When discussing catastrophic disasters, Chernobyl and Fukushima are often the first to pop into our heads. Yet somehow, no one seems to talk about another nuclear disaster that happened in the former Soviet Union decades before both of them.
Over the past half a decade, it’s fair to say that the former Soviet Union has not had the best track record with nuclear disasters. With the release of HBO’s series Chernobyl, more people than ever are familiar with the toll that the incident had on the Russian population.
The series shed light on the efforts that the former Soviet Union went through to keep the true impact of the disaster a secret to not only the inhabitants, but to the rest of the world.
The worst part was that this wasn’t the first time the Soviets responded to a disaster of massive proportions in such a way - following the Kyshtym disaster of 1957, they employed the exact same strategy.
If when watching Chernobyl you told yourself that there was no way the safety measures they employed were so bad, you’d be shocked to hear what occurred at Mayak, located in Chelyabinsk (later renamed Ozyorsk).
During the Cold War, the extent of possible damage caused by radioactive material to the human body was not nearly as well known as today, or even decades ago during the events that unfolded at Chernobyl. Material was handled and disposed of haphazardly, much to the detriment of the plant workers and the 270,000 people that lived in the surrounding area.
Rewind back to September 29, 1957, when the events of the disaster were set into motion. In a story that seems all too familiar, one of the cooling systems in the plant failed which caused a waste tank to explode with a force equivalent to between 70 and 100 tonnes of TNT.
Following the explosion, a cloud of hot, radioactive particles was shot into the air and then traveled a distance of 350km, contaminating all that it came into contact with.
Villagers nearby believed that this was the beginning of a nuclear war. They had no idea what was yet to come.
Following the events, deaths linked to radiation poisoning spiked. In the nearby village of Korabolka, 6% of the population was killed by the aftermath of the explosion. In an effort to keep it quiet, the Soviets began to quietly evacuate the people affected… a mere 11,000 of the 270,000 inhabitants. Many stayed behind not knowing the consequences that the disaster would have on them as well as future generations.
Cancer rates among inhabitants have shot through the roof. Nearby areas, which were already contaminated through improper disposal of radioactive waste, became literal death traps. A nearby lake called Lake Karachay became known as the ‘most polluted place on Earth’, and could kill people just looking to take a dip in it.
It wasn’t until one brave biologist named Zhores Medvedev published the events in New Scientist that the world became aware of the events that occurred two decades earlier. Despite that, it’s still a disaster that remains relatively unknown compared to the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukishima.
Check the video above to see footage of the site, as well as some other facts about the disaster that may surprise you!