The second biggest nuclear disaster in history

Feature story - October 3, 2007
Everybody knows that the biggest nuclear catastrophe in history was Chernobyl. But how many have heard of the second biggest? Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of a radiation nightmare.

Ramzis has hydrocephalus. “I don’t like to go to school, because the boys call me bad names. The girls avoid me and don’t want to go out with me. I hope I will not have children who look like me.” Ramzis lives near Mayak, the site of a former Russian nuclear plant and the most radioactively polluted place on Earth.

The Mayak nuclear plant in the Southern Urals was one of the dark secrets of the cold war. It was the Soviet Union's primary nuclear complex, a massive set of plutonium production reactors, fuel production facilities, and reprocessing and waste storage buildings.

In 1957 a storage tank with highly radioactive liquid waste exploded. More than half the amount of radioactive waste released by the accident in Chernobyl was blasted into the atmosphere. A few villagers were evacuated, but most were not. 217 towns and at least 272,000 people were exposed to chronic levels of radiation. The plume was 50 kilometers wide and 1,000 kilometers long.

But the explosion wasn't the only incident of contamination. Between 1948 and 1956 radioactive waste was poured straight into the Techa River, the source of drinking water for many villages. It exposed 124,000 people to medium and high levels of radiation. Nuclear waste was also dumped into the lakes of West Siberia, where storms blew nuclear dust across a vast area around the lake.

The largest nuclear complex in the world

Today, around 7,000 people still live in direct contact with the highly polluted Techa river or on contaminated land. In the town of Muslyumovo, studies have show genetic abnormalities to be 25 times more frequent than in other areas of Russia. The incidents of malignant cancer are significantly higher. And the number of residents of Muslyumovo on the Russian national oncology registers is nearly 4 times higher than in the rest of Russia. In other surrounding towns and villages people have cancer rates more than double the Russian average. (See the Greenpeace Report, Mayak: A 50-Year Tragedy)

Half a century later, Mayak is one of the most radioactive places on Earth, and the accident continues to have a devastating legacy. Many thousands of people have never been evacuated from contaminated areas. 

Dutch photo-journalist, Robert Knoth, visited the Mayak region in 2000 and 2001 and took a series of highly disturbing pictures of the victims of radiation in the region. (Parental warning: The link above contains images of malformed foetuses and other disturbing photos.)

Now, the real tragedy

Surely, no government could oversee this kind of disaster and not decide to change its ways. Yet, rather than learning the lessons of the tragedy, the Russian Government has passed legislation to import spent nuclear fuel from other countries to Mayak that would then permanently stay at the plant.

None of the countries shipping their dirty nuclear waste to Russia would allow Mayak to continue operating on their own land. Countries considering sending their radioactive waste to Russia are abdicating responsibility for their nuclear activities by dumping it somewhere else. They may like to think that once it's out of their sight they've got rid of the problem, but nothing could be further from the truth. The people who will suffer its devastating effects are right here, the same victims that have suffered the effects of the radiation disaster for the last 50 years.

The foreign fuel processed in Mayak so far has led to some three million cubic metres of radioactive liquid being dumped and released into the environment. Mayak has reprocessed over 1,540 tons of spent nuclear fuel from several countries including Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Russian authorities now hope to negotiate future reprocessing contracts with Switzerland, Spain, South Korea, Slovenia, Italy, Belgium, and Slovakia.

With its 50 year contamination legacy, Mayak is a horrific example of the true face of the global nuclear industry.

The lesson of Mayak is that nuclear energy is not a solution. This anniversary should serve as a wake-up call to the world about the real costs of nuclear power. Nuclear power undermines the solutions to climate change, by diverting resources away from the massive investment in renewable technologies and energy efficiency the world urgently needs to tackle the climate crisis.

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