CHELYABINSK — It was just after four o'clock in the afternoon on September 29, 1957, when the cooling system failed at the Mayak nuclear complex inside the closed military town of Chelyabinsk-65. Two hundred and fifty cubic meters of volatile liquid uranium waste overheated, then combusted. The fireball shot a kilometer into the sky, where the toxic clouds caught wind and drifted northeast, slicing at roughly 45 degrees between the two nearest cities, Chelyabinsk in the south and Yekaterinburg in the north. It was a less lucky wind for the more than 200 villages and settlements under the fallout's fated path. According to state maps of what is officially known as the "East Ural Radioactive Trace Zone," this path stretched 50 km wide and 300 km long.
The blast in Chelyabinsk-65, since renamed Ozersk, was one of the twentieth-century's best-kept secrets. Its full scope known only to a handful of Soviet officials for more than three decades, it was the first major accident of the atomic age. Until Chernobyl melted down, it was also the largest.
A quarter of a million people were irradiated in the days following the September 1957 explosion. Most of them were soon resettled outside the inner trace zone at the state's expense. But not all of them. Fifteen years after the truth about Mayak spilled out, many of those left behind now believe that while the '57 blast was an accident, their subsequent suffering was part of large-scale human radiation experiment. The question hangs over the East Urals Trace Zone like a mist: Why were some villages evacuated, and others not?
For those left behind, exposure continues through radioactive isotopes in the soil and water with decay rates measured in millennia, and through fresh leakage of radioactive material from Ozersk. For their children and grandchildren, the legacy of 1957 was passed on in the womb.
A Geiger counter on a Techa flood plain reading 1.101 megs — or more than 50 times what is considered safe
"This is an intergenerational catastrophe," says Vladimir Chouprov, a nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Russia, which helped organize a demonstration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Mayak blast last week in Chleyabinsk. "We are seeing the second and third generations living amid radioactive contamination, both accidental and systemic."
Compounding the legacy of radiation in some villages, say local activists and victims, is the inadequate response by Mayak and government officials, neither of whom returned phone calls for this article. After decades of lies and indifference, they say, the lies and indifference continue in new forms.
For the residents of Tatarskaya Korabolka, a dying settlement of 600, the lies started 50 years ago last Saturday.
The townsfolk were in the fields collecting a bumper harvest when they heard it: a solid, dull boom to the west. Ground tremors followed, strong enough to crack windows and rattle plates loose from their shelves. The villagers turned and watched in wonder as a black plume rose high above the cloudless horizon, a dozen kilometers away. "Around the smoke it was the color of sunsets," remembers Gulchara Ismagilova, a witness to the blast who was 11 at the time. Veterans of Stalingrad ordered parents to round up their children and seek shelter. Russia's new enemies, they yelled, have brought war to the southern Urals.
Within hours of the distant blast, villagers handling irradiated hay began to fall sick. Even before police arrived wearing futuristic white suits, locals knew something was terribly, Biblically wrong. But they had no idea what. They would only start to put the pieces together after Chernobyl, three decades later.
The Soviet authorities understood immediately the severity and nature of the disaster. When 300 Korabolka residents out of 5,000 died in the immediate aftermath, the village was slated for complete evacuation by the end of the year. But the planned evacuation never occurred—at least not completely. Instead, a strange thing happened. Its Tatar and Russian halves were handed two separate futures: the ethnic Russian side of the village (population 2,300) was evacuated and razed, while the ethnic Tatar side of the village (population 2,700) was not. There is no trace left of Russian Karobolka, only a forest visible from the nearby road.