Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains

A nuclear accident in the Urals killed hundreds of people and spread destruction over a vast area, demonstrating the dangers of such waste to both people and the environment, as well as the urgent need to dispose of it properly.

Summary of Event

“A tragic catastrophe occurred in 1958,” Zhores Medvedev wrote in his controversial article on Soviet science in 1976. He then described the world’s first major peacetime nuclear accident. At the time he wrote the article, however, he was wrong about the date of the event, which he pinpointed with later research as having occurred in the fall or winter of 1957. Near Kyshtym in the district of the Soviet city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, an underground explosion of nuclear material spewed radioactive dust into the sky. The weather was such that the dust spread for hundreds of miles. Hundreds of Soviet citizens in nearby towns and villages died. Thousands fell sick. Radiation poisoning Tens of thousands were evacuated, and an area approximately five hundred square miles between Chelyabinsk and Kamensk-Uralsky was left as a dead zone. Nuclear energy;accidents
Nuclear waste
Ecological disasters
Radioactive contamination
Ural Mountains nuclear accident (1957)
[kw]Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains (Late 1957)
[kw]Ural Mountains, Nuclear Waste Explodes in the (Late 1957)
Nuclear energy;accidents
Nuclear waste
Ecological disasters
Radioactive contamination
Ural Mountains nuclear accident (1957)
[g]Europe;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
[g]Soviet Union;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
[c]Disasters;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
[c]Energy;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
[c]Environmental issues;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
[c]Science and technology;Late 1957: Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains[05520]
Medvedev, Zhores
Kurchatov, Igor Vasilyevich
Iakovlev, Gennadii N.
Lysenko, Trofim D.
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;nuclear accidents
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;science and technology

The cause of the disaster lay in the Soviet policy of burying nuclear waste in shallow ground. Although the burial pit was in an uninhabited area, it was still close to several Ural villages. Most of the waste came from the Chelyabinsk nuclear plants, the heart of the Soviet nuclear industry in the 1950’s. Although Soviet scientists warned authorities against the practice, alternative suggestions of dumping the waste in the oceans or scattering the burial sites were rejected as too expensive, impractical, or unnecessary.

The Soviets located their first large military nuclear reactor, built in 1947, in the village of Kyshtym in the Chelyabinsk district. Techniques for separating plutonium from uranium were worked out by Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov and Gennadii N. Iakovlev in a small Moscow laboratory reactor. The methods were applied at first without modification at the Kyshtym reactor, and separation was far from complete. Later methods perfected at the Radium Institute involved creating a plutonium-rich liquid and crystallization of plutonium compounds. Even the newer extraction process produced too many impurities. In 1947 and 1948, however, the plan was to create an atomic bomb as quickly as possible without regard to the amount and nature of the waste. The goal was to produce an atomic bomb test explosion before Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s seventieth birthday on December 21, 1949. Enough pure plutonium had to be obtained. The goal was reached when the Soviets tested their first bomb in September, 1949, but disposal of the waste material that was created during the rush to finish was haphazard and experimental. The waste was placed in concrete containers that were lined with steel but subject to leakage. The containers were then buried in shallow ground outside the village of Kyshtym.

In the 1950’s, nuclear reactors were dispersed throughout the Soviet Union in line with Nikita S. Khrushchev’s policy of decentralizing military warheads and building reactors for peaceful uses, but plutonium continued to be produced in the Chelyabinsk factories and the waste buried in the shallow Kyshtym pits. The heat from the nuclear waste gradually built up, until a human-produced volcano erupted in the burial ground. The explosion itself could be dismissed as a minor incident except for the fact that the radioactive dust that spewed many feet into the atmosphere was caught in gusts of strong winds blowing over the region at the time. The dust spread over hundreds of miles of the Ural district.

Soviet authorities did not realize the impact of the explosion at first and made no plans to evacuate the area. When radiation poisoning began to appear in thousands of people from the nearby population, however, all the inhabitants of the most seriously affected region were relocated and the area was closed to human travel. Residents of some of the villages nearby were allowed to remain even though radiation was still high if not lethal in those villages. Biological study stations were established on the edge of the forbidden zone to study the effects of the radiation. The incident was cloaked in the deepest secrecy, and the Soviets made no public reference to it.

The victims of the disaster were sent to hospitals throughout the Soviet Union, but Soviet doctors, unfamiliar with radiation medicine, were unable to measure the amount present in the victims. The doctors knew neither the effects of radiation poisoning nor the treatment possible to combat it. Soviet physicians and medical personnel were unprepared to conduct tests on the inhabitants who remained close to the forbidden zone. No biological or chemical laboratories existed in which to study the effects of the radiation.


The Chelyabinsk nuclear accident remained a secret for twenty years, although its occurrence was apparently known to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In 1976, Zhores Medvedev, a Soviet scientist who opposed the Moscow government and lived in exile in London, published an article about dissident scientists in the Soviet Union in the British journal New Scientist. The article was commissioned by the journal on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Khrushchev’s landmark speech denouncing Stalin. In his article, Medvedev wrote about several branches of science and about disagreements between Soviet scientists and the political authorities, simply mentioning the Ural nuclear explosion as one of several incidents he believed resulted from Moscow’s science policy.

Immediately, the Soviet authorities vigorously denied that such an explosion ever took place, and most Western scientists also expressed their doubts. Medvedev responded by writing another article in 1977 and a book in 1979, which gave convincing proof of the disaster with facts and documentation. He produced evidence of the many radiation studies the Soviet scientists had carried out since 1957 using specimens from the contaminated regions. This indicated, he argued, that some sort of event must have produced the great number of experimental plants and animals in that year. Then, tracing the effects of the radiation on the specimens in the experiments through published and unpublished articles and documents, he was able not only to pinpoint the site and time of the disaster but also to re-create how it happened. In the 1980’s, the Soviets embraced a more liberal attitude toward the dissemination of information, and the accident was confirmed.

Because of the secrecy, there had been no public outcry about the event in the Soviet Union or abroad. The Soviet scientific community, however, vigorously protested some practices, forcing changes in the government’s nuclear policy. In one of the first effects of the disaster, scientists convinced the authorities to permit genetic Genetics;Lysenkoism research. For years, the Soviet leaders forced their biologists to base their research on the controversial views of Trofim D. Lysenko, who maintained that acquired characteristics could be inherited. This fit in with the Marxist theory that socialism would create a “new man” ready to enter Marxism’s last historical stage, communism. Lysenko’s theories minimized the effects of genetic inheritance, the basis of mainstream biology in the West.

Despite the advances in biology in the twentieth century confirming the genetic theory of inheritance, advances such as the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the double helix in chromosomes, the Soviet leadership under Stalin and Khrushchev insisted that “Lysenkoism” be retained as the basis of Soviet biology. After the disaster, according to Medvedev, the Soviet scientific community convinced Khrushchev to permit experimental work with genetics at least in the field of human biology. Lysenkoism, however, continued to reign supreme in Soviet research in agriculture. The scientists also convinced the government to change some of the Soviets’ nuclear policies having to do with the safe disposal of waste and the termination of open-air atomic testing.

The radioactive debris that appeared in the region after the explosion included the isotopes strontium 90 and cesium 137 and smaller amounts of other isotopes. Radioactive isotopes were found in the area’s lakes and soil as well as in the animals inhabiting the area—in fish, in mammals, and in insects. Insects and other invertebrates living in the soil near the surface were more greatly affected than those living deeper down in the soil. Birds were also contaminated, and the Soviet authorities banned shooting of wild birds in the central and southern Urals to prevent the peasant population from eating poisoned game. Trees and other plants were affected as well. Medvedev, in his documentation of the disaster, noted the extensive studies on radiation done by scientists in the next years on plants and animals from the area of the explosion as proof that the accident had actually occurred.

By the time news of the Chelyabinsk disaster came out, it seemed to be more a historical curiosity than a major contemporary event to all but a few small groups of environmentalists and scientists. In the 1980’s, it was overshadowed by the publicity given to two nuclear disasters: the radioactive spill at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine in 1986. Ironically, the Three Mile Island accident occurred at about the same time that Medvedev’s book appeared. Three Mile Island, however, was a minor event compared to both the 1957 and 1986 Soviet accidents. The effects of Chernobyl, in particular, damaged a far broader area and harmed millions more people than the disaster at Chelyabinsk. They made all other nuclear leakages, long-term radiation problems, and other nuclear events, with the exception of the World War II bombings, seem insignificant by comparison. Nuclear energy;accidents
Nuclear waste
Ecological disasters
Radioactive contamination
Ural Mountains nuclear accident (1957)

Further Reading

  • Bradley, Don J. Behind the Nuclear Curtain: Radioactive Waste Management in the Former Soviet Union. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, 1997. Extensive treatment of every aspect of radioactive waste disposal and safety in the Soviet Union. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Goldman, Marshall I. The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. A classic work on environmental issues in the Soviet Union. Briefly mentions the Chelyabinsk accident.
  • Komarov, Boris. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. An English translation of an important document on environmental issues in Russia and the Soviet Union. Originally published in the underground samizdat press, it helped inspire the dissident environmental movement. Briefly mentions the Chelyabinsk accident. For general audiences.
  • Medvedev, Zhores A. “Facts Behind the Soviet Nuclear Disaster.” New Scientist 74 (1977): 264-268. Medvedev’s reply to critics of his first article.
  • _______. Nuclear Disaster in the Urals. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Medvedev’s definitive work on the Chelyabinsk accident. Required reading for anyone wishing to study the event. Although technical in many parts, it is generally understandable to the average reader.
  • _______. “Two Decades of Dissidence.” New Scientist 72 (1976): 264-268. Medvedev’s revealing article also gives a good survey of Soviet postwar science.

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