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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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History
Royal Watch 1947: See Queen Elizabeth II Marry Prince Philip
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AFP/Getty Images

In less than 24 hours, millions of royal enthusiasts will climb out of their beds at an ungodly hour, brew up the strongest pot of coffee they can manage, and watch Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle exchange their “I do”s. While gluing oneself to our personal electronics to witness all the lavish pomp and circumstance that surround a royal affair may seem like a relatively new pastime, the truth is that we’ve been doing it for years. Case in point: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s 1947 wedding.

Though Elizabeth and Philip didn’t have dozens of television networks broadcasting their every step down the aisle, their nuptials did manage to attract more than 200 million earlobes, who listened in on the event via BBC Radio. Shortly thereafter, newsreel footage of the soon-to-be Queen’s big day made its way into movie theaters around the world. Now, thanks to the power of the internet, we can go back in time and tune in, too.

British Pathé has made a handful of videos from the wedding, which took place on November 20, 1947, available for streaming on YouTube. So if you want to start your royal marathon a little early, here’s your chance.

If you want to go back even further in time, The Royal Family’s YouTube channel includes footage of the 1923 wedding of Elizabeth’s parents, The Duke of York (later King George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother), which also took place at Westminster Abbey.

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