Russia’s Secret City: The Most Radioactive Place On Earth

By Andrew Handley on Wednesday, September 18, 2013
“The arms race is a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves.” —Martin Amis

In A Nutshell

Russia’s Lake Karachay was used in the 1950s as a dumping site for radioactive waste. Now it is the most polluted place on the planet, with enough radioactivity to kill a person in less than an hour. At its height, it was putting more than 200,000 times the normal amount of radioactivity into the area due to poor waste disposal practices.

The Whole Bushel

Deep in the Ural Mountains of Russia lies a beautiful, picturesque body of water called Lake Karachay. But don’t get too close—it’s a silent killer, and it’s been constantly emitting lethal doses of radiation for the past 60 years. In the mid 1940s, the Soviet Union built a secret city in the Southern Urals called Chelyabinsk-40. The purpose: to manufacture nuclear weapons from the uranium-238 mined in the surrounding hills. By 1948, the first reactor was up and running, and the Chelyabinsk-40 facility (also referred to as Chelyabinsk-65) was working at full steam, converting uranium into plutonium and shipping it off to the bomb builders.

But there was one problem—when they built the facility, all the planning and resources went into creating the plutonium, but not getting rid of the waste. So they did what most people have done at some point—they dumped it in the closest river. Specifically, the Techa River, which provided water for about 39 towns and villages downstream from the plutonium plant.

After three years of unwittingly poisoning their own populace, the Soviet Union sent researchers out to make sure the waste wasn’t getting out of control. Here’s what they found: Normal background in the area amounts to roughly .21 Röntgens each year. The Techa River was emitting 5 Röntgens on an hourly basis.

So they dammed up the river, relocated tens of thousands of villagers, and, having learned from past mistakes, found a new place to dump their nuclear waste cocktail: Lake Karachay. For somewhere between 30 to 40 more years (the Soviet Union didn’t even acknowledge its existence until 1990), Lake Karachay was the primary waste reservoir for the Chelyabinsk plant. The reasoning was that Lake Karachay didn’t have any surface outlets—one river went in, no rivers came out—so there was no way for the radioactive waste to escape. However, later testing revealed that the lake’s waters were definitely seeping out through the groundwater into the surrounding Asanov swamp.

To make matters worse, a 1967 drought dried up part of the lake, leaving a wide shoreline covered in radioactive dust. When the winds came, that nuclear dust cloud went airborne and drifted across 2,300 square kilometers (900 sq mi), containing half a million people. Instances of leukemia in the area rose a whopping 41 percent in just a few years.

Right now, the shores of Lake Karachay emit 600 Röntgens per hour, and that’s about as much radiation as it takes to guarantee a slow death. But that’s not all you have to be worried about: The entire area is so unstable that if a single dam breaks, the Techa River and all its radiation could pour through the Asanov swamp, into the Ob’ River, and out into the Arctic Sea, where currents would carry 120 million Curies of radioactivity into the Atlantic.

Show Me The Proof

Russia’s Plutonium
Weapons of Mass Destruction: Chelyabinsk-65 / Ozersk
Concentration factors in reservoir 11 and Asanov Swamp