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Home > Environmental, Explained, Government, History, Military & War, Russia, Unsolved Mysteries, World's Most > The Most Contaminated Place on Earth: Chelyabinsk-40

The Most Contaminated Place on Earth: Chelyabinsk-40

Outside of the Chernobyl incident, we seldom hear about the nuclear laboratories and test facilities of the former U.S.S.R. One particular installation – Chelyabinsk-40 – was the first Soviet plutonium production complex and the site of three separate massive nuclear incidents.

Until recently this area was not included on maps and the Russian government denied its existence. No visitors had been allowed under any circumstances, and all residents worked in the facility (later referred to as Chelyabinsk-65).  With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90′s, Chelyabinsk-40 was finally acknowledged by the government and granted town status.

In 1994, Chelyabinsk-65 was finally given a name: Ozyorsk. 

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Seventy thousand prisoners from twelve labor camps began construction of the underground city in 1945. The first nuclear reactor, Anotchka, was constructed in 18 months. Additional nearby facilities would be constructed around the area later known as Ozyorsk (or Ozersk), which would house nearly 100,000 people and encompass some 90 square kilometers. The region chosen by the Soviet government was called the Mayak complex and was to serve as secret headquarters for nuclear research and development.

Aside from the nuclear scientists, most of the workers in the underground nuclear facility were prisoners who agreed to work in such conditions in exchange for a lesser sentence. Russian convicts were given the option to work 25 years hard labor in Siberia or 5 years underground in Chelyabinsk-40.

It really was a death sentence, however; no workers would live beyond five years with that level of radioactive exposure. Of course at the time, the convicts did not know what they’d be doing at this facility nor were they aware of the ramifications of increased exposure to radioactive material. Ultimately, the entire Mayak complex would be closed to all non-residents for nearly 45 years.

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Disasters

During the first six years of operation, the entire Mayak complex dumped its radioactive waste into the Techa River, which happened to be the only source of water for the 24 villages along its banks. By 1951, it became obvious the waste run-off was damaging the river and surrounding population. Soon after, nuclear waste from Chelyabinsk-40 was found in the Arctic Ocean.

This prompted the decision to dump radioactive waste elsewhere. Lake Karachay was chosen, in part because the lake had no outlet. To limit future incidents of residents interacting with the radioactive Techa River, authorities strung barbed-wire fences up and down the river banks restricting any human habitation. One thing they did not do was disclose the reasons why to the local population.

In 1957 a radioactive waste containment sector failed and exploded. Radiation was immediately spread throughout the region, affecting over 250,000 people.  This was long before the Chernobyl incident and it occurred in a secret underground facility; less than half of one percent of the population was evacuated, and public awareness of the incident was non-existent.

Experts have said the explosion itself was a force of 70 to 100 tons of TNT, although the radioactivity released into the atmosphere was estimated to only be one-fourth that of the later Chernobyl disaster.

The first evacuations didn’t take place until ten days later, and other areas were not evacuated until a year later. During this time, the entire population had been unknowingly consuming contaminated food and water.

By 1959 every tree within a 12-mile radius of Chelyabinsk-40 was dead. Later, the government would finally plow 515 acres of radioactive land in an attempt to re-start agricultural use, but this would not be completed until 1978.

In 1967 a drought reduced water levels in Lake Karachay where the waste was being dumped, exposing radioactive dust. The dust was spread by gale-force winds in the area, spread over 25,000 square kilometers and exposing another 500,000 residents to nuclear fallout.

The lake would eventually accumulate over 120 million curies of radionuclides. To put that in perspective, the Chernobyl incident released 1 million.

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Witness Accounts

There is little in the way of published first-hand witness accounts, possibly due to the guaranteed death of anyone that worked there or the Soviet oversight of information written and published about Chelyabinsk-40 . We do have accounts from traveling musicians, however, who were shuttled to the secret location by the Soviet government to entertain the workers.

One account described the trip to the location as being extremely protected. After a security checkpoint where IDs were checked and musicians questioned, curtains were drawn on the transporting bus so the musicians would not see where they were being taken.  They were driven into darkness and could tell they had descended underground, but did not know where.

The bus dropped the musicians off in an underground city, complete with buildings, streets, shops, and pedestrians. According to the musicians the underground structure was huge, described by some to be four-stories tall with massive overhead lights to illuminate and mimic natural daylight.

Conditions at Chelyabinsk-40 meant incentives were necessary to entice Russians to work there, and witness accounts reveal there were plenty. The stores were allegedly stocked with rare and exotic foods. Premium wines and liquors adorned the shelves, and expensive clothing and jewelry seemed to appear there before it hit other major cities – and all for unusually low and affordable prices.

The musicians did not know what the workers at Chelyabinsk-40 did or why they were offered such wonderful merchandise at bargain basement prices, but they did know they were sick immediately following their 2 hour performance. Two accounts reported they had the most terrible headache they’ve ever experienced after only being there for a couple of hours.

One can imagine what it must have been like for the prisoner workers who did not get to leave.

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Effects of Activities

Throughout the development and operation of the Mayak complex there appeared to be little concern by the government for the effects of its activities, both in the health of the population and ecological effects on the environment.

It is probably no coincidence there is no information available regarding injuries or fatalities suffered at the Mayak complex during its years of operation. Official records released after the collapse of the Soviet Union indicate no deaths due to radiation exposure, but this would seem unlikely given the mission of the facility and the materials they worked with.

Talking to local residents paints a far different picture. One man in the nearby town of Argayash shared that he lost his grandmother, both parents, and three siblings to cancer; sadly, he was also recently diagnosed as well. A local osteopath admits he treats many children around the Mayak complex born without hands, legs, or feet.

Local lore refers to them as the dying generation.

Current nuclear doctrine states workers should not be exposed to more than 2 Roentgen Equivalent Man (REM) per year. We know during the first year at Chelyabinsk-40 workers were exposed to 93.6 REM, over 45 times the recommended maximum exposure. By 1951, workers were exposed to 113.3 REM each year with some of the extreme cases seeing workers exposed to 400 REM.

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Chelyabinsk-40 Today

Today radioactivity in the ground water around Lake Karachay has migrated several kilometers and it is said anyone standing on the lake shore would receive a lethal dose of about 600 REM in an hour. Since 1978 Soviet authorities have been working on the cleanup, filling the lake with hollow concrete blocks, rock, and soil to help reduce the dispersion of radioactivity. Today, cleanup efforts have the lake nearly filled; only a small reservoir remains.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

The Techa River’s barbed-wire fences have long since rusted and local residents rarely observe the warnings posted. The radiation levels are still 50 times greater than normal on the banks of the Techa. Experts say there is still over 400 million cubic meters of radioactive waste in open reservoirs around the river, where fish are still caught that have 100 times the radiation of normal fish.

In 50 years it is believed over a half million people have been exposed to 20 times the radiation suffered by Chernobyl victims.

A tragic issue is the fact the residents were never told what was going on nearby underground, and even through the following decades when residents were increasingly visiting doctors and death tolls from cancer were rising – no one explained there was a nuclear facility in their backyard.

Dr. Kosenko, an official who worked for the Federal Institute of Biochemistry (FIB), admitted:

All this information was kept top secret because the factory produced weapons-grade plutonium. If someone had learned that residents were becoming irradiated, it would have exposed the location of the factory to our enemies. That’s why these people weren’t given any information about radiation.

The oversight by the Soviet government was so extreme, doctors were not allowed to cite cancer as a cause of death on death certificates.

Friends and relatives gather on the banks of the Techa for a memorial service. In the distance: abandoned village and remnants of barbed-wire fencing

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Interesting fact: U.S. pilot Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down over Russia in 1960 conducting surveillance of the Mayak complex at Chelyabinsk-40.

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Satellite & Map of Lake Karachay: click here

(The original lake is East and a tad South of where the map identifies.  It has been almost completely filled with concrete and appears as the huge circular area just to the right)

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  1. Akiyi
    January 18, 2012 at 17:55

    Unbelievable, and horrifying.

  2. gabriela58blue
    March 17, 2012 at 19:42

    The fish freaked me out: it’s teeth look almost human. I lived in Germany back in 1986, when Tschernobyl happened. One year later I found mutated dandelions in our backyard. They had very thick stems, that looked like several stems fused together. My home was in Bavaria and there was a lot of fallout. It rained and that didn’t help.
    Many miscarriages and malformed animals, wild and domestic. Who knows what other effects this event had.
    Thank you for fascinating pictures and information.

  3. Drunkenshark
    May 11, 2012 at 03:10

    The underground deadly city is both fascinating and so morbid, as is the extend of the secret that surrounded the whole thing…
    I don’t know what scares me the most: radioactivity or what a governement could do for the sake of war back then…

  4. James
    August 6, 2012 at 16:43

    my girlfriend/fiance ls from Chelyabinsk. It seems like for a while everyone there contracted cancer of some form, I worry about her all the time, she traveled and worked abroad during college and that is how we first met, than she graduated and was given a final student visa to come back this summer but was quickly called back and told that they had made a mistake. We decided to file for a k1 fiance visa and get married, however it’s been 5months since the files were received by the USCIS -United States Center for Immigrant Services. I miss her terribly. She feels that the government of Russia does not want them to leave the country especially suspicious of women trying to marry a US citizen while abroad. I remember when she would apply for student visa’s she was always afraid that they would find out that we were together and would not allow her to return if they were suspicious of her having a relationship with someone in the US. Chelyabinsk is a beautiful place but the stories of a city underground with streets, and shops…radiation levels 100 times that of Chernobyl, and nobody was allowed in or out until the mid 80′s? It scares me so much, I worry about her every second of every day

    • Terence Stone
      April 5, 2013 at 19:54

      James, So sorry about your girlfriend. I hope by now she is with you.

    • terry
      May 20, 2013 at 06:57

      hello james,i just met a girl in ozersk, I am worried about her health? your thoughts? thanks terry.

      • Joacim Nieminen
        May 20, 2013 at 07:03

        Well Terry, with over 50 years of Plutonium production and one-way reactor coolant spilt into the open – the odds are NOT good for her. I am not a doctor, but my basic knowledge of the hazards of this place states the obvious. She has a 50% chance … or maybe higher … to contract cancer in any form

  5. chiekotz
    January 10, 2013 at 22:17

    you have an awesome website

  6. Joacim Nieminen
    February 15, 2013 at 06:39

    Horrendously cynical, but very common for the ENTIRE Nuclear Weapons industry … it was the same in the U.S. and U.K. too (read more about Hanford and Windscale). The later two examples were not to the same extreme extent as that in the former CCCP, where human value was of no worth to the Government. Don’t forget that Hanford reactors also discharged it’s radioactive coolant into the nearby river … different nations but same criminal disregard for the consequences of the waste.

    The Soviet Nuclear mess will cost billions and billions of dollars to clear up, if they ever care to clean it up … the result will be that people will continue to get and die of cancer, not only in Russia but neighbouring countries too as reactors and waste were dumped in the Arctic … this radioactive waste will spread via sea/currents and fish.

  7. al
    March 11, 2013 at 13:27

    I worked in Chelyabinsk from 1995 to 2000 and contracted hypothyroidism while there. Eleven years later half my thyroid was removed because it was precancerous. I think Americans have a lot to learn about how important it is to elect politicians who care about the environment. Wave a few hundred dollar bills in the face of a US politician and he gets as careless as a Soviet communist hardliner. Also witness how much environmental destruction US corporations feel free to do while offering the excuse that they are job creators. Well, so were those Chelyabinsk factories — .

    • Joacim Nieminen
      March 11, 2013 at 13:34

      That is very true. When it comes to profit – and the Weapon’s industry is private business – there is absolutely NO REGARD for environmental safety et al.

      There are numerous examples across the former ussr (Krasnoyarsk, Arzamas, Tomsk) and also the us (Hanford, Los Alamos, Savannah River Oak Ridge … to mention but a few). I guess it would be safe to safe that these places all carry the deadly heritage from an industry COMPLETELY DEVOID of basic human concern!

    • March 11, 2013 at 18:56

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. I appreciate when readers from the locations share their insight. I agree with your point, and you are correct – it is a worldwide problem and should not be acceptable anywhere.

  8. April 6, 2013 at 05:22

    If You have any more pics please post, albeit this place gives me the creeps.

    The picture with the “Golfball” is a bit malplaced, it is either from Dounreay or Windscale (Sellafield) – both UK. These were also military nuclear installations, both with known accidents and constant contamination of the Irish and North Seas.

  9. July 7, 2013 at 21:01

    OMG!, must i change my mind to study in Chelyabinsk? please i need some suggestion

  10. Rp
    August 18, 2013 at 02:47

    For the commenters, please note that this area is in the province of chelyabinsk, which is 50-100km from the city chelyabinsk. The city (with millions of people) is not radioactive polluted like this (‘just’ the air and industrial pollution like all the big cities in russia). Been there many times.

  11. April 21, 2014 at 20:23

    Thx for this, your site is truly amazing. There were so many whispers years ago that there was a town that was not on the map etc. I have read about Gary Powers and the U2; Chelyabinsk, and not far away Yekaterinsburg (then Sverdlovsk), was full of weapons industry. Isn’t it spooky that the meteorite came down in that region. As fate would have it, we now have a friend in the area, who quickly stepped away from the window. She’d lived in Yekaterinburg, recently married in Chelyabinsk. She hinted about all the toxins and devastation. It is a tragedy. We still hear nuclear power being praised and being an ‘option’. We are making the same mistakes as the Soviets when pumping toxins underground for fracking.

    When you look at the complete nuclear ledger it is a tragedy. The plant in Britain that is still not decontaminated and may not be for a very long time, seems to cost billions, approaching gazillions. I have read the view that it was overloaded in the Britain’s coal strike, when Thatcher wanted to kill the coal industry and keep the lights on. We need to learn better, not worry who dominates the Ukraine.

    I came here because I was kind of fascinated by an antenna or broadcasting thingo on a roof which looked, let’s say, outside average. Must get someone to photograph it when there’s lots of traffic.

    • May 7, 2014 at 10:50

      Thanks for stopping by, and appreciate the positive comments on the site. There is still much uncovered about the region and the entire capacity and depth of the Russian nuclear program. Much will probably never be learned. Thanks for sharing the story of your friend, hope she is in good condition and in a happier place now.

  12. Witek
    May 4, 2014 at 15:38

    Horrible report. I recently saw a documentary on YouT about thriving nature throughout the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, both on the Ukrainian and Belarusian side of the border. Zoologists monitor the site for the anomalities of the wolf packs as they occupy top of the food chain on the ground, while eagles dominate the airspace. Both species are irradiated over 40 times the amount human can get, they eat irradiated fish and wild boar. We all know food chain is optimized when there are lots of predators. There are, wolfs occupy abandoned villages and apartments, even several stories high! Yet zoologists have not found any mutations of wolf cubs, they check the puppies though it hazardous to touch their fur or just to be there. Inhale, swallow the particles and they will rot you alive. What is strange is why human is so much different from nature, like we don’t belong to it anymore.

    I wonder why is Lake Kyzyltash so lighter in colour than any other on the map. Is it because it’s warmer, shallower, full of algae, was it used as a coolant for the nuclear reactor or was it just another nuclear waste dump? Can anyone explain it, please?

    • May 7, 2014 at 10:52

      Thanks for pointing out the additional ecological effects of the activity. We seldom think about the corollary changes to entire ecosystems over time. The animals & plants will be feeling this worse than humans for centuries to come.

  1. June 27, 2013 at 18:11

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