Russian city hides a Cold War secret from the world

There has been a “slow-motion” catastrophe that has unfolded over the last 70 years in one of Russia’s most secretive places.

Ozersk, codenamed City 40, was the birthplace of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. weapons program at the beginning of the Cold War.

On the surface, it was a pure modern city that boasted good housing, spacious parks and high-quality schools to attract the country’s best nuclear scientists.

Ozersk attracted Russia’s best nuclear scientists during the Cold War. (Wikimedia Commons)

And its purpose was seen as so important that Russian authorities effectively hid it from the rest of the country and the world.

But while the work of the Ozersk army of scientists who developed Russia’s plutonium supplies was hidden in secrecy, its environmental impact proved more difficult to limit.

Today, its legacy from radiation pollution has given Ozersk the title ‘Earth Cemetery’.

Construction of Russia’s nuclear shield

The origins of Ozersk can be traced to the United States dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.

Alarmed about the scary new weapons of mass destruction, Russian leader Joseph Stalin ordered his scientists to build a nuclear arsenal to combat the US threat.
Supplies of plutonium were crucial to Russia’s development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. (AP)

The Mayak plant deep in the Ural Mountains was founded in 1948 to develop significant large-scale plutonium supplies for the Soviet atomic bomb. The work needed hundreds of workers.

Ozersk was founded nearby, originally as a sort of shanty town of wooden huts to house the workers. But in the ensuing years, it grew to become a modern city of 100,000 people, with many of its citizens working at the Mayak factory.

The American environmental historian Kate Brown has described Ozersk and its counterpart nuclear cities in the United States as “Plutopias”, a fusion of the words plutonium and utopia.

Professor Brown, who wrote Plutopia: Nuclear families, nuclear cities and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters, reported that the inhabitants of Ozersk were the envy of most Russians.

“When I wrote about plutopia, I mean by the special cities with limited access only for operators of plutonium factories who were well paid and lived comfortably. The people who lived in them were ‘selected’,” said Professor Brown.

Russian authorities have been covering up radiation pollution in the Ozersk region for decades. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Plutonium cities like Ozersk provided wonderful opportunities because not only were housing very cheap and wages very good, but schools were good.”

But in Cold War Russia, all of this came at the cost of intrusive security and restrictions on personal freedom.

Ozersk did not appear on the map and its citizens were beaten from the national census.

Residents were even banned from contacting family and friends for up to years.

And for decades, the city was surrounded by barbed wire fences and sentries, and entry was strictly controlled.

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Professor Brown said both the Russian and US governments were ready to cut corners in their streak to develop a lead in nuclear weapons.

And in 1957, one of the cooling systems at the Mayak plant near Ozersk failed, causing one of the tanks containing the plant’s nuclear waste to overheat and explode.

While there were no casualties from the explosion itself, more than 20 million curies of nuclear waste were swept up by the wind and scattered around the nearby landscape.

The full effects of the Mayak radiation release and other events took years, even decades to become fully visible, Professor Brown said.

Mayak nuclear power plant in the Ural region of Russia. (Google Maps)

“The plutonium disasters were not big, explosive matters from one day to the next. They were slow-motion disasters that took place over four decades,” she said.

Officials from the Mayak plant also ordered the dumping of its waste in nearby lakes and rivers that flow into the Arctic Ocean.

Prof. Brown said one of the lakes near Mayak has been so heavily polluted by plutonium that locals have renamed it ‘Lake of Death’.

The extent of the pollution was dampened by Russian authorities for decades.

“Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of the Soviet government and the already secretive nature of the place for a long time, no one outside the Ozersk area was even aware that it was happening.

“It was not until apostate Soviet scientists revealed the cover-up in the 1970s that scientists began to understand the scale of the disaster.”

There are strict conditions for foreign nationals to enter the city of Ozersk in Russia’s Ural region. (Photo: Sophia Adamova) (Included)

Radioactive spills have also occurred at other secret Russian military and industrial sites.

In August 2019, a brief increase in radioactivity was recorded after a mysterious and deadly explosion at the Russian Navy’s test area in Nyonoksa on the White Sea.

The blast killed two soldiers and five nuclear engineers.

Campaigners expose pollution

Today, the Mayak plant now serves the more peaceful purpose of reprocessing spent radioactive fuel.

In Ozersk, many restrictions have been eased and residents are free to leave whenever they want.

But the city is still surrounded by thick walls and guard fences, and the access of outsiders is strictly controlled by officials.

And even though efforts have been made to clean up the environment, radiation pollution remains a threat to residents’ health.

The Mayak nuclear power plant has today been rebuilt to reprocess nuclear fuel. (Photo: US Army / Carl Anderson) (Wikimedia Commons)
ONE recent study showed that residents of Ozersk are more than twice as likely to develop lung, liver and skeletal cancer and far more likely to experience chronic radiation syndrome.

Prof. Brown says Russian environmental activists are still facing threats and persecution to expose radiation levels.

“They have paid a high price in the form of prosecution by the state and receiving threats of fines and even imprisonment,” she said.

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“But they were determined to reveal what was really a disaster in design.”

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