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How This Lake in Northwest Asia Got Deadlier Than Chernobyl

How This Lake in Northwest Asia Got Deadlier Than Chernobyl

– [Kento] I’m Kento Bento. – [Narrator] This video is made possible
by Brilliant, a problem-solving website that teaches you to
think like a scientist. Central Russia, 1957. Villagers near the Southern
Ural mountains were scared, they were terrified. Men claiming to be from the government
had appeared out of nowhere, ordering people to leave their homes. Without warning, they started burying crops, and slaughtering livestock – their livestock. The villagers were in
shock, they were confused. What was going on? They were being forced away, but they
soon realized it wasn’t just their village, it was everyone’s village. And some people looked ill. The only information given was that there
had been an outbreak of a special disease, and everyone needed to leave. But the source of this
disease was a mystery. Was it the river? The lake? Was it the strange lights people
saw in the sky not long ago? Nothing was revealed. They felt helpless. Looking back at their village,
they were horrified at what they saw. Their homes were now on fire.
Everything was being incinerated. This happened in 1957, but what lead to
this moment actually started 12 years earlier. Hiroshima, August 6th,
1945, 6000 kilometers away. The United States detonates a nuclear weapon
during the final stage of World War II. Many people died, mostly civilians. Three days later in
Nagasaki, it happened again. These events remain the only use of
nuclear weapons in the history of warfare. The world became acquainted
with the nuclear might of America. Now this did not sit well
with The Soviet Union. After learning about Japan, Joseph Stalin decided
that their existing nuclear program was insufficient and needed to be aggressively pursued. Falling behind the US in the development
of nuclear weapons, was not an option. But they first needed a location, a secret
location, hidden from the rest of the world. They selected a remote area near the
southern Ural Mountains, in Central Russia, about 1,800 kilometers from Moscow. For locational reference, the Ural mountains is widely considered
the northern border between Asia and Europe. This is where they decided to build their
first-ever plutonium plant, named Mayak. From 1945 to 1948, 70,000 gulag inmates from 12 labor camps were forced into constructing this nuclear facility. Seven military reactors would eventually
line the southern shore of Lake Kyzyltash, note though the lake referenced
in the title, is not this lake. Pre-Cold War tensions were mounting so all this
was done in a great hurry and in total secrecy. After construction, the plant immediately
began processing and weaponizing plutonium, with their greatest success coming in the form
of their first plutonium bomb, named First Lightning, which was detonated in 1949. But now, along with this secret facility,
there was a need for a secret city, where all the nuclear scientists,
workers, and their families could live. And so the secret city of Chelyabinsk 40 was born,
Chelyabinsk being the name of the nearest big city, and 40, the last digits
of the postal code. This place was also
colloquially known as City 40. Reinforced by barbed wire
fences and guarded gates, no one was allowed to
enter or leave this city. Residents were forbidden to send letters
or to make contact with the outside world. For decades, this closed city of 100,000 people
did not appear on any of the Soviet maps, and the identities of the inhabitants
were erased from the official Soviet records. Those who had been relocated to City 40
by order of the Soviet Party were considered missing by their relatives back home. And mercilessly, if anyone refused
to work at Mayak, to live in the secret city, they would be taken to a prison camp and executed. After all, by that time they would have
already been introduced to state secrets. City 40 is actually one of 44 known closed cities
in Russia, probably the most prominent of them all, but it’s important to note that the
Soviet Union did not come up with the idea. The concept of closed cities surrounding secret nuclear facilities was stolen from the United States when Stalin’s spies intercepted plans
for the Hanford nuclear plant, which the secret city of Richland,
Washington was built around. Note the Hanford nuclear plant
had manufactured the plutonium that was used in the atomic bomb over Nagasaki. It wasn’t just the idea of closed cities
that was taken from the US, but much of the nuclear research and knowledge
was gained directly from Soviet spy rings
working in the Manhattan Project. As a result there were massive gaps in
the Soviet physicists’ knowledge about nuclear physics, which was really, really
bad when it came to safety. Workers were not protected, environmental
concerns were not taken seriously, and, shockingly, people were handling
plutonium with their bare hands. They didn’t know any better. Now, a system was set up. Water from the nearby Lake Kyzyltash and
Techa River was used to cool the nuclear reactors, to prevent overheating, but there was a problem. They had implemented an
open-cycle cooling system where the water was circulating
directly through the reactor core, which meant contaminated water was being
discharged directly back into the lake and river, the same lake children
played in every summer, and the same river used as
drinking water by the locals. And we’re not just talking about
the residents of City 40 here, but also the numerous villages along the Techa
who were dependent on the river as a water source, 40 villages in total,
with about 28,000 people. But it gets worse. Mayak had a storage problem. They didn’t know what to do with their
highly-contaminated radioactive waste. They tried storing them in
underground tanks for a while, but the upkeep was inconvenient for them, as the tanks needed to be constantly
cooled to prevent self-overheating. So what did they do? They straight dumped the radioactive waste
in the various bodies of water around Mayak. This included further
contamination of the Techa River, which, important to note, connects to
the river Ob, which flows into the Arctic Ocean, but, not only that, the surrounding
lakes became toxic reservoirs. We already know about the
contamination of Lake Kyzyltash, but this lake in particular, Lake Irtyash, over time accumulated so much radioactive waste it became known to the locals as
The Plutonium Lake, or The Lake of Death. Now here’s the thing. Neither of these
lakes is the lake referenced in the title, which means there is a lake more
deadly than even the Lake of Death. And it’s this one. Lake Karachay. A baby compared to the others, but
packing a punch, a radioactive punch. Sure many of the surrounding lakes
became regular dumping grounds for highly-contaminated radioactive waste, but the dumping that took place
at Karachay was next level. The combination of the proximity to Mayak, the fewer lakeside residents, and the more diminutive size of the lake, made this a convenient and seemingly
less risky option for open-air storage. As such, significantly large amounts of
solid, liquid and gaseous radioactive material was continuously released into
Karachay, more so than other lakes. With all this dumping, the people at Mayak ended up neglecting the underground storage tanks from earlier, which was not cool. No, literally, because the
high level of radioactivity meant that the waste was heating
itself through decay heat, in other words pressure was building. Sure they had a cooling system in place,
but it was a pretty crappy cooling system, and it was poorly maintained. It was just a matter of time until, well, until this. September 29th, 1957. The cooling system for
the storage tanks failed. A tank containing 80 tons
of liquid radioactive waste exploded with an estimated force
of up to a 100 tons of TNT. 90% of radioactive material released was deposited within the vicinity of Mayak and City 40, but the remaining 10% formed a radioactive
cloud reaching a height of one kilometer. The next 10 hours saw it drift northeasterly, causing
widespread contamination over hundreds of kilometers. This was the Kyshtym Disaster, one of
the worst nuclear accidents in history. The event was eventually categorized
as a Level Six Serious Accident on the International Nuclear Events Scale. Only two incidents in history
have been more severe, Chernobyl and Fukushima, at Level Seven. However, in terms of the number of
cases of acute radiation sickness, the Kyshtym Disaster was actually
four times worse than Chernobyl. Due to the secrecy surrounding Mayak, the communities in the nearby affected areas
were not immediately informed of the accident. Shockingly, it wasn’t until a week later
that the evacuation process started, and really only for the communities
closest to the contamination site. Understandably, the affected villagers were
frightened by the sudden appearance of soldiers. They were ordered to leave their homes. Their crops were buried. Their livestock was slaughtered. Shock and confusion rang out
as they were being forced away. Some villagers showed visible
signs of radiation poisoning, but since the Mayak facility
wasn’t supposed to exist, the soldiers were not allowed to reveal the truth
of the situation, that it was radiological in nature. Instead the villagers were told that there
was an outbreak of a special disease, one that was unknown and mysterious
even to them, and they needed to leave. Some suspected it was related to the strange
lights people saw in the sky not long ago, but they weren’t sure. After that initial evacuation phase, the abandoned homes and infrastructures had to be destroyed, much to the dismay of residents. All-in-all, at least 23
villages were incinerated. Yes, some were evacuated after a week, but it took up to 11 years for all residents in
the wider affected areas to be evacuated. In total, almost half a million
people were exposed to radiation, there was sickness and death, and much of the surrounding land was left
barren and unusable for, perhaps, centuries, With Mayak being a secret facility, the Soviet Union
had to deny the catastrophe ever happened. Add to that the fear of
international condemnation, which is why most people today tend to be
aware of Chernobyl, and Fukushima, as some of the worst nuclear accidents
in history, even the Three Mile Island Incident, but not so much The Kyshtym Disaster,
despite being comparable, if not worse in many ways. Right, but back to the lake. Because Lake Karachay wasn’t about to
be upstaged by the Kyshtym Disaster. This lake accumulated 4.4
exabecquerels of radioactivity over time, which isn’t quite to the level of the
radioactivity released from Chernobyl, but if we were to break down
the caesium-137 from each, which is the radioactive isotope that contributes to
land contamination, the rest is too short-lived, Karachay ends up being significantly worse at 3.6 exabecquerels compared to Chernobyl’s 0.085. There’s a few ways to interpret this, but you can say Lake Karachay is
arguably the most polluted place on earth. Really bad, but at least, by the 1960s
the lake was drying up, it was disappearing. The threat seemed to be
lessening with each passing year. In 1967, a drought hit the region lowering
Lake Karachay’s water-level even further to the point where much of
the lakebed was exposed. This was seemingly good. Except that it wasn’t, because the previously-submerged toxic
sediment was now exposed to the harsh sunlight. It was drying out, and forming dust. Deadly radioactive dust. And all that was needed was a strong gust of wind,
and yet another horrifying disaster. Well, they didn’t get
a strong gust of wind. They got something far worse, a violent
windstorm, scattering across the region. Once again, half a million
people were irradiated. The government finally had enough. They piled 10,000 concrete
blocks on top of the lake; preventing sediments from shifting and
burying the remaining water under cement. It wasn’t until 1989 onwards
that the Soviet Government declassified documents relating to the
radiological disasters in the Southern Urals, and the whole world finally
found out about Lake Karachay, the Mayak nuclear
facility, the Techa River, and the secret city of
Chelyabinsk 40, or City 40. Interestingly, it was later revealed that the CIA actually knew about Mayak, and some of its major incidents, since 1957, and had
decided to keep it a secret to not cause concern among people
living near nuclear facilities, in the US. Which means, yes, the CIA
actually helped the Soviet Union keep its early nuclear
catastrophes a secret. Now, after the Soviet collapse, the Russian government officially recognized
their secret cities as legitimate places on the map. City 40 was able to get legal status in 1994,
and was renamed the city of Ozersk, though still with barbed wire
fences and guarded gates. It’s still heavily restricted
and extremely secretive, but if you’re somehow able to get in, you’d be
treated to picturesque scenery and beautiful lakes. You’d see mothers pushing
newborns in prams, children playing in the streets, local women selling fresh
fruit and vegetables, much of it resembling a suburban American
town from the 1950s, but if you look closely, you’d see a different reality. The Ozersk residents know the truth, their food is poisoned, their water is contaminated, their children are sick, and much of their picturesque
surroundings remain no-go zones. The seemingly pristine
lakes beg for a swim, but standing even
lakeside at Lake Karachay would give you a sufficiently
lethal dose of radiation in only an hour. Imagine if you were to swim in it. On average, in Ozersk, you can
expect to live to the age of 50, comparable to the countries with
the lowest life expectancy rates. This all could have
been avoided, of course, if scientists working at
Mayak, all those years ago, had at least the basic understanding
of the physics of nuclear energy, and the processes involved
with chain reactions. Unfortunately, Brilliant
didn’t exist in 1957, so they maybe they have an excuse, but
fast forward 60 years and you don’t, because it’s right here. Brilliant is a problem-solving website
that teaches you to think like a scientist through interactive quizzes and courses
that are designed to be interesting. You can see there are many courses you can choose from but if you want to be a nuclear physicist, and I mean a good one, that hopefully
won’t cause the next Kyshtym disaster, then Brilliant will help you understand concepts like
the difference between the types of nuclear reaction, how a chain reaction can be
used to generate electricity, and if in fact every chain
reaction results in an explosion. We love explaining about
Asia and the world around us, but the best way to learn is
obviously by doing it yourself. And much like our videos,
what Brilliant does is it takes a problem, breaks them
up into bite-sized concepts, presents clear logic in each part, and then builds back up to
an exciting conclusion. If you go to,
you can get started for free, and if you’re one of the first 200
people to sign up with the link below, you will receive 20% off
your premium subscription. It’s an incredibly engaging
website, we use it! And by giving Brilliant a try, you will also be supporting
us here at Kento Bento.

100 thoughts on “How This Lake in Northwest Asia Got Deadlier Than Chernobyl”

  1. Crazy stuff happened in the Southern Ural Mountains. Anyone heard of these deadly lakes or nuclear accidents before? And let us know if you want us to continue with this storytime/illustration style!

    You can always support us at

    There is also a documentary on Netflix called 'City 40' that covers the lives of the subsequent generations living in Ozersk after the Mayak disasters – what they had to go through and what their lives are like now (at least the ones that are left). Check it out if you want to know more.

    ★ We are currently looking for a general assistant, video editor, motion graphics editor, assistant illustrator, & script editor. Familiarity with our style is crucial. If you're someone who's passionate about 'Asiany' topics, above the age of 22, fluent in English & with great attention to detail (perfectionist personality!), send a short introductory email and samples of your relevant works to [email protected] with the position, age & desired start date noted in the email title. (If above conditions are not met, you may not get a response)

    ► Help us with subtitles in your language!

  2. Always interesting to hear about Russian and Korean horror stories. Absolutely fucked but interesting nonetheless

  3. Edit this video Chernobyl 1957 was in the country Soviet Union and not in Russia! And Today Chernobyl is in the Country Ukraine Debil fakking americans 😠

  4. Yet if the cooling pool under Chernobyl pressurized, half of the earth would be a wasteland and europe would be uninhabitable.

  5. I believe actually started December 7, 1941. A day that will live in infamy. You bring an innocent country into a world war, don’t get upset when they nuke the fuck out of your country in multiple places.

  6. Mother earth given us everything, taught to use her givings wisely and behave according to her teachings.

    If something goes wrong then she strictly teaches us that still she [mother earth 🌏 ] is a mother.

    And remind everything harshly what she kindly taught us at childhood.

    Am very sorry for those brave people and those Braveheart whos near and dear ones died in this catastrophe and also to those who suffering from aftereffects.

  7. Don't equate forcing people to abandon their lives or be killed to the secret city that supported the Manhattan Project. That's ridiculous.

  8. Now I know why people are all of a sudden dieing of cancer at a young age compared to the 70/80s 😳
    What’s next ??? The big one earthquake along the fault line in sanfrancisco USA… don’t tell me.. it’s got a few reactors running right along the daily line ?

  9. I live in Richland Washington 8 minutes away from the Hanford site so these type of videos are really cool.

  10. you know as a kid i thought Russia was so cool and i always wanted to move there

    but now as an adult
    , ive come to realize, this place is a self destructive joke

  11. "The CIA actually helped the Soviet Union keep its early unclear catastrophes a secret"
    me: no wonder rusame happened (countryhumans)

  12. Why isnt brilliant free or in fact mandatory for all high school graduates…oh I c another money grab scheme on us unsuspecting sheeple

  13. I prefer the old ages when people killed each other with knives and swords, then the nature could use their bodies as nutrient.
    Nowdays creating the modern "knives" itself destroying the environment, and then using them can destroy the whole planet.
    Nice job humanity 🙂

  14. I grew up in Richland. I'm familiar with the history. It wasn't a secret city. It was a town built on an older established site of the towns Hanford and White Bluffs. The town was not secret, what they did at Hanford was secret. The secret town of the Manhattan project was Los Alamos New Mexico. Hanford's work was secret, the town was never secret.

  15. For some reason the nickname "City 40" gives me some Half Life vibes. Since 44 of them existed, City 17 must have been a thing

  16. No one:

    Not a soul:


  17. I feel so horrible for the Kazakhs who live there now. They had no say in this and yet are the ones suffering the consequences…for generations. Absolutely heartbreaking. Nuclear weapons are the worst thing ever.

  18. (Jurassic Park Theme plays.)

    Welcome to Jurassic Park.


    Oh wait, nevermind. Uhm, don't swim in that lake… Oh, that? Nah, Robot Dinosaurs

  19. Why bother taking anyone to a prison camp, THEN, executing them? Executing them on the spot takes a lot less effort.

  20. Brilliant, it takes your obsession for nuclear phys and make you believe it can be good…
    but it wont! never as !!!

  21. And yet many people still think Japan is safe country. They have forgotten what hell happened at Fukushima, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

  22. Stalin:*Managing to keep a nuclear catastrophy in secret*
    Gorbachev:*Failing to do so*
    USSR:I don't feel too good…

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