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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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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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