Russia’s Lake Karachay – The Most Contaminated Place on Earth

Although breathtakingly beautiful, Russia’s Lake Karachay is probably the last place on earth you’d want to choose for a lakeside retreat. Just standing next to the picturesque shore for an hour would give you a radiation dose of 600 roentgen, more than enough to kill you. At its height, the lake was putting out more than 200,000 times the normal amount of radioactivity, due to poor waste disposal practices.

Nestled deep in Russia’s Ural Mountains, close to the modern Kazakhstan border, Lake Karachay falls within the Mayak Production Association, one of the country’s largest (and leakiest) nuclear facilities. Built in the 1940s, immediately after World War II, Mayak was one of Russia’s most important nuclear weapons factories and was inaccessible to foreigners for 45 years. But when President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree in 1992 that opened up the area, visiting scientists who gained access immediately declared it the most polluted area on the planet. It seems that in its long period of obscurity, Mayak was the site of numerous nuclear-related accidents, some almost as devastating as the Chernobyl meltdown.

Nuclear engineers at Mayak apparently dumped radioactive waste into the nearby Techa river quite regularly. The watered down waste that they discarded rather carelessly was a mixture of radioactive elements such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, each with a half-life of approximately 30 years.


Photo: Google Maps

The damage done by the poor nuclear waste management was horrific – the entire Chelyabinsk region was found to have a 21 percent increase in cancer cases, a 25 percent increase in birth defects, and a 41 percent increase in leukaemia. 50 percent of the population of childbearing age was rendered sterile. Of the 40 villages on the banks of the river downstream from Mayak, 23 had to be evacuated.

In fact, Techa river was found to be so contaminated that up to 65 percent of the population in Metlino village suffered from radiation sickness. And although the cause was obvious, doctors were prevented from mentioning radiation in their diagnosis for a long time. So they were forced to name the sickness ‘special disease’. Instead of paying attention to the symptoms, Mayak engineers were eager to catch up with the advancement of Western weapons, so it appears that they did not pay much attention to safety. As a result, several major accidents occurred at the facility in the fifties and sixties.


Photo: Google Maps

By the mid-fifties, they finally decided to stop dumping nuclear waste into the nearby lakes, by which time most of the damage was already done. Instead, they started pumping the waste into a row of vats. But they messed up again in September 1957 – the vats exploded with a force equivalent to about 85 tons of TNT, spewing about 70 tons of radioactive waste a mile high.

The resultant dust cloud spread isotopes of cesium and strontium over 9,000 square miles, adversely affecting the food supplies of nearly 300,000 Soviet citizens. But the Mayak engineers took no notice of the destruction caused. With the waste system destroyed, they started to direct their constant flow of radioactive effluent into Lake Karachay. The engineers were ostensibly optimistic that anything dumped in this lake would remain there permanently, because it did not have any surface outlets.


Photo: Pixgood

For ten years, their assumptions proved to be true, after which a severe drought struck Chelyabinsk. The lake slowly began to dry up, exposing the radioactive sediment at the bottom. The toxic dust spread everywhere, peppering about 900 square miles of land with strontium and caesium, along with other unpleasant elements.

As a result of all the contamination during the 1957 blast and the 1967 drought, large areas of Chelyabinsk remain uninhabitable to this day. Experts have estimated that approximately one billion gallons of groundwater have been contaminated with radioactive waste. And to this day, the local population remains blissfully unaware of the actual levels of radioisotopes in their potable water and home grown food products.

Sources: Knowledge Nuts, Basement Geographer

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