The extent to which human beings are prepared to sacrifice the good of the environment, of the planet, of other human beings across the globe, of all that future generations might hold precious, to their own short-term economic or political ends has never ceased to stagger and depress me. Some might say indeed that it shows us up for what we are: scarcely evolved ground apes no more developed than the South Indian monkeys that, in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, famously allow themselves to be trapped by their own greed and rigidity when they could secure their long-term future merely by giving up their immediate gratification. Far from being images of a divine creator and endowed with a perfect immortal soul, we are in fact primates who have only recently descended from the trees and due to certain evolutionary advantages now get to manage an entire planet, the long term prospects for which are looking less attractive every day.
One can of course see this everywhere, and you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippy to be aware of and deplore what is happening. We know for a fact, the deniers aside, that economic growth across the planet is having the effect of releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere with profound consequences for global temperatures. We know for a fact that humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with virtually all the ecosystems that surround it is pushing the rate of species extinction far above what it would otherwise be, that it is in fact propelling us even as I write into a major extinction event, the sixth to which the Earth has been subject since the emergence of life here. We know that nuclear tests and nuclear weapon production has resulted in the emission of thousands of tons of radioactive waste that has turned whole areas of the planet effectively into no-go areas; silent cities or lakes foul with invisible poison, where to linger for even an hour is to invite an extended and excruciating death. And for what? A rise in GNP here, a temporary political or military advantage there. As the writer E. O Wilson said, “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
It was the latter issue, that of our nuclear past, that struck me today when I learned that it was the 59th anniversary of the Kyshtym Disaster, an event seemingly little known in the west and about which I have to confess I knew next to nothing.
The activities of the Soviet Union were in general of course catastrophic for the environment; the Workers’ Paradise showed precious little concern for the health and safety of the workers and their families in their struggle to promote economic growth and military superiority. Because of the culture of secrecy surrounding all aspects of government, it was impossible to get a detailed picture of the damage done to the environment until after the Soviet Union came to an end. A correspondent for the Washington Post who visited the East German town of Bitterfeld (described by Der Spiegel as the dirtiest town in Europe) in 1990 wrote:
Here, rivers flow red from steel mill waste, drinking water contains many times the European Community standards for heavy metals and other pollutants, and the air has killed so many trees — 75 percent in the Bitterfeld area — that even the most ambitious clean-up efforts now being planned would not reverse the damage. East Germany fills the air with sulphur dioxide at almost five times the West German rate and more than twice the Polish rate, according to a recent study. One chemical plant near here dumps 44 pounds of mercury into the Saale river each day — 10 times as much as the West German chemical company BASF pumps into the Rhine each year.
Across East Germany as a whole an estimated 42 percent of rivers and 24 percent of lakes were so polluted that they could not be used to process drinking water, almost half of the country’s lakes were considered dead or dying and unable to sustain fish or other forms of life, and some 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in the whole had been fitted with the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.
Conditions in Russia were if anything worse still. A study published by the US Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division in 1996 described the country’s air as “among the most polluted in the world” (“According to one estimate, only 15 percent of the urban population breathes air that is not harmful”), and found that “75 percent of Russia’s surface water is now polluted, 50 percent of all water is not potable according to quality standards established in 1992, and an estimated 30 percent of groundwater available for use is highly polluted”. In summary,
In the 1990s, after decades of such practices, the government categorized about 40 percent of Russia’s territory (an area about three-quarters as large as the United States) as under high or moderately high ecological stress. Excluding areas of radiation contamination [my italics], fifty-six areas have been identified as environmentally degraded regions, ranging from full-fledged ecological disaster areas to moderately polluted areas.
Given the Soviet government’s cavalier attitude towards environmental protection, standards of safety in the nuclear industry were never likely to be very encouraging, and in fact the pressure of historical circumstances meant that they were in effect non-existent.
The Soviet nuclear industry got underway in the late 1940’s at a time when the country suddenly found itself in a frantic race against the USA. The Americans had of course wrong-footed their erstwhile Russian allies by detonating nuclear devices at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, starkly demonstrating that, at least in the short-term, the USA was the world’s primary military power with the the ability to wreak terrible destruction upon any enemy. Given the ambitions of the Stalin regime, as well as its instinctive paranoia, this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, and the government resolved to catch up with its rival in the nuclear arms race as quickly as possible. For this reason, a number of plants were hastily constructed in order to produce the required amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The largest plant was at a place called Mayak, not far from Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals.
The haste with which it was built, and the considerable gaps in the knowledge of the Soviet physicists about what was still a nascent technology whose recent wartime development was shrouded in secrecy, boded ill for the safety of the workers and the local environment. From the start, no consideration was paid to the responsible disposal of the tons of contaminated waste that would be produced. The plant’s six reactors were all on lake Kyzyltash and used what was apparently quite a primitive open cycle cooling system, sucking in thousands of gallons of water from the lake daily to cool the reactor, then discharging the contaminated water straight back into the lake, which rapidly became itself heavily contaminated. Another much smaller lake, Lake Karachay, became a dumping ground for huge quantities of waste of which the lethal levels of radioactivity made it too dangerous to store in the plant’s underground storage vats.
Dumping waste at Lake Karachay, the most contaminated place on Earth
Lake Karachay became the most polluted spot on Earth, surely the most baleful claim to fame that any place can have. The lake over the years accumulated some 4.44 exabecquerels (EBq) of radioactivity across less than 1 square mile of water – for the sake of comparison, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 released some 5-12 EBq of radioactivity over many thousands of square miles. The sediment of the lake bed is estimated to be composed almost entirely of high level radioactive waste deposits to a depth of some 11 feet. Radioactive waste is still dumped in the vicinity, carried there in trucks whose drivers keep a Geiger Counter in the cab and make sure they deposit their load and turn around as quickly as possible to minimise their exposure – as little as half an hour’s exposure here can deliver a lethal dose of radiation. In the 1960’s the lake began to dry up, the radioactive dust being picked up by the wind and spread across a wide area, irradiating possibly hundreds of thousands of people. To prevent the waste in the sediment being released, the authorities began to fill it in with concrete and it would seem that this process has now almost completed. A sealed, lethal, concrete hole that used to be a lake. It would be hard to think of a more grotesque abuse of our natural environment.
The disaster of 1957 occurred because the cooling system for the underground storage tanks that had been installed in 1953 was ineffective and not well maintained. With no cooling to counteract the intense heat generated by radioactive decay, the temperature of the waste in one of the tanks rose to dangerous levels. The result was a massive chemical explosion that was estimated to have a force of 70-100 tons of TNT and was powerful enough to throw the 160-ton concrete lid of the storage tank into the air. The waste from the tank was dispersed across an area of several hundred square kilometres and continued to spread north eastwards, blown by the wind, during the next few days.
The precise number of fatalities resulting from the disaster are unknown and unknowable. Because of the secrecy surrounding the plant, none of the local population were made aware of it, and the evacuation of local towns did not even begin for a week after the explosion. Some communities were not evacuated for more than a year, if at all. Certainly any figures originating from Soviet sources would have been worthless in any case. Because the existence of the plant was such a secret, instances of radiation sickness could not even be reported as such – doctors had to use the expression ‘special disease’. But by the time the Mayak plant’s existence was officially acknowledged, in the 1990’s, it was possible to point to extremely high levels of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, across the whole of the region.
What we do know is that the explosion dumped some 76 million cubic metres of radioactive water into the Techa River system, which provided 24 towns and villages with their major source of water. Up to 65% of the population that lived along the river may have become irradiated as a result. We know also that ultimately the plume of radiation produced a large area of permanently heavy contamination known as the East Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT), which the Soviets euphemistically relabelled the ‘East Ural Nature Reserve’ in 1968 and where many still have to live with the consequences of 1957 even now; and we know that, although western authorities were not fully aware of the event until the 1970’s, the International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently rated it a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale – only the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have been rated higher (both 7).
It is scarcely to be wondered at that the Soviet authorities were prepared to let their own people die hideous deaths rather than let considerations of humanity complicate their pursuance of military power. The humanitarian credentials of the regime had been made abundantly clear during the 1930’s and the Second World War. But lest it be thought that their western rivals were much more scrupulous, one must be aware that the CIA were almost certainly aware of the Kyshtym Disaster from 1959 at the latest, but were happy to keep it a secret in order to avoid embarrassing the US Nuclear industry, which might find itself unduly hampered by public concerns about similar disasters at US plants.
It almost reads like The Lorax, a needless, careless, ugly poisoning of earth, air and water not in this case in order to manufacture the ever-profitable thneed but to maintain great power status, for the ends of an elite political class unable to see anything beyond their own immediate desires. Sometimes one cannot help but think of the words attributed to the Cree Indians, “only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”. Given our form as a species, it seems unlikely we will realise our errors before we have run out of Renaissance paintings to burn.