Hidden Soviet nuclear Armageddon
Kurchatov Rotunda. Source: Wikimedia
In the endless forests of Russia’s Ural mountains lies the hidden city of Ozersk, locked behind fences.
Codenamed City 40, Ozersk was at the centre of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme after 1945 and for years it did not appear on maps, with its 100,000 inhabitants erased from the Soviet census.
It has lakes, flowers and tree-lined streets, like a suburban 1950s American town but the fruit and vegetable stalls have Geiger counters to check the produce before it is bought. The city’s water is contaminated, its mushrooms and berries are poisoned and its children are reportedly sick. The region is one of the most contaminated places on the globe, known as the “graveyard of the Earth”.
But most residents do not want to leave with many saying they are the nation’s “chosen ones”, and most take pride in being citizens of a closed city. Many spend their entire lives there. In 1946, the Kremlin began building City 40 in total secrecy, around the huge Mayak nuclear plant next to Lake Irtyash. It would house the best workers and scientists from across the Soviet Union to develop nuclear weapons.
For the first eight years, residents were forbidden from leaving, writing any letters or making contact with their families. They were considered missing by loved ones. While the majority of the communist empire’s population suffered from shortages and lived in poverty, Ozersk was a paradise for its residents.
They had private apartments, plenty of food, including delicacies like bananas, condensed milk and caviar, good schools and health care, entertainment and cultural activities. But the residents were ordered to stay silent about their lifestyle and work and the deal persists today, as it is still home to all of Russia’s reserve fissile material.
It is still prestigious to live in Ozersk, often described as a town of “intellectuals”, where residents get “the best of everything for free”. Life in a closed town offers physical security and financial stability for their children. But from the late 1940s, residents began to die from long-term exposure to radiation although no accurate data is available. There were accidents like the 1957 Kyshtym disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident before Chernobyl, which the Kremlin kept secret.
Mayak has dumped its waste into rivers that flow into the River Ob and on to the Arctic Ocean. Over 40 years, Mayak is said to have dumped 200 million curies of radioactive waste, equal to four “Chernobyls”: statistics that are disputed by the authorities.
One of the lakes is so full of plutonium it is called the “Lake of Death” or “Plutonium Lake”. Radioactivity in the water exceeds 120 million curies, 2.5 times the amount of radiation released by Chernobyl.