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Nuclear History – the forgotten disasters

History’s forgotten nuclear disaster  Everybody knows of the  nuclear catastrophes of  Chernobyl and Fukushima But how many know of the Mayak nuclear nightmare?

The Mayak nuclear plant in the Southern Urals was one of the dark secrets of the cold war. It was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear complex, a massive set of plutonium production reactors, fuel production facilities, and reprocessing and waste storage buildings.

In 1957 a storage tank with highly radioactive liquid waste exploded. More than half the amount of radioactive waste released by the accident in Chernobyl was blasted into the atmosphere. A few villagers were evacuated, but most were not. 217 towns and at least 272,000 people were exposed to chronic levels of radiation. The plume was 50 kilometers wide and 1,000 kilometers long.

But the explosion wasn’t the only incident of contamination. Between 1948 and 1956 radioactive waste was poured straight into the Techa River, the source of drinking water for many villages. It exposed 124,000 people to medium and high levels of radiation. Nuclear waste was also dumped into the lakes of West Siberia, where storms blew nuclear dust across a vast area around the lake.

The largest nuclear complex in the world

The Mayak nuclear plant exploded in 1957. But its legacy of radioactive pollution had been going on even before this.

Today, around 7,000 people still live in direct contact with the highly polluted Techa river or on contaminated land. In the town of Muslyumovo, studies have show genetic abnormalities to be 25 times more frequent than in other areas of Russia. The incidents of malignant cancer are significantly higher. And the number of residents of Muslyumovo on the Russian national oncology registers is nearly 4 times higher than in the rest of Russia. In other surrounding towns and villages people have cancer rates more than double the Russian average. (See the Greenpeace Report, Mayak: A 50-Year Tragedy)

Half a century later, Mayak is one of the most radioactive places on Earth, and the accident continues to have a devastating legacy. Many thousands of people have never been evacuated from contaminated areas.

Dutch photo-journalist, Robert Knoth, visited the Mayak region in 2000 and 2001 and took a series of highly disturbing pictures of the victims of radiation in the region. (Parental warning: The link above contains images of malformed foetuses and other disturbing photos.

The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet For forty-five years, the Chelyabinsk province of Russia was closed to all foreigners. Only in January of 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin sign a decree changing that. As a result, western scientists who studied the region, declared Chelyabinsk to be the most polluted spot on earth…..

Impact of the Environmental Crisis
Soon after the Mayak nuclear complex became operational, death and diseases in the region increased dramatically due to the dumping of medium and high level radioactive waste into the river system. As a result, 22 villages on the riverbanks, in a 50 km downstream zone from the complex, were evacuated. The village of Muslymova, just outside the 50 km zone was particularly contaminated, but it was never evacuated. Muslyumova lies 45 km north west of Chelyabinsk city and has 4,000 inhabitants. The village had no wells and until recent years depended on the river Techa, for drinking water.

The villagers of Muslyumova grew increasingly ill following contamination of their water. The number of birth defects and cancer deaths soared, but the authorities refused to take remedial measures. Statistics show that gene-mutations in the villages just outside the evacuated zone were 15 times the average for the Russian Federation. The local authorities attributed the high level of birth defects among newborns and the high mortality rates to a low standard of living.

A report on the health of the people living on the banks of the Techa River was published in 1991, which showed that the incidence of leukemia increased by 41% since 1950. From 1980 to 1990, all cancers in this population rose by 21% and all diseases of the circulatory system rose by 31%. These figures are probably gross under-estimations, because local physicians were instructed to limit the number of death certificates they issued with diagnosis of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. According to Gulfarida Galimova, a local doctor who has been keeping records in lieu of official statistics, the average life span for women in Muslyumovo in 1993 was 47, compared to the country average of 72. The average life span of Muslyumovo men was 45 compared to 69 for the entire country.

Chelyabinsk regional hospitals were not allowed to treat the villagers and they were sent to the Ural Centre for Radiation Medicine. The medical data of the UCRM was classified until 1990. Records of the UCRM chart the decline in health of 28,000 people along the Techa and all of them are classed as seriously irradiated. Since the 1960s, these people have been examined regularly by public health officials.

According to the head of the UCRM clinical department the rate of leukemia has doubled in the last two decades. Skin cancers have quadrupled over the last 33 years. The total number of people suffering from cancer has risen by 21%. The number of people suffering from vascular diseases has risen 31%. Birth defects have increased by 25%. Kosenko carried out a small epidemiological study of 100 people selected at random. From this group 96% had at least five chronic diseases (heart diseases, high blood pressure, arthritis and asthma), 30% had as many as ten chronic conditions. Local doctors estimate that half the men and women at child bearing age are sterile.

Even today, the local population still does not know the actual levels of radioisotopes in its home grown products. German scientists who did a field study in Muslumova in 1996 have measured some food samples in the villages and found astonishing levels of radioactivity, 17,000 becquerrel per kg in fish, and 8,000 per kg in vegetables (in Europe, products with more than 600 bequerrel are taken off the market). Only since 1989, the villagers have started to get information about the dangers of the radioactive contamination of their river.

Another forgotten  nuclear disaster:   Tokaimura, Japan-over a decade ago just outside Tokyo.  It began when cost-cutting and sloppy work led to a fission chain-reaction at a uranium-processing plant in Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, in 1999. The Tokaimura incident was Japan’s worst nuclear-related accident. Two people were killed, thousands of people were exposed to at least moderate levels of radiation and the town center had to be temporarily evacuated during a cleanup. Company officials have said they were worried that if the public became aware of cracking at the reactors, people would be frightened. The government gave Tokyo Electric the name of the whistle-blower who reported the cracking to the company, in a further effort to keep things quiet.

Czechoslovakia’s horror history of uranium mining

Around 80,000 people are believed to have been sentenced to work in the uranium mines by the Czechoslovak communist regime which was keen to fulfill a contract signed in 1947, before the communist party grabbed total power, to supply the raw material for atom bombs to the Soviet Union…..

Immediately after WWII, German prisoners of war were used to work at the most important mine at Jáchymov, in the far west of Bohemia near the German border. The mine was so important that it was the subject of a special mission by Russian soldiers in the closing days of WWII to try and discover what uranium stores they could raid even though
that part of Czechoslovakia was supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the occupying US military.

A cheap and plentiful source of labor was concocted by the communist regime as it turned on its real and imaginary enemies after taking power. A sentence of forced labor in the uranium mines became commonplace in the early 1950s as the regime clamped down on dissent
and unrest as it failed to deliver on its political and economic
Death sentences
Some of those sentenced to long terms of labor were labeled “Muklů, an acronnym which translates from Czech to mean men designated for liquidation. Quite simply, they were not expected to survive the camps and with the regime counting on their deaths far before they
approached the ends of their sentences.

Brutal conditions in the mines and the camps, hastily erected wooden barracks, often with rudimentary facilities and rations and privileges, such as receiving letters, based on meeting or exceeding work quotas, meant that many prisoners aged prematurely or became
chronically ill. Prison authorities in some cases agreed to send them home when it was clear they only had a few months to live………
Those who survived their sentences were still punished afterwards, usually being banned from returning to their previous jobs and were often forced to work as manual laborers. Their families were also victimized and they usually continued to be the focus of particular
attention from the security services.



  1. This article is really helpful and I really thank you.

    Comment by Kevin | May 24, 2016 | Reply

  2. I agree with Kevin. I am doing a newspaper report right now on this disaster, and I appreciate the numbers and the in-depth information. I will make sure to cite this article. (A student newspaper)

    Comment by Ian Moats | October 7, 2016 | Reply

  3. […] accident at the Mayak plant has happened before. An explosion there in 1957 exposed at least 272,000 people to dangerous levels of […]

    Pingback by Russia says 'extremely high' radioactivity not from nuclear accident | 7NewsPlus | November 21, 2017 | Reply

  4. Article is somewhat misleading. Photo of nuclear plant leads reader to believe it is Mayak facility when in fact it is the Chernobyl Unit 4. Be careful of what you read. Always check multiple, independent sources for corroboration with what is fact and what is not.

    Comment by Mike | November 22, 2017 | Reply

    • Thank you, Mike, for picking this up, and letting me know. My mistake. I have now replaced that photo with a correct photo relating to the Kyshtym disaster at Mayak .

      Comment by Christina MacPherson | November 22, 2017 | Reply

  5. […] accident at the Mayak plant has happened before. An explosion there in 1957 exposed at least 272,000 people to dangerous levels of […]

    Pingback by Russia says 'extremely high' radioactivity not from nuclear accident - Jobaky | November 22, 2017 | Reply

  6. […] [3] “Nuclear History – the forgotten disasters” nuclear-news, […]

    Pingback by The Most Irradiated Spot on Earth | Environmental Inequality | October 26, 2021 | Reply

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