Russian town hides spooky Cold War secret from world


There has been a “slow motion” disaster for the past 70 years at one of Russia’s most secret sites.

Ozersk, code name City 40, was the birthplace of the nuclear former Soviet Union weapons program at the dawn of the cold war.

On the surface, it was a clean, modern city that prided itself on having good housing, spacious parks, and high-quality schools to attract the country’s top nuclear scientists.

Ozersk attracted the best Russian nuclear scientists during the Cold War. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

But while the work of the Ozersk army of scientists developing Russia’s plutonium supplies was kept in secrecy, its environmental impact has proven more difficult to contain.

Today, its legacy of radiation pollution has earned Ozersk the title of “Cemetery of the Earth”.

Building Russia’s nuclear shield

Ozersk’s origins can be traced back to the American dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.

Alarmed by the terrifying news weapon of mass destruction, Russian leader Josef Stalin ordered his scientists to build a nuclear arsenal to combat the American threat.
The supply of plutonium was vital to Russia’s development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. (PA)

The Mayak plant deep in the Urals was founded in 1948 to develop essential large-scale plutonium supplies for the Soviet atomic bomb. The work required hundreds of workers.

Ozersk was founded nearby, initially as a sort of slum of wooden huts to house workers. But in the years that followed, it grew into a modern city of 100,000, with many citizens working at the Mayak factory.

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

Professor Brown, who wrote Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities and great Soviet and American plutonium catastrophes, told that the people of Ozersk were the envy of most Russians.

“When I wrote about plutopia, I mean by those special limited-access towns exclusively for plutonium plant operators who were well paid and lived comfortably. The people who lived there were ‘chosen’,” said Professor Brown.

Russian authorities have covered up radioactive pollution in the area surrounding Ozersk for decades. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Plutonium towns such as Ozersk offered wonderful opportunities because not only were the housing very cheap and the wages very good, but the schools were good.”

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

Ozersk did not appear on the maps and its citizens were removed from the national census.

Residents have even been banned from contacting family and friends for years.

And for decades, the city was surrounded by barbed wire and guard posts, and the entrance was strictly controlled.

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Professor Brown said the Russian and US governments were prepared to cut corners in their race to develop an advantage in nuclear weapons.

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

Although there were no casualties from the explosion itself, more than 20 million curies of nuclear waste were blown away and scattered throughout the neighboring countryside.

The full effects of Mayak’s radiation release and other incidents took years, if not decades, to become fully apparent, Professor Brown said.

The Mayak nuclear processing plant in the Urals region of Russia. (Google Maps)

“The plutonium-related disasters weren’t big, explosive deals overnight. They were slow-motion disasters that spanned four decades,” she said.

Officials at the Mayak plant also ordered the dumping of its waste into nearby lakes and rivers, which flow into the Arctic Ocean.

Professor Brown said one of the lakes near Mayak was so heavily contaminated with plutonium that locals renamed it the ‘Lake of Death’.

The extent of the pollution has been suppressed by Russian authorities for decades.

“Thanks to the Soviet government’s exhaustive efforts and the already secret nature of the location, for a long time, no one outside the Ozersk region was even aware of what had happened.

“It wasn’t until renegade Soviet scientists exposed the cover-up in the 1970s that scientists began to grasp the extent of the disaster.”

There are strict conditions for foreign citizens entering the city of Ozersk in the Urals region of Russia. (Photo: Sophie Adamova) (Provided)

Spills of radioactive substances have also occurred at other secret Russian military and industrial sites.

In August 2019, a brief spike in radioactivity was recorded following a mysterious and deadly explosion at the Russian Navy‘s test field at Nyonoksa on the White Sea.

The explosion killed two servicemen and five nuclear engineers.

Activists expose contamination

Today, the Mayak plant is now used for a more peaceful reprocessing of spent radioactive fuel.

In Ozersk, many restrictions have been relaxed, with residents free to leave whenever they wish.

But the city is still surrounded by thick walls and guard barriers, and the entry of foreigners is strictly controlled by government officials.

And while efforts have been made to clean up the environment, radiation pollution remains a threat to the health of residents.

The Mayak nuclear power plant is now being rebuilt for the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. (Photo: US Army / Carl Anderson) (Wikimedia Commons)
A recent study showed that residents of Ozersk are more than twice as likely to develop lung, liver and skeletal cancers and much more likely to suffer from chronic radiation syndrome.

Professor Brown said Russian environmental activists were still threatened and persecuted for exposing radiation levels.

“They have paid a heavy price in terms of state prosecutions and threats of fines and even jail,” she said.

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“But they were determined to expose what was truly a disaster by design.”

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