Kyshtym Nuclear Accident

Mariah Lee
March 5, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Memorial to the Kyshtym Accident. (Courtesy of Ecodefense. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Kyshtym is a small town in Russia near the southern Ural Mountains, about ninety kilometers from Chelyabinsk. Kyshtym is located near the Mayak Production Association, then known as Chelyabinsk 40 which produced plutonium for the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons starting in 1948 as a result of World War II. [1]

The Accident

On September 29th, 1957 the cooling system of one of the storage tanks at Chelyabinsk 40 failed. [1] The evaporation of the cooling liquid caused 70-80 tons of radioactive waste to increase in temperature leading to an explosion within the tank. [1] As a result, radioactive material ejected into the sky and diffused into the surrounding environment. Adopting the name of the nearby town, this became known as the Kyshtym Accident. Around 15,000 to 20,000 square kilometers of land was recorded as having high contamination levels. [1] An area around 1,000 square kilometers known as the East Urals Radioactive Trace (EURT) became delineated, which means the area was determined as hazardous and 10,700 people were evacuated. [1] At the time of the accident, 63% of the area was used for agricultural purposes, 20% was forested, and 23 rural communities existed in the area. [1] Usage of the area was banned until 1961. Nowadays, close to 180 square kilometers of land is safeguarded. [1]

Impacts and Response

Due to the radioactive contamination environmental impacts were seen inside the EURT territory. [1] Humans externally were subject to radiation in the environment for a short time time after the accident as well. [1] For a longer time period humans were exposed to internal radiation through the the consumption of contaminated food, primarily bread made from grain harvested in the area. [1] Radioactive isotopes were found in milk and water as well. Between 1957 and 1959 over 10,000 tons of agricultural products were deemed unfit for human consumption and destroyed. [1] In 1958-1959 over 20,000 hectares of the EURT was ploughed to reduce contamination by plants. [1] In the Chelyabinsk region, 59,000 hectares of land was removed from from agricultural use. [1] By 1990, the vast majority of this land was back in agricultural production. [1] A range of methods to reduce the transfer of contamination to animals via feed crops were developed and implemented. [1] These included the removal of contaminated soil layers, deep ploughing, the addition of special fertilizers, and the addition of nutrient supplements fed to animals. [1]

Soviet Secrecy

The Kyshtym Accident was kept a secret from the outside world until Zhores A. Medvedev, a Soviet biologist, published a book on the event entitled, "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals." [2] The book was published in 1980 in the United States and was not circulated in the Soviet Union. [2] In 1980, American scientists believed there was an extensive environmental contamination zone in Soviet Union associated with the winter of 1957 to 1958, but they did not believe it was caused by a single event. [3] The accident was denied by the Soviet government until 1989, when they acknowledged that an explosion at a nuclear weapons plant had occurred in 1957 and thousands of people were evacuated from the area. [3] Due to the fact that the accident occurred at a nuclear weapons facility, the Soviet Union wanted to keep it a secret. However, photographs of the Kyshtym area and plant were released in 1988. [2] In addition, it was noted that 30 villages and towns had vanished from Soviet maps and a canal system was built to bypass over 15 miles of river valley near the site. [2]


The nuclear incident at Kyshtym was the third worst nuclear accident recorded, behind Fukushima Daiichi Daiichi and Chernobyl. [4]

© Mariah Lee. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "The Kyshtym Accident, 29th September 1957," Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency, August 2007.

[2] F. X. Clines, "Soviets Now Admit '57 Nuclear Blast," New York Times, 18 Jun 89.

[3] J. R. Trabalka, L. D. Eyman and S. I. Auerbach, "Analysis of the 1957-1958 Soviet Nuclear Accident," Science 209, 345 (1980).

[4] D. M. Soran and D. B. Stillman, "An Analysis of the Alleged Kyshtym Disaster," Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-9217-MS, January 1982.