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Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Kyshtym Disaster: The Largest Nuclear Disaster You've Never Heard Of

Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When you think of nuclear disasters, you think of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine and the Fukushima plant in Japan, and maybe Three Mile Island. But after Fukushima and Chernobyl, the third biggest nuclear disaster is called Kyshtym. Never heard of it? That’s because it happened in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, deep in the eastern Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union. The Soviets disclosed details to no one, not even the people affected. Even the name is a misdirection, because it didn’t happen in Kyshtym. It was in the town of Chelyabinsk-65 (which was renamed Ozyorsk in the early 1990s); this town, according to the Soviets, did not exist.

The Mayak Production Association runs plutonium facility No 817 in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. During the Soviet era, its location was a secret to anyone who didn't work there. It was known as Chelyabinsk-40 after the postal code, and the nearby community was named Chelyabinsk-65. The facility was built in a hurry just after World War II in order to catch up with the Americans in nuclear weapons technology. The plant, which included six reactors, processed nuclear materials to develop weapons-grade plutonium. At the time, relatively little was known about the effects of radioactive materials on human workers, and even the dangers that were known were disregarded by Soviet authorities in their haste to develop nuclear weapons. The future town of Ozyorsk grew up around the facility.

Carl Anderson, US Army Corps of Engineers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The plant was dangerous from the beginning. Radioactive waste was disposed of by dumping it into the Techa River. Solid waste was dumped on-site, and smoke was released into the air with no regard to its contents. Protective gear for the workers was minimal, and most of it was believed to have been done with forced labor from local prisoners. The first recorded nuclear accident there occurred in 1953, but went unnoticed until a worker developed radiation sickness (his legs were eventually amputated due to radiation burns, but he survived). Four other workers were affected as well. It was the first of dozens of incidents at the facility that continued for decades.

On September 29, 1957, one of the Mayak plant’s cooling systems failed. No one noticed until it was too late. A waste tank exploded, sending a cloud of radioactive material into the air, which fell over an area of 20,000 square kilometers. Though 270,000 people lived there, only 11,000 were evacuated (and that took up to two years to accomplish). Those who remained were pressed into service to clean up the debris by destroying contaminated crops and livestock. They worked without protection from radiation, and then they went back to their homes.   

Jan Rieke, maps-for-free.com via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Soviet reaction was a puzzle to many of the peasants who lived near the Mayak plant. In the village of Korabolka, farmers thought a global nuclear war had begun when they saw the explosion. Within a few days, 300 of the village’s 5000 residents died of radiation poisoning. An evacuation was planned, but only ethnic Russians were relocated. The remaining half of the village were ethnic Tatars, who were left in place. In the more than 50 years since, many villagers are convinced they were left as an experiment. The cancer rate for Korabolka, now called Tatarskaya Korabolka, is five times that of an uncontaminated village. Other villages around the region report elevated rates of cancer, genetic abnormalities, and other illness. 

The Western press knew very little about the event. There were rumors, but no concrete details until 1976, when biologist and Soviet dissident Dr. Zhores Medvedev published an account of the disaster in New Scientist. As late as 1982, scientists in the West displayed doubt that contamination in the area was due to a nuclear accident instead of industrial pollution. Information came out in small pieces until the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Kyshtym disaster is not the only reason that Chelyabinsk is so contaminated. The waste that was dumped in the Techa River from 1949 to 1956 still claims victims in the villages downriver. In Muslumovo, those who weren’t evacuated in the 1950s and '60s were left in place and were tended to by national radiation experts who were studying the subjects of “a natural experiment” to glean information on the effects of nuclear war on humans. The villagers were not told of the research, and were kept in the dark as to why so many of them were sick. It was only in 1992, when Soviet records were declassified, that the nature of the Muslumovo experiment was uncovered. Even then, one pediatrician estimated that 90% of the village’s children suffered from genetic abnormalities, and only 7% were considered healthy.

Sergey Nemanov via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Mayak plant stopped processing weapons-grade plutonium in 1987, but still operates in Chelyabinsk, reprocessing spent nuclear fuel shipped in from all over Russia. The safety features of the plant have been vastly upgraded from those of Soviet era. The current level of danger from radiation at the plant is in dispute.

MemphiStofel via Wikimapia // CC BY-SA 3.0

The area around the reactor site has been called the most contaminated place on earth. The villagers who were affected by the disaster and the long-term industrial pollution are still fighting for relocation and compensation. We will probably never know how many people died from nuclear contamination, for several reasons, and it's also difficult to pinpoint the extent of the contamination a half-century ago. And Soviet suppression of information and documentation makes current research on the incident extremely difficult. Even today, Russia doesn't welcome challenges to its official version of the story. 

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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