploded an atomic bomb in the southern Urals, while practicing military maneuvers to be carried out in the event of a nuclear war. It was revealed also that the aftereffects of this explosion are still being felt by the soldiers who participated in the maneuvers.

According to an article in the Soviet Defense Department's paper Red Star, some tanks were hurled across the training ground by the blast on September 14, 1954, while others were melted by the intense heat. The Red Star stated that there were no casualties, but this was disputed by Izvestia in a later article. A former soldier testified that a number of soldiers had been killed or wounded, and that those who did survive were still suffering from the aftereffects of exposure to large doses of radiation.

Apart from tests carried out in Semipalatinsk, little is known about the damage caused by other nuclear tests in the Soviet Union. According to the Moscow News, atmospheric testing carried out in the Chukchi Autonomous Area in the far east of the Soviet Union during the fifties and sixties has brought cancer, shorter life spans, and a higher rate of infant mortality to the residents there.

The article, based on a report presented to the People's Congress, states that the minority Chukchi people were exposed to a level of radiation roughly equivalent to that experienced by the residents of the areas around Chernobyl. Moreover, among the section of the Chukchi which depend on reindeers for meat and milk, the level of cesium-137 contamination is one hundred times higher than that of the maritime Chukchi who live by hunting Arctic Sea mammals. As a result, deaths from cancer of the esophagus are higher than normal, the occurrence of cancer of the liver is ten times the national average, and the incidence of lung cancer and leukemia has doubled. Most of the inhabitants of the area have contracted tuberculosis due to a lowering of their immuno-responsive systems, and the average life expectancy is said to be a mere forty-five years.

The extent of the damage caused by the discharge of radioactive substances from nuclear bomb testing and the generation of nuclear power in the Soviet Union is only now slowly being revealed after long years of silence on the part of the authorities. The recent revelations are largely due to the Chernobyl disaster and efforts of the popular movement in Semipalatinsk to close down the testing area. However, the information received so far is only a fragment of the total picture; a large part of the story still remains a closely guarded secret.

The Soviet Union has carried out over six hundred nuclear tests in the past forty years, affecting most regions of the country. The government controls all the information concerning these tests, and the residents of the regions in which they were carried out have been given very little information regarding radiation and its possible effects. In the case of Chernobyl, the government's ability to cope with a disaster was found to be inadequate, and even now the effects of exposure to high doses of radiation are continuing to be felt. Vast resources have been allocated to the development of nuclear power, but there has been a conspicuous lack of research on radioactive contamination and possible methods of preventing destruction to the environment and loss of human life.

There seems no doubt that, as a more complete picture of the history of nuclear development in the Soviet Union comes to light, a great number of its people will begin to face growing uncertainty about the state of their health.