With the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster, many are remembering the meltdown that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in 1986. While the Chernobyl disaster is widely remembered as the worst nuclear accident in history, there is actually a place much more radioactive than Chernobyl. That place is known by many names, although it is largely unheard of outside Russia: Chelyabinsk-65.
It had previously been known as Chelyabinsk-40, then Chelyabinsk-65, and is known today as Ozersk (also spelled Ozyorsk), located in Chelyabinsk Oblast of the Ural Mountains region of the Russian Federation. If the name sounds familiar, it may be because a meteor fell there in 2013 (a video of which was posted in a previous article here). The Chelyabinsk-65 facility is located roughly fifteen kilometers east of Kyshtym (the CIA name for the facility was Kyshtym) and occupies two hundred square kilometers around Lake Kyzyltash. The facility’s construction began in 1947, when Combine 817 was first built and Reactor A, the facility’s first production reactor, went into service in June 1948. The facility (then called Chelyabinsk-40) was the first production complex for plutonium in the Soviet Union, as well as a nuclear component manufacturing plant. The facility produced the material which would be utilized in the Soviet’s first atomic bomb, the RDS-1 which was detonated in 1949.
Chelyabinsk-65 was also the only facility in the USSR that could reprocess spent nuclear fuel from other nuclear facilities, icebreakers and nuclear submarines. The facility was owned by the Mayak Production Association (or PO Mayak), and produced plutonium and tritium for the nuclear weapons program of the Soviet Union. As such, the city of Chelyabinsk-65 was not even given city status until the collapse of the USSR, which is also when it was given the name Ozersk. Because of the secretive nature of Chelyabinsk-65’s activities, the city never even appeared on any maps although roughly eighty-five thousand people lived in the nearby city of Ozersk and PO Mayak employed anywhere between twelve-thousand to seventeen-thousand people. By 1987, roughly twenty-thousand people were employed at Chelyabinsk-65, although by 2001 there were only fourteen-thousand five hundred employees. People living near the facility suffered from increased illnesses (such as thyroid cancer), but due to the secrecy of Chelyabinsk-65 doctors were restricted from even putting “Cancer” as a cause of death on deceased people’s birth certificates.
However, aside from its important and secretive role in the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Chelyabinsk-65 is largely remembered for the horrid impacts it had on the environment and the health of those who worked on it or lived nearby. PO Mayak was in charge of disposing the nuclear waste, such as dumping high-level waste directly into the nearby Lake Karachai which would lead to the relocation of over seven thousand locals. There was also how radioactive waste was dumped into the Techa River, which leads into the Arctic Ocean and the Tobol River. This method of disposal was used to remove over 2.75 million curies over a seven year period. During the spring of 1968, Lake Karachai (which had accumulated roughly 120 million curies) dried up and caused the wind to carry a large amount of radioactive dust and infect over half a million individuals.
One event, which occurred in 1957, does bear some similarities to the Chernobyl disaster. On September 29th, 1957, there was a chemical explosion inside one of the radioactive waste storage sites which would involve roughly 20 million curies of radioactive material. The cooling system of the waste containment unit failed, which left a concrete barrier to restrain the radioactive waste, although 2 million curies were dispersed Chelyabinsk Oblast, Tyumen Oblast, and Sverdlovsk Oblast, affecting over twenty-three thousand square kilometers and two-hundred-fifty million people.
While there are many people that are working at the Ozersk facility today with a higher education, in the beginning of Chelyabinsk-40’s history a significant portion of the workforce was made up of inmates who had been offered reduced sentences in exchange for working at the facility. However, most (if not all) were dead before it even mattered whether or not they received a reduced sentence. Supposedly in order to keep the workers working, the facility had stores with exotics foods or luxury items sold at extremely low prices. One story states that a band of musicians was brought in to perform for the workers, and after being in the facility for only two hours the band members felt incredibly sick and two members had severe headaches.
The Ozersk facility today is not nearly as important as it once was, but it is extremely important due to the horrendous damage inflicted upon both the environment and the people even though there was only one accident, people who did not even realize they were being poisoned by the radiation due to the secretive nature of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.