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Mayak (Russian: Маяк, "beacon") is a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant between the towns of Kasli and Kyshtymmarker (Кыштым also transliterated Kishtym or Kishtim) 72 km northwest of Chelyabinskmarker in Russia. The plant is in the Ozerskmarker central administrative territorial unit, formerly known as Chelyabinsk-40, later as Chelyabinsk-65, and part of the Chelyabinsk Oblast.

Working conditions at Mayak resulted in severe health hazards and many accidents, with a serious accident occurring in 1957. In the past 45 years, about half a million people in the region have been irradiated in one or more of the incidents, exposing some of them to more than 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl disaster victims.

Mayak was the goal of Gary Powers' surveillance flight in May 1960.

Nuclear history

The Mayak plant was built in 1945-48, in a great hurry and in total secrecy, as part of the Soviet Unionmarker's nuclear weapon program. The plant's original mission was to make, refine, and machine plutonium for weapons. Five nuclear reactors were built for this purpose. Later the plant came to specialize in reprocessing plutonium from decommissioned weapons, and waste from nuclear reactors. Today the plant makes tritium and radioisotopes, but no plutonium. In recent years, proposals that the plant reprocess, for money, waste from foreign nuclear reactors have given rise to controversy.

In the early years of its operation, the Mayak plant released quantities of radioactively contaminated water into several small lakes near the plant, and into the Techa river, whose waters ultimately flow into the Ob River. The downstream consequences of this radiation pollution have yet to be determined. Some residents of Ozerskmarker claim that living there poses no present-day risk, because of the decrease in the ambient radiation level over the past 50 years. They also report no problems with their health and the health of Mayak plant workers. These claims lack hard verification, and no one denies that many who worked at the plant in 1950s and '60s subsequently died of the effects of radiation. While the situation has since improved, the administration of the Mayak plant has been repeatedly criticized in recent years for environmentally unsound practices.

Kyshtym Disaster

Working conditions at Mayak resulted in severe health hazards and many accidents. The most notable accident occurred on 29 September 1957, when the failure of the cooling system for a tank storing tens of thousands of tons of dissolved nuclear waste resulted in a non-nuclear explosion having a force estimated at about 75 tons of TNT (310 gigajoules), which released some 2 Million Curies of radioactivity over 15,000 sq. miles. Subsequently, at least 200 people died of radiation sickness, 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and 470,000 people were exposed to radiation. People "grew hysterical with fear with the incidence of unknown 'mysterious' diseases breaking out. Victims were seen with skin 'sloughing off' their faces, hands and other exposed parts of their bodies." "Hundreds of square miles were left barren and unusable for decades and maybe centuries. Hundreds of people died, thousands were injured and surrounding areas were evacuated." This nuclear accident, the Soviet Unionmarker's worst before the Chernobyl disastermarker, is categorised as a level 6 "serious accident" on the 0-7 International Nuclear Events Scale.

Rumours of a nuclear mishap somewhere in the vicinity of Chelyabinsk had long been circulating in the West. That there had been a serious nuclear accident west of the Urals was eventually inferred from research on the effects of radioactivity on plants, animals, and ecosystems, published by Professor Leo Tumerman, former head of the Biophysics Laboratory at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow, and associates.

According to Gyorgy, who invoked the Freedom of Information Act to open up the relevant Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) files, the CIA knew of the 1957 Mayak accident all along, but kept it secret to prevent adverse consequences for the fledgling USA nuclear industry. "Ralph Nader surmised that the information had not been released because of the reluctance of the CIA to highlight a nuclear accident in the USSR, that could cause concern among people living near nuclear facilities in the USA." Only in 1992, shortly after the fall of the USSR, did the Russians officially acknowledge the accident.

Other accidents

On 10 December 1968, the facility was experimenting with plutonium purification techniques. Two operators were using an "unfavorable geometry vessel in an improvised and unapproved operation as a temporary vessel for storing plutonium organic solution." In other words, the operators were decanting plutonium solutions into the wrong type of vessel. After most of the solution had been poured out, there was a flash of light, and heat. After the complex had been evacuated, the shift supervisor and radiation control supervisor re-entered the building. The shift supervisor then deceived the radiation control supervisor and entered the room of the incident and possibly attempted to pour the solution down a floor drain, causing a large nuclear reaction and irradiating himself with a deadly dose of radiation. The shift supervisor's actions are the subject of a Darwin Award nomination.

The Mayak plant is associated with two other major nuclear accidents. The first occurred as a result of heavy rains causing Lake Karachaymarker polluted with radioactive waste to release radioactive material into surrounding waters, and the second occurred in 1967 when wind spread dust from the bottom of Lake Karachaymarker, a dried-up radioactively polluted lake (used as a dumping basin for Mayak's radioactive waste since 1951), over parts of Ozerskmarker; over 400,000 people were irradiated.

See also


  • Gyorgy, A. et al., 1979. No Nukes: Everyone's Guide to Nuclear Power. South End Press.
  • Pollock, Richard, 1978. "Soviets Experience Nuclear Accident," Critical Mass Journal 3: nn-nn.

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