Scott Buttinger
March 13, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Main switchboard room for the Krasnoyarsk-26 nuclear facility. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Krasnoyarsk-26, now known as Zheleznogorsk, was built after World War II along the rocky east bank of the Yenisei River, 37 miles downstream from the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia. [1] It was, and remains, a "closed" city under the Russian Federal Agency on Atomic Energy. [1]

At its heart is the Mining and Chemical Combine (see Fig. 1), a factory established to produce weapons-grade plutonium. [1] The factory's reactor plant, radiochemical plant, laboratories, and storage facilities are located 200-250 meters underground in a multilevel system of tunnels nestled within a mountain. [2] The reactor plant was brought into operation on August 25th, 1958 and by 1964, the plant consisted of three graphite reactors. [2] According to American estimates, the facility at Krasnoyarsk-26 produced more than 40 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, roughly one-third of the plutonium contained within the Soviet nuclear arsenal. [3]


Fig. 2: Reactor piping area at the Krasnoyarsk-26 nuclear facility. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It was the mountain that persuaded Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, his secret police chief, to build the complex in the remote Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. [3] The peak, they calculated, would shelter the complex against an American nuclear strike, enabling the Soviet Union to produce bomb-grade plutonium even after a nuclear war. [3] The nearby Yenisei River, one of Siberia's mightiest, would cool the plutonium-generating reactors. [3] The underground nuclear reactor piping area can be viewed in Fig. 2.

No effort or expense was spared to turn this cold war project into a reality. The chief construction engineers were individuals that held significant military rank. [3] Most of the brawn, however, was provided by slave labor. [3]

According to the city's records, some 70,000 prisoners worked in Krasnoyarsk-26 from 1950 to 1964, digging out the mountain and excavating more rock than was used to build Egypt's largest pyramid. [3] Many of the prisoners were veterans, farmers, and workers that may have done little more than steal a sack of potatoes to feed their families. [3] Several hundred foreigners were also brought to the city for forced labor, including, the city's punctilious records show, prisoners from Germany, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, and Finland. [3]


Fig. 3: The Palace of Culture in modern-day Zheleznogorsk. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Krasnoyarsk-26 was secretly founded in the years following World War II, it was a bastion of privilege for the Soviet Union's scientific elite. [3] Behind barbed-wire fences, its scientists, the nation's brightest, lived the Soviet dream, complete with the best food and wages that the Kremlin could provide. [3] The residential heart of the city included an artificial lake with three beaches and a movie theater that received first-run Soviet films the day after they appeared in Moscow. [3] Its work force earned 50 percent more than its counterparts outside the city gates. [3] Food was ample, and there was no rationing or standing in line. Vacations were generous: 36 work days a year and 48 days for those who labored inside the mountain. [3] The ornately designed Palace of Culture that lies in the city's central Lenin Square is depicted in Fig. 3.


Today, Krasnoyarsk-26 remains closed off from the world and is little more than an impoverished ward of the state (see Fig. 4). [3] As plutonium became plentiful in the world during the early 1990s, two of the facility's three reactors were shut down. [2] The third reactor was kept operational as it was required to provide heat for the city's inhabitants. [3]

Fig. 4: A checkpoint to enter the closed city of Zheleznogorsk. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, government funds no longer came in abundance and Krasnoyarsk-26 suffered as a result. Labor wages were often slashed or delayed, medical services became limited to emergency operations, and even maintaining the lone reactor proved a difficult task. [3] At times, the reactor was forced out of operation for weeks, leaving Krasnoyarsk-26 without heat for extended periods of time. [3] In addition to the loss of material wealth, the loss of the city's cold war mission delivered a devastating psychological blow to the city's laborers, as people felt that their years of service to the Soviet Union were ultimately meaningless and unnecessary. [3]


In the late 1990s, the Russian Federal Agency on Atomic Energy and the United States Energy Department reached an agreement in which the U.S. would provide financial assistance for the deactivation of the final reactor at Krasnoyarsk-26 and the disposal of stockpiled weapons-grade plutonium. [4] In 2010, the final reactor was officially decommissioned following the signing of an updated nuclear disarmament treaty by U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. [4]

© Scott Buttinger. 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] D. Hoffman, "Radioactive Materials Threaten Mighty River", Washington Post, 17 Aug 98.

[2] O. Bukharin and F. V. Hippel, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (MIT Press, 2004).

[3] M. R. Gordon, "The Hidden City: A Special Report; Hard Times for Russia's Nuclear Centers," New York Times, 18 Nov 98.

[4] "Obama: 'Real Progress' at Nuclear Summit," CNN, 14 Apr 10.