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Russia has hidden the details of a handful of nuclear accidents since the 1950s — here’s what we know about them via Business Insider

Aria Bondix and Morgan McFall-Johnsen


  • The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was followed by three days of silence from the Soviet government. When officials did make a statement, they reported that the situation was “stabilized.” 
  • Russia has tried to keep the details of other nuclear incidents hidden as well, including an explosion that killed seven people in August
  • Here’s what we know about a handful of Russia’s nuclear accidents.

Today, scientists estimate that tens of thousands of people were severely affected by Chernobyl, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. The International Atomic Energy Agency has estimated that 4,000 people will eventually die from cancer as a result of the disaster. But Russia’s official death count remains 31.

Details of a 1957 explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility didn’t emerge until decades later.

In 1957, a waste tank exploded at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia, releasing around 2 million curies of radioactive waste into the air. The explosion exposed at least 22 villages to radiation, and is now considered the world’s third-worst nuclear accident, behind Fukushima and Chernobyl. 

But details of the incident were sparse until 1992, when government records were declassified after the fall of the Soviet Union. As late as 1982, a US technical report still referred to the disaster as “alleged.” 
Around 270,000 people were said to be living on the contaminated land, but within two years of the accident, only 11,000 residents had been evacuated. 

In 2009, residents of the nearby village of Muslyumovo were finally relocated about a mile away to an area dubbed “New Muslyumovo.” Much of the old territory was torn down. Homes were demolished, and the remains were thrown into pits, then buried.

Scientists recently discovered evidence of another major nuclear release that may have happened near the Mayak facility in 2017.

In July 2019, a group of scientists called the “Ring of Five” found evidence that an undisclosed nuclear accident may have taken place less than two years prior. The likely culprit, the scientists said, was the Mayak nuclear facility. 

The discovery marked the first time that a radioactive isotope called ruthenium-106 had been found in the atmosphere since Chernobyl. 

“We were stunned,” Georg Steinhauser, one of the study’s lead authors, told Business Insider. “We are measuring the air 24/7, 365 days a year, and suddenly we came up with something unusual and unexpected.”

[…]

The latest mysterious incident came in August. Russian officials said a fire broke out at a rocket testing site, but days later, the public learned that seven scientists had died in a nuclear explosion.

[…]

Shortly after the explosion, authorities in the city of Severodvinsk reported a brief spike in the area’s radiation levels. Residents of a nearby town were told to evacuate, but the orders were soon cancelled. 

Two days later, Russia’s nuclear energy company, Rosatom, revealed that the explosion involved radioactive materials and seven people had died.

[…]

US officials believe the explosion could be the result of a failed test of a nuclear missile Russia is developing called “Skyfall.”

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