Mayak and the Kyshtym Disaster

Patrick Conaton
October 5, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: Map of the East Urals Radioactive Trace (EURT): area contaminated by the Kyshtym disaster. [2] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Mayak is a nuclear facility that was built in 1946 in the Russian Federation. The Mayak became one of Russia's largest nuclear plants and became the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons factory following WWII. In the rush to produce endless nuclear weapons, the site cared little for worker conditions, waste disposal, and other safety guidelines. As a result, Mayak experienced many environmental and health hazards, notably contaminating Lake Karachay nearby with radioactive waste. However, this contamination was just the tip of the hazardous iceberg and nearly a decade after the Mayak's development the Kyshtym disaster occurred. [1]

Kyshtym Disaster

On September 29, 1957 farmers and peasants in the surrounding areas noticed unusual colors in the sky. Since the entire facility was shrouded in secrecy by the government, regional and national news outlets wrote about exceptional polar lights filling the sky. However, in the months and years that followed, surrounded villages began to experience contamination sickness symptoms. Son, food intervention limits were put into effect in the surrounding area to protect populations from further being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. [2]

On that September evening, the cooling system of one of Mayak's cisterns containing radioactive waste failed. The faulty system went unnoticed due to the lack of precautionary measures in place. Ultimately, the waste tank exploded and sent radioactive material through the air affecting an area of over 20,000 square kilometers (See Fig. 1). It is estimated that 270,000 people lived in this area. Immediately villages were contaminated and within a few days over 300 of one village's 5000 residents died due to radioactive poisoning. In other villages cancer rates increased significantly in the years following and genetic abnormalities and other illnesses became common. [3] Unfortunately these affects can still be seen today as workers had been contaminating the Techa River for nearly a decade in the time of Mayak's reign. Though the plant stopped producing plutonium weapons in the late 1980s, the facilities still reprocess spent nuclear waste. While the safety features have been significantly upgraded since the Soviet era, current radiation levels are still disputed at the plant. [1]

Ties to the Cold War

Little was known about the Mayak nuclear facility or even the disasters that took place throughout most of the later 20th century. All of the operations, and safety negligence, were done under the secrecy of the Soviet Unions nuclear weapons operations. Mayak had ties to the Cold War from the beginning. Following WWII, Stalin wanted to keep up with the United States of Americas nuclear production. As a result, Mayak was created with little care for safety measures. Its mission was to build as many nuclear weapons in as little time as possible. Surprisingly, even following major disasters, the Soviet Union kept covering up the contaminations and disasters. [4] While several documents were leaked and stories began to emerge in the late 1970s, the Soviet government still denied any catastrophic events. However, following the fall of the Soviet Union, classified documents finally emerged, telling the true story of Mayak and the Kyshtym disaster. [1]

© Patrick Conaton. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] R. J. Smith, "Soviets Tell About Nuclear Plant Disaster," Washington Post, 10 Jul 89.

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

[3] S. Buttinger, "The Kyshtym Disaster," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[4] M. Lee, "Kyshtym Nuclear Accident," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.