Lake Karachay is a small body of water located in Russia’s scenic Ural Mountains. Once upon a time, it was an idyllic spot. Now, it is the most toxic place on earth. But how toxic is it? And how did it get that way?
The Soviet Union’s Secret City?
In 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, jumpstarting the atomic age. Following World War II, the Soviet Union was eager to close the weapons gap. They began constructing a secret city in the Ural Mountains, known as Chelyabinsk-40.
In 1948, Chelyabinsk-40 began producing plutonium. In the first of what was to become many short-sighted decisions, the nuclear waste was diluted with water and discharged into the Techa River. This waste contained a few long-lived isotopes, namely Caesium-137 and Strontium-90. By 1951, the river, which also served as the city’s drinking water, was highly radioactive.
Lake Karachay & Nuclear Disaster!
The Soviet Union took steps to improve the situation. Endangered civilians were moved and the Techa River was dammed. Nuclear waste disposal practices were also changed. Rather than being dumped in Techa, waste was stored in tanks for months at a time. After the radioactivity had diminished, the waste was pumped into a different sort of storage facility…Lake Karachay.
It didn’t help. Workers began to experience signs of acute radiation syndrome. Even worse, pipes started to fail, leading to radiation leakage. But the worst was yet to come. In September 1957, the cooling system in one of the storage tanks failed. 70-80 tons of radioactive waste started to evaporate. On September 29, the tank exploded with a force of about 70-100 tons of TNT.
The Kyshtym Disaster was the third worst nuclear accident in history behind only Chernobyl and the recent Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It released somewhere between 2 to 50 MCi of radioactivity and contaminated hundreds of square miles.
Since the facility was top-secret, the Soviet Union coldly chose not to warn surrounding villages. But they couldn’t stop the radiation. Soon, strange skin-shedding “diseases” appeared throughout the region. A mass evacuation was eventually put in place but the damage was already done.
Meanwhile, engineers decontaminated Chelyabinsk-40 and unbelievably, resumed production. As such, radioactive waste was once again flowing into Lake Karachay. During the 1960s, Lake Karachay began to dry out leaving a layer of radioactive sediment. Winds carried this dust in all directions, exposing half a million additional civilians to dangerous levels of radiation. Engineers attempted to prevent further erosion by filling Lake Karachay with about 10,000 hollow concrete blocks.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
By 1990, Lake Karachay was the most toxic place on earth. It contained 3.6 EBq of Caesium-137 and 0.74 EBq of Strontium-90. The radiation level near the lake was measured at 600 röntgens per hour. In other words, a mere hour of exposure to the lake was lethal. Areas that surround Lake Karachay have experienced elevated levels of various cancers and large declines in lifespans.
The story of Lake Karachay is a cautionary one. Even though its no longer used as a waste dump, it still poses big risks. Research indicates that the lake is contaminating nearby rivers and groundwater. Its conceivable that the radioactive chemicals may even leak into the ocean. Unfortunately, the final chapter on Lake Karachay remains to be written.