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The Kyshtym disaster was a disastrous explosion of buried nuclear waste from a plutonium-processing plant near Kyshtym, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia (then in U.S.S.R.), on September 29, 1957. It took more than 30 years for the Soviets to admit the incident took place and the number of casualties was never confirmed.
See the fact file below for more information on the Kyshtym disaster or alternatively, you can download our 25-page Kyshtym disaster worksheet pack to utilise within the classroom or home environment.
Key Facts & Information
RISE OF THE NUKES
- At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union pursued the development of nuclear power plants to stand as equals with the United States.
- Stalin was eager to catch up to the United States in the number of nuclear weapons the U.S.S.R. possessed. A nuclear bomb plant called Mayak was built not far from the town called Kyshtym, and a closed village, named Ozyorsk, was constructed around it to house the workers and facilities.
- Initially, Mayak dumped high-level radioactive waste into a nearby river, which flowed to the river Ob, flowing further down to the Arctic Ocean.
- Lake Kyzyltash was first used to dump contaminated water from the six reactors that were used as an open-cycle cooling system.
- When Lake Kyzyltash quickly became contaminated, Lake Karachay was used for open-air storage, keeping the contamination a slight distance from the reactors.
- A storage facility for liquid nuclear waste was then added around 1953. It consisted of steel tanks mounted in a concrete base, 8.2 meters underground.
- Because of the high level of radioactivity, the waste heating itself through decay heat. To prevent explosions, a cooler containing 20 tanks was built around each bank.
- Despite the system, facilities for monitoring the operation and the content of the tanks were inadequate, with the government solely focused on production.
- Between 1949 and 1956, the estimated discharge into the Techa river to Kyzyltash was 2.68 billion cubic feet.
BEGINNING OF A DISASTER
- For more than a year, one of the cooling tank’s contents grew steadily hotter from radioactive decay, reaching a temperature of about 660 °F (350 °C). The malfunction was not repaired.
- The hot isotopes in this wastewater created evaporation within the tanks, which not only compromised the tanks’ seals due to the upward-moving air but also left behind a mix of nitrate and acetate.
- On September 29, 1957, the tank exploded with a force equivalent to at least 70 tons of TNT, setting off a chain reaction of explosions amongst the nearby tanks and blowing several tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
- The released fission products drifted off the site, creating a contaminated region of 15,000-20,000 sq. km called the East Urals Radioactive Trace.
THE QUICK AFTERMATH
- 22 villages were exposed to radiation from the disaster, with a total population of around 10,000 people evacuated. Some were evacuated after a week, but it took almost 2 years for evacuations to occur at other sites.
- Residents of Chelyabinsk district in the Southern Urals reported observing “polar-lights” in the sky near the plant, and American aerial spy photos documented the destruction caused by the disaster by 1960.
- An estimated 49 to 55 people died of radiation-induced cancer, 66 were diagnosed with chronic radiation syndrome.
- 270,000 people were affected as far away as Tyumen, 330 km (207 miles) to the northeast, as a consequence of a radioactive cloud 8 km (5 miles) wide.
- All pine trees within 18 km (12 miles) of the complex were dead within two years.
- This nuclear accident, the Soviet Union’s worst before the Chernobyl disaster, is categorized as a Level 6 “Serious Accident” on the 0–7 International Nuclear Events Scale.
- In the late 1960s, parts of the contaminated area were designated a “nature preserve,” thus giving a reason to move out its human occupants. The pretense was to avoid people from noticing the rising number of cancer cases within the area.
- Scattered reports of a nuclear accident in Russia appeared in the Western press as early as 1958. But the Kyshtym disaster was not widely known until 1976.
- 18 years following the disaster, Soviet biologist Zhores Aleksandrovich Medvedev reported the incident in the British journal New Scientist.
- His detective work revealed that questionable “experiments” had taken place in the Ural region and that the contamination must have occurred in 1957 or 1958.
- After serious pressure, in 1989 the Soviet government gradually declassified documents pertaining to the disaster.
THE MOST POLLUTED PLACE ON EARTH
- Back at Lake Karachay, the next Chelyabinsk-40 disaster would occur there in 1967. That year’s abnormally warm summer saw the shallow lake begin to dry up, exposing the contaminated lake sediment, which blew into the atmosphere, spreading strontium over an area approximately 1,800 sq.km. with a population of 400,000.
- In 1990, the waste discharge area emitted 600 röntgens per hour of radiation, enough to give a human a lethal dose if exposed for just an hour.
- Today, the Lake Karachay and its surrounding habitats are almost completely uninhabited. Of the fish and other aquatic species that survive there, all are considered to carry high levels of lethal radiation.
- Since anyone who arrives at the lake site is susceptible to lethal radioactive radiation, very few studies have been conducted at the site regarding its surviving flora and fauna.
- Large areas in Chelyabinsk are currently uninhabited because of the lethal conditions there. The large scale of the disaster makes it very difficult to initiate cleanup activities in the region.
Kyshtym disaster Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about Kyshtym disaster across 25 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Kyshtym disaster worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Kyshtym disaster which was a disastrous explosion of buried nuclear waste from a plutonium-processing plant near Kyshtym, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia (then in U.S.S.R.), on September 29, 1957. It took more than 30 years for the Soviets to admit the incident took place and the number of casualties was never confirmed.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
- Kyshtym Disaster Facts
- At Kyshtym
- Vocabulary Test
- Truth or Bluff
- Writing Russian
- Closed City
- Big 3
- State Powers
- Crisis Response
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