Mayak, Russia

The Mayak Production Association, located near the towns of Kyshtym (population ~39,000) and Ozyorsk (population 82,000), in the Chelyabinsk oblast, is one of the largest nuclear facilities in Russia. Although most famous for the 1957 Kyshtym explosion – ranked the third worst nuclear accident ever, behind only Chernobyl and Fukushima – it has caused even greater damage through its continual discharge of the largest volume of high-level radioactive waste of any facility ever. The risk of developing radiation induced cancer by living in the downstream towns now is about a hundred times lower now than it was during Mayak’s peak period of discharge around 1950. [1] It was only when 70 percent of the Techa riverside village of Betlino was diagnosed with cancer in 1951 that the dumping stopped. [2] But that risk has started to rise again, following renewed dumping of high-level waste between 2001 and 2004. [3]

A boy from Muslyumovo, afflicted with hydrocephaly

A boy from Muslyumovo, afflicted with hydrocephaly

The Kyshtym Explosion

The townsfolk were in the fields collecting a bumper harvest when they heard it: a solid, dull boom to the west. Ground tremors followed, strong enough to crack windows and rattle plates loose from their shelves. The villagers turned and watched in wonder as a black plume rose high above the cloudless horizon, a dozen kilometers away. “Around the smoke it was the color of sunsets,” remembers Gulchara Ismagilova, a witness to the blast who was 11 at the time. Veterans of Stalingrad ordered parents to round up their children and seek shelter. Russia’s new enemies, they yelled, have brought war to the southern Urals.
Within hours of the distant blast, villagers handling irradiated hay began to fall sick. Even before police arrived wearing futuristic white suits, locals knew something was terribly, Biblically wrong. But they had no idea what. They would only start to put the pieces together after Chernobyl, three decades later.
The Soviet authorities understood immediately the severity and nature of the disaster. When 300 Korabolka residents out of 5,000 died in the immediate aftermath, the village was slated for complete evacuation by the end of the year. But the planned evacuation never occurred — at least not completely. Instead, a strange thing happened. Its Tatar and Russian halves were handed two separate futures: the ethnic Russian side of the village (population 2,300) was evacuated and razed, while the ethnic Tatar side of the village (population 2,700) was not. There is no trace left of Russian Karobolka, only a forest visible from the nearby road.
With only Tatars remaining, the village was renamed Tatarskaya Korabolka.[4]

On September 29, 1957, one of Mayak’s storage tanks for liquid waste exploded after its cooling system failed. The solvent had evaporated, leaving nitrate and acetate precipitates behind; and these were ignited by the heat of the radionuclides, which reached 350° C (660° F).
The explosion threw the 160-ton concrete lid of the waste container several meters into the air and ejected an estimated 20 million curies of radioactive material, slightly less than half of the total radioactivity released at Chernobyl – but all at once. About 90% of that was deposited in the vicinity of the tank, heavily contaminating the guards of the facility and “about 200 university students from Moscow, attending a secret course of studies at the plant.”[5] 66 people at the plant came down with chronic radiation syndrome,[6] but I can find no find no further information on their fate.

At about 4:30 PM we heard an explosion from the industrial complex, but few residents paid any attention to it. In those days many construction sites blasted holes instead of excavating, so it was not a rare occurrence. According to some eye-witnesses, after the explosion a column of smoke and dust rose to the height of about a kilometer, and it shone with a red-orange color. It was like an imitation of the Northern Lights.


This radioactive plume drifted to the northeast, depositing radioactive material as it went. About 23,000 square kilometers was contaminated at a density of over 0.1 curie per square kilometer in a strip of territory 300 km long and from 30-50 km wide. The most heavily affected areas were radioactive with a density of 2 curies of Sr-90 per square kilometer over an area of 1,000 square kilometers.[8] This area is now called the East Urals Radioactive Trace. Ten years after the accident, the Soviet Union attempted to disguise its nature by designating it a nature preserve.[9]

Lake Karachay Evaporates

Much of Mayak’s waste has been discharged into Lake Karachay, which then covered 45-51 hectares (110-125 acres) and was 2-3 meters deep.
In 1967, a hot summer followed a dry winter. The water evaporated and dust from the lake bed was blown over a vast area, up to 75 km long, affecting 41,000 people. Some 600 Curies of Cs-137 and Sr-90 from the shores of Lake Karachay contaminated about 1800-2700 km2 at a level greater than 0.1 Ci/km2 (Sr-90),including the reactor site and 41,500 people in 63 villages, some of which were under the radioactive plume from the 1957 nuclear waste tank accident. [10]
The Soviets responded by filling in the lake with concrete blocks and covering the lakebed sediments with gravel, reducing it to an area of 15 hectares (37 acres) in 1993.

The Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility, with concrete blocks in foreground

The Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility, with concrete blocks in foreground

Just plain dumping

But the biggest source of nuclear contamination of the environment is just dumping their waste directly into nearby bodies of water. At the beginning of Mayak’s operation, it simply discharged all its liquid waste directly into the Techa River, which flows into the Iset River, then the Tobol River, the Irtysh, and finally the Ob. The Ob River’s drainage basin is the seventh largest in the world, just behind the Mississippi in size. The Ob flows into the Arctic Sea, which is why you probably haven’t heard of it.
In 1951, Mayak stopped dumping its high-level waste directly into the Techa, and instead reserved that for Lake Karachay (see discussion above), while still discharging its medium- and low-level waste into the Techa. It also constructed a series of storage ponds and storage tanks (one of which exploded in the 1957 incident).
Naturally, some of this has leaked into the groundwater:

The plume containing [Reservoir 9] contaminates was reported to cover some 10 km2 and be spreading at 80-100 meters per year… The water level in the R11 has fluctuated and generally increased in recent years. This is thought to increase the amount of Sr-90 seepage through dam 11 and into the Techa [11]
Sr-90 concentrations in water samples collected downstream of dam 11 have increased from around 30 Bq/l in 1982 to 90 Bq/l in 2002 [12]. In addition, Asanov Swamp soils and sediments that were contaminated by the early discharges are another main source of radioactivity to Techa waters. The average Sr-90 concentration in Techa river water sampled at Muslyumovo village (40 km downstream of dam 11) was 6 times the Russian intervention levels in July – August 2004, such that living in this settlement is seen as potentially hazardous to health by the Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA). [13]


As a result of more than 40 years of dumping into Lake Karachay, radioactivity has seeped into the groundwater and migrated 2.5-3 kilometers from the lake. The groundwater flows toward reservoirs 2 and 3 (the Tecba) in the north and northeast direction, and to the south it drains toward the Mishelyak River, a tributary of the Techa (39). Radioactive groundwater has reached the Mishelyak, flowing under the river bed at a depth of 15 meters. The total volume of contaminated groundwater is estimated to be more than 4 million cubic meters, containing in excess of 5000 Ci of ~30-year half-life fission products.


Back in 1993, researchers for Annual Review of Energy and the Environment wrote that

Since 1949, Mayak has discharged in excess of 123 MCi [million Curies]of long-lived radionuclides (Sr-90 and Cs-135) into the environment, contaminating in excess of 26,700 km2, and exposing more than 400,000 people, making the Chelyabinsk-60 environs arguably the most polluted spot on the planet – certainly in terms of radioactivity.


Reporting on an investigative trip to Mayak by members of the US Department of Energy,

Though 1990, the lake had accumulated 120 MCi [million curies] of the long-lived radionuclides Cs-137 (98 MCi) and Sr-90 (20 MCi). The lake in 1990 had a surface radiation exposure level of 3-4 rad/h. When a visiting delegation went within a few hundred feet of the water, the radiation reading in the bus reached 80 millirems per hour (mrem/h). A second delegation received 300-600 mrem/h at a point about 10-12 m from the edge of the lake. On the lake shore in winter the radiation dose is about 20 rerns per hour (rem/h), and summer about 18 rem/h. In the region near where the radioactive effluent is discharged into the lake, where the specific activity of the ground deposits is up to 20 Ci/kg (dry weight; 2-3 Ci/l wet), the radiation exposure rate is about 600 roentgens per hour (R/h), sufficient to provide a lethal dose within an hour.


During the 45-year period of nuclear weapons production, PA “Mayak” accumulated 6×108 Ci of liquid HLW. This waste could not be vitrified because of its complex chemical composition.
About 2.2×108 Ci of solid HLW was stored in 24 reinforced concrete surface structures and about 3×103 Ci of intermediate-level waste and low-level waste in 200 near-surface land-fills. More than 3×108 m3 of contaminated water was accumulated in industrial ponds created in the Techa River valley (mainly ponds 10 and 11 with areas of 19 km2 and 44 km2, volumes of 7.6×107 m3 and 2.3×108 m3, and 1.1×105 Ci and 3.9×104 Ci, respectively).
The PA “Mayak” area currently contains ~8×108 Ci of radioactive waste in various forms, which is clearly a serious environmental hazard, primarily because of the possible outflow of radionuclides into the Techa-lset’-Tobol-lrtysh-Ob’ stream system that drains into the Kara Sea.


Dumping Ground for the World

When the waste stream from Russia’s declining nuclear weapons and energy program tapered off in the late 20th century, Mayak and its bosses sought out new sources of revenue from foreign countries:

Beginning in 1976, Mayak began to diversify its work by taking in and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from eastern bloc countries. The long-term contracts were carried over after the dissolution of the USSR, and today Mayak produces 140 tons of waste per year from reprocessing SNF from Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, and others, including Germany. The amount of waste from reprocessing now dwarfs the handful of tons created a year by the plant’s rump weapons complex.
Only Russia, France and the UK have reprocessing programs, which put SNF through a complex process that extracts plutonium. According to Greenpeace Russia, as much as half of the Strontium-90 found along the Techa is likely the result post-’76 leakage from Mayak’s canal system for storing SNF waste.


The Mayak complex reprocesses spent fuel not only from Russia, but also imported from other countries. According to official figures, by 2001 Mayak had reprocessed 1,540 tonnes of foreign spent nuclear fuel. As a result of this, over 3 million cubic meters of liquid low-level and middle-level radioactive wastes was generated and pumped to the leaking ponds. Over 70,000 cubic meters of foreign highly radioactive wastes remains stored at the Mayak facility.
In 2001, the Russian government overturned a ban on the import of nuclear waste from other countries for storage. It also adopted legislation to allow for any reprocessed waste to remain in Russia permanently, whereas before it was obligatory for those countries sending the waste to take it back.
Rosatom hopes that these new conditions will attract contracts with Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, who together with the Czech Republic, have signed an agreement with Russia, opening the possibility for future reprocessing contracts. Other countries Rosatom are pursuing as potential customers are Switzerland, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Slovenia, Italy and Belgium. [19]
Simultaneously, Mayak resumed unrestricted dumping of high-level nuclear waste into the Techa. This did not go unnoticed. In 2002, Mayak’s operating license was revoked by Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency Gosatomnadzor, provoking a furious response from Russia’s Minister for Nuclear Energy. [20] But the regulatory agencies followed up, indicting Mayak’s director on criminal charges that ended with his dismissal from his post in 2006. The trial was a closed one, but court documents obtained in 2011 show that between 2001 and 2004, 30-40 million cubic meters of liquid nuclear waste were released into the Techa, enough that measurements taken near the town of Muslyumovo indicated that the river itself qualified as nuclear waste according to Russian guidelines. [21]


[1]William J.F. Standring, Mark Dowdall and Per Strand. “Overview of Dose Assessment Developments and the Health of Riverside Residents Close to the ‘Mayak’ PA Facilities, Russia”, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009. p. 195.
[2]Alexander Zaitchik, “Inside the Zone.”
[3]Vladimir Slivyak, translated by Maria Kaminskaya. “Russia’s infamous reprocessing plant Mayak never stopped illegal dumping of radioactive waste into nearby river, poisoning residents, newly disclosed court finding says,” The Mayak Chemical Combine. December 24, 2011.
[4]Alexander Zaitchik, “Inside the Zone.”
[5]100 Worst Catastrophies (Sto Velikikh Katastrof), “Veche” Moscow 1999 pp 394-398. Quoted at
[6]Igor Gusev, Angelina Guskova, Fred A. Mettler. Medical Management of Radiation Accidents, Second Edition. 2001: CRC Press. Quoted in the Wikipedia article.
[7]100 Worst Catastrophies (Sto Velikikh Katastrof), “Veche” Moscow 1999 pp 394-398. Quoted at
[8]Several sources
[10]Thomas B. Cochran, Robert Standish Norris, and Kristen L. Suokko. “Radioactive Contamination at Chelyabinsk-65, Russia,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 1993 v.8:507- 28. p. 518-9.
[11]Cochran et al., p. 519.
[12]Cochran et. al, p. 522. This seems to have been the first place where Mayak was called the most polluted place on earth.
[13]William J.F. Standring, Mark Dowdall and Per Strand. “Overview of Dose Assessment Developments and the Health of Riverside Residents Close to the ‘Mayak’ PA Facilities, Russia”, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009. p. 178.
[14]Cochran et al., p. 519.
[15]Cochran et. al, p. 522.
[16]Cochran et al., p. 518.
[17]The Committee on End Points for Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in Russia and the United States, the Board on Radioactive Waste Management, the Division on Earth and Life Studies, and the Office for Central Europe and Eurasia Development Security, Cooperation Policy and Global Affairs of the National Research Council of the National Academies. End Points for Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in Russia and the United States. The National Academies Press: 2003. p. 70-1. Read online:
[18]Alexander Zaitchik, “Inside the Zone.”
[19]Mayak: A 50-Year Tragedy: Summary of the report released by Greenpeace Russia. 2007. p. 5.
[20]Rashid Alimov, translated by Maria Kaminskaya. “Revoked License Grinds Mayak to a Halt”, The Mayak Chemical Combine.
[21]Vladimir Slivyak, translated by Maria Kaminskaya. “Russia’s infamous reprocessing plant Mayak never stopped illegal dumping of radioactive waste into nearby river, poisoning residents, newly disclosed court finding says,” The Mayak Chemical Combine. December 24, 2011.

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