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Worse than Chernobyl
On Sept. 29, 1957, a catastrophic release of radioactivity occurred at Mayak that shot into the air more radioactivity than the blast at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. A cooling system on a radioactive waste storage tank failed, causing an explosion that rained contaminants on an area the size of New Jersey.
Gulnara Ismagilova, a Tatar who was 11 at the time, remembers seeing the sky darken with a greenish fog as she piled potatoes in heaps.
"It was raining the night after the blast, and we could see green spots everywhere," said Ismagilova, 59. "It was some kind of green substance falling from the sky. I can remember seeing blood coming from people's noses and mouths, and people retching."
Built in 1946 deep within the birch forests at the foot of the southern Ural Mountains, Mayak was rushed into operation with untested technology and design flaws,...
One design flaw forced workers to clean by hand the filters that separated plutonium from other, unneeded radioactive isotopes. Other flaws caused critical pieces of equipment to explode, causing spills that filled Mayak's radioactive waste storage tanks. Facility officials faced a crucial decision: Shut down the plant or dump radioactive waste somewhere else.
"The immediate solution, of course, was simply to use the Techa River as a dumping ground," the scientists wrote.
For 20 months in 1950 and 1951, Mayak dumped into the river deadly radioactive waste that should have been stored in special tanks.
For decades, villagers swam in the Techa, ate its carp and pike, and grazed their cattle along the banks, unaware that the river had become a conduit for lethal radioactive waste from a Russian plutonium plant upstream.
Located near the source of the Techa River in the closed city of Ozersk, the sprawling Mayak complex once was a vital cog in the Soviet Union's rush to build up its nuclear arsenal. Mayak produced 73 tons of plutonium from 1948 until 1990, supplying plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bomb.
Mayak and other weapons production plants that made up the Soviet military complex existed behind a Cold War shroud of secrecy, and the extent of the harm they caused to the environment was not fully disclosed until after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. By the early 1990s it became known that Mayak had dumped more than 20 billion gallons of radioactive waste into the Techa River.
Mayak, which stopped producing weapons-grade nuclear material in 1990 and now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, continues to dump radioactive waste into the Techa,
Aside from Mayak, major Cold War radioactivity discharges at weapons manufacturing facilities in the central Siberian cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk were kept secret for years by Soviet authorities. Today, dozens of submarines containing nuclear fuel rust in ports along the Barents Sea and the country's Pacific coast, awaiting dismantling.
Environmentalists say even more threatening are the billions of gallons of waste stored in a reservoir called Lake Karachai, where radioactivity is so concentrated that some Western scientists have called it the most polluted place on Earth.
Just weeks after he was inaugurated in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin abolished Russia's environmental and forest protection agencies, assigning their functions to the Ministry of Natural Resources, which regulates mining and oil exploration. Russia also has aggressively pursued a program to import the world's spent nuclear fuel, an effort environmentalists warn would turn the country into the world's nuclear waste dump.