Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Before Chernobyl: Kyshtym, USSR, 1958

Originally published in Solidarity: for Social Revolution (London, UK) No. 13, Aug.- Sept. 1978, under the title “THE WHOLE WORLD OVER: THE WHOLE WORLD – OVER!

The gaff was blown on the Soviet nuclear disaster in the Urals almost inadvertently, in an article entitled “Two Decades of Dissidence” (New Scientist, Nov.4, 1976). Describing the growth of the dissident movement among Soviet scientists, Zhores Medvedev, a biochemist now working in London, referred to a “tragic catastrophe” which occurred in 1958 as a result of the burial of nuclear reactor waste.

According to this account, a sudden enormous explosion led to the scattering of radioactive dust and materials over a wide area, affecting tens of thousands of people and killing hundreds. The figures were, of course, never made public. Many villages and towns were evacuated only after the appearance of radiation sickness, and others, with high or moderate but not lethal levels of radioactivity, were not evacuated at all. The stifling of certain branches of science, under Stalin, was a serious handicap in treating the victims.

The large contaminated area was considered dangerous and kept closed to the public. As “the largest gamma (radiation) field in the world” it became a focus for the study of radiation effects and the resulting publications eventually provided corroborative evidence for the disaster.

Following the “unexpected sensation” caused by this article, Medvedev supplied more details (New Scientist, June 30, 1977, “Facts behind the Soviet nuclear disaster”). The affected area was described as being near Kyshtym, between the Urals cities of Cheliabinsk and Sverdlovsk and the accident is said to have happened in the winter of 1957-58. It was pointed out that confirmation had been received from another émigré, Lev Tumerman, and detailed reference was made to Soviet scientific journals. Tumerman’s eye-witness account  described hundreds of square miles of heavily contaminated “forbidden territory” in which all the villages and towns had been destroyed to prevent the return of evacuees.

Medvedev  reported that since 1958 more than 100 works on the effects of the long-lived radioactive isotopes strontium-90 and caesium-137 on natural plant and animal life had been published. The time span of observations – 10 years in 1968, etc. – relates to the date of the accident, and the scale of research indicated a much larger field than could conceivably have been created deliberately for experimental purposes. Despite general cageyness about the causes and location of the contamination, indications pointed to the Urals region, and Cheliabinsk was mentioned once. The early work had all been classified, but publication became possible after the death of Khrushchev.

The revelations were not only greeted with comprehensible shock/horror, there was also a strong defensive reaction from the nuclear establishment in the West. Scoring points off the USSR appeared less important than whitewashing the nuclear industry and its safety record world-wide. Sir John Hill, chairman of the UKAEA [United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority] (well-known manufacturers of such white-wash) “tried to dismiss [Medvedev’s] story as ‘science fiction’, ‘rubbish’ or a ‘figment of the imagination’.”

More seriously, experts in the field queried whether such an event could have occurred in the way described. Some of  Medvedev’s contentions were open to challenge and raised controversies which are not yet fully resolved. His own speciality lying in a different, though not unrelated, branch of science, he had had to study the subject in order to prove that what he knew had happened was not impossible or imaginary.


Further confirmation of the event, though not of all the details, was forthcoming when CIA files revealed contamination emanating apparently from military nuclear facilities near the city of Kasli, north-west of Kyshtym. This evidence is discussed in Nuclear Safety, Vol. 20, No.2, March-April 1979 (J. R. Trebalka et al., “Another perspective of the 1958 Soviet nuclear accident”), and compared with the other versions. According to this, the nuclear-related incident(s) occurred around 1957-58, resulting from an explosion in a high-level-waste storage area or experimental airborne nuclear weapons test, and leading to loss of life, evacuation of civilians from a large area, and the establishing of a restricted radiation-contamination zone near the Kasli site.

There were, however, inconsistencies in some of the CIA reports regarding dates and location of fall-out, and the authors of the “Nuclear Safety” article commented on the absence of first- or second-hand reports or confirmed authoritative information, as well as on differences between the various accounts and internal anomalies within them. They nonetheless conclude that radiology studies had evidently been designed to take advantage of a large, inadvertently contaminated area of which the total minimum area could reasonably be estimated at well over 25 square kilometres. The most credible case for the cause of the accident appeared to be some sort of accidental airborne release, but they considered the range of possible explanations to be broader than suggested by Medvedev  or his critics.

The lad himself returned to the fray with a book: Zh. A. Medvedev  , Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, 1979. An excerpt published in New Scientist, Oct. 11, 1979, shows a readiness to re-assess the possibilities without any inclination to deny it ever happened. He goes into the history of reactor construction in the USSR, in a context of great urgency to catch up with the USA, and the ad-hoc working out of storage methods for waste.

He also makes the point that the USSR by no means has a monopoly of nuclear hazards, citing the near disaster, by all indications apparently analogous to the one in the Urals, which was “barely averted” at the Hanford Nuclear Centre in the USA. The location of this “near-miss” was one of the trenches into which the less active waste was poured. Plutonium was adsorbed and accumulated in a relatively thin layer of soil, and a chain reaction resulting in an explosion could have been set off if water soaked into the plutonium-rich soil.

In Cheliabinsk, this scenario could have been a reality, with snow in the region and the water-table closer to the surface. Alternative hypotheses are: an explosion in an insufficiently cooled tank, e.g. one with a single cooling system which failed, or with none at all; an explosion occurring during the pumping of high-level liquid wastes under high pressure into “authorised” geological formations; residual plutonium in the processing solutions disposed of underground becoming concentrated by selective adsorption and, in the presence of abundant water, constituting a critical assembly which eventually exploded.

“But,” the article concludes, “that the explosion actually occurred, causing a great many casualties and contaminating a vast territory, and that it resulted from the improper storage of reactor products cannot be doubted.” The plethora of possible ways in which such a serious accident could have happened is in any case far from reassuring.

While we are on the subject of Medvedev, it is worth mentioning another book of his, Soviet Science, Oxford University Press, 1979, £5.95. An extract in New Scientist, May 17 1979, touches on some of the differences between the scientific establishments east and west. Science in the Soviet Union, financed exclusively through the state budget and state industrial systems, is not subject to public pressures, which are anyway strongly inhibited by the lack of freedom of the press and of association, preventing the spread of knowledge and organisation.

Russians, it would appear, live near nuclear installations “either without any protest or without any knowledge of them”. The example is given of Obninsk, with 10 nuclear reactors operational within the town limits or 2-3 kilometres outside. Yet Medvedev “never heard a single complaint about these ‘environmental’ problems” during the 11 years he lived there. “The logic was simple – if you come to live and work here, don’t worry.” The scientific community is also, of course, subject to strict controls. In the context of a system where the first small reactors were tested in “half-institutions, half-prisons, with much of the work being done by prisoners, according to the custom of the time”, and where dissent draws the penalties we know of, the lack of direct evidence when things go disastrously wrong is perhaps less surprising than the fact that these things do come to light eventually.

Even among safety-conscious scientists, however, it would seem that concern does not lead to rejection of the state’s nuclear programme. A writer in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 1980, interviewed several dissenting scientists on the subject, and found at most a readiness to comment unfavourably on aspects of safety policy, e.g. the fact that no-one knew those directly responsible for the safety of power reactors, and the absence of outside checks. Evidently some attempts at improvement have been made: experimental reactors at Leningrad, Moscow and Dubna were started with no safety rules and no safety committees; now there are 5 separate supervisory safety committees in Leningrad. Cynics may wonder whether this is an improvement  but we are told that although these first needed to be educated, they are “now even helpful”. Incidentally, no information was requested or volunteered about the accident in the Urals.

Little prospect, then, of Torness-style occupations, Brittany-style barricades and mass demos., or even Windscale-type enquiries to give pause to the Eastern European nuclear power programme. But at least there are unofficial groups monitoring developments and spreading news. The Charter 77 group in Czechoslovakia produced a document describing two serious accidents at an operating power station in 1976 and 77, both leading to radioactive contamination of the atmosphere (see New Scientist, Oct. 18 1979, “A Czech Three Mile Island”). The Czech Atomic Energy Authority did not deny the occurrences, but said they were “not big, not like Harrisburg”. Causes were said to include lax safety procedures, bad labour relations, over-emphasis on productivity, and widespread alcoholism.

Back in the USSR, alcoholism was also said to have played a part in the outbreak of a fire which threatened a fast reactor cooling system on New Year’s Eve, 1978-79, at Beloyarsk. Several firefighters were killed; there was a risk of explosion which would release a radioactive cloud, and trains and buses were standing by to evacuate the nearby settlement of Zarechnyi (Nature, Jan. 31 1980). Local opinion assumed that “the shift was drunk, like almost everyone else in the Soviet Union that night”.

In April 1980 it was reported that the most advanced fast breeder reactor in the world had become operational at Beloyarsk. Cheers, comrades.


None of this means that the West had any grounds for complacency, either in the matter of safety or that of “open government” and civil liberties. That nothing has happened – yet – to compare with Kyshtym/Kasli is due more to good luck than good management (the latter is a paradoxical expression anyway). An extensive dossier could be compiled on things that have happened already: the fire at WIndscale in 1957; a recent electricity breakdown in France that would have been disastrous if the reactor concerned had been fully operational; cracks in reactor turbine blades; leaks of radioactivity all over the place.

In fact such dossiers have been compiled, a good example being Clamshell Alliance’s “Nuclear Accidents: a look at the record” printed (with an attempted answer) in IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, Oct. 1978. Here too we are dependent on groups outside and dissenting from the establishment, and the odd maverick within it, to spread vital information. Three Mile Island highlighted not only the fragility of the nuclear safety record but also the readiness of those responsible to suppress and distort the news of what was happening and its effects. The cover-up was a long-term process, and the repercussions are far from over. The story is not being written here, but it is significant that the official response in the U.K. was a clampdown on information to the public.

Official secrecy is only part of the apparatus of security and “unacceptable” (even by bourgeois democratic standards) disregard of civil liberties which is seen as an inevitable concomitant of nuclear power, not by paranoid leftists but by sources such as the Flowers Report on “Nuclear Power and the Environment”, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution No.6, 1976. This in turn is one aspect of a whole scene which lends weight to the argument that while, in a sense, technology may be neutral, certain applications and developments of it are manifestly more suited to an authoritarian society than a libertarian one. Clearly, too, the energy programme is based on the presumed requirements of advanced capitalist societies.


Because of this, and because detailed discussion of the subject involves difficult and even intractable problems, there may be a tendency to think that it is futile for us to intervene, especially if what we have to say is already being said by others. But the anti-nuclear movement includes a number of elements, some of whom more or less explicitly recognise that the question raised is one of decisions vitally affecting ordinary people, and over which they have no control. Any capitalist- or state-benefiting energy system is going to involve an alienated, exploited and physically endangered work force, as well as damage to the environment for all of us. You couldn’t trust them to run a windmill decently. Opposing an outstandingly harmful course of action does not oblige us to come up with an alternative acceptable to the ruling class, or to support another faction of it. What they decide to do, if nuclear power production is obstructed, is their problem; that they have the power to decide is ours. Our only “advice” can be that they abdicate that power.

Even those who consider that nuclear energy might have a place in a different type of society will agree that it is bloody dangerous in the hands of any ruling elite – and what they do with it now may pre-empt some options for the future. Although the doomwatch sub-title of this article is still more appropriate to the discussion of nuclear weapons than to the “peaceful uses” of atomic energy, the latter is affecting increasingly large chunks of the globe here and now, whether spectacularly as in the Urals or insidiously with the seeping of caesium-137 from Windscale [/Sellafield] into the Irish Sea.

Even if they leave us with a world to win, radioactive waste will not disappear, come the glorious dawn.

L. W.

hedgehog reprints @ smothpubs

1 comment:

  1. "Zhores Alexandrovich Medvedev, geneticist and microbiologist, born 14 November 1925; died 15 November 2018"
    - Guardian obituary at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/23/zhores-medvedev-obituary