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Kyshtym: The Cover-Up of a Clandestine Nuclear Catastrophe

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“Long before Chernobyl, the Russians had an accident at a reactor in a place called Kyshtym…They assumed it would be all right. They assumed. They assumed, they played with the lives of living human beings as if they were…well, so many dolls…and guess what happened?” -Stephen King, “The Tommyknockers”

Although King uses it in his fictional novel, what happened near Kyshtym in the former Soviet Union on September 29, 1957 was a real catastrophe. Decades before the infamous explosion at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union had already experienced a nuclear disaster that was almost as deadly. In the era of the Cold War, long before proper environmental protection protocols and efficient waste transport services, the cataclysm at a secret nuclear facility in the Ural Mountains affected thousands of lives.

The Town That Didn’t Exist

Nuclear power was the ultimate goal of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was woefully behind their enemy, the United States. To catch up, the Soviet government built a clandestine nuclear facility in the Ural Mountains, as well as the town of Chelyabinsk in the 1940s. The community, which supported the workers of the nuclear facility, officially did not exist. The plant had six reactors that churned out vast amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. They harnessed the nearby Techa River to wash away the radioactive waste generated by their efforts, inadvertently poisoning the environment.

But the worst was yet to come.

The plant had several holding tanks to store liquid nuclear waste, but due to the low standards and poor understanding of the cosmic energies they were handling, they were disasters waiting to happen. A cooling system for one of the tanks failed and no one noticed. The liquid waste was extremely hot due to radiation decay, and on the afternoon of September 29, 1957, the tank exploded.

The explosion sent a bluish-violet plume into the sky. It was actually a cloud of radioactive death, full of potent cesium and strontium that was two-fifths the strength of the fallout at Chernobyl.

Secrecy Over Safety

Instead of doing everything it could to protect its citizens, the Soviet government instead tried to keep the disaster a secret. Although the explosion contaminated an area hundreds of miles that was home to over a quarter of a million people, they only evacuated 11,000 for over two years. The evacuees were of Russian ethnicity, while those left behind were of Tartar descent. The government ordered these people to clean up the radioactive waste and kill any animals in the zone with no hope of evacuation.

In the years to follow, hundreds of people would succumb to radiation poisoning while thousands more would develop cancer from the exposure. To this day, settlements in the region have higher rates of genetic problems, cancers, and a host of other diseases. The containment measures were absurdly inadequate. A Russian defector said that the roads that led into the fallout zone remained open. The only warning of the radioactive danger ahead were signs that told motorists to drive as fast as they could through the area. The full details of what happened at Kyshtym would remain elusive until 1989.

The catastrophe at Kyshtym was one of many warning signs about the dangers of industrialization. With proper protocols, secure systems, and vigilance the disaster might never have happened. With empathy and compassion, thousands of people would not have perished so cruelly.

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