Site Description-BR

HSS 404-003-HIST SEM: U.S. Environmental Justice Post-1945

Humanities Department


Overall Site Description:

The Most Radioactive Contaminated Location on Earth;

Lake Karachay and the Kyshtym Disaster


Benjamin Richards

Instructor: Dr. Neil Maher

October 6, 2020

Author Biography:

Name: Benjamin H. Richards

Academic status: NJIT Undergrad; Senior

Major: Mechanical Engineering

When deciding on what to study for this environmental justice research project, I knew from the onset that I needed to find the most environmentally damaged area I could find. To me, that meant radiological contamination. With chemical and material contaminants, there are several solutions to dealing with the problems that arise. But there isn’t much that can be done with radioactive materials. The only thing that can be done is to wait for the radiation to dissipate, but for some materials the amount of time required is measured in decades if not centuries. Radiation posses one of, if not, the greatest risks to human life and environmental stability. Personally, radiation terrifies me. And the mere act of improper disposal is a crime in it of itself, as the results exceed far beyond any proper human time scale. And the single most radiological contaminated place on Earth is Lake Karachay.

Project Site Description:

            Lake Karachay is a 0.15 km2 body of water located in the city of Ozersk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation (55.6781° N, 60.7996° E). In 1951, the Mayak Production Association, a weapons-grade plutonium production site, used the lake as a convenient dumping spot for radioactive waste. Overseen by NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria, under Stalinist decree to develop enough plutonium in order to match the US’s nuclear advantage. The lake stopped being used as a dumping site when an incident in 1957 caused underground storage sites to explode. The people living in the city and nearby villages were not told of the dumping due to security concerns of the Soviet government. The true tragedy occurred in 1968 when a drought caused part of the lake to dry up and still highly radioactive material was blown all over the region, irritating about 500,000 people

Historical Question:

          Did the USSR hide the existence of the dumping site and associated plutonium production site from its own people not only to hide its existence from the west, but to also hide the government’s incompetence in managing the site in general?

Project Significance:

            The result of the improper disposal of the radioactive waste has left the area uninhabitable for years to come and has severely damaged the lives of thousands of people. This is a prime example of how improper procedures and planning when it comes to the environment can have devastating consequences years after the fact.