Field Trip to The World’s Most Contaminated Site

A Field Trip to the World’s most Contaminated Site!

Nuclear power or not. Energy densely packed in the black shapes of coal or invisibly moving the leaves of tree and wind mills. This week we’re leaving this debate behind to go and visit the world’s most contaminated site.

“Chernobyl?” you ask me nervously
Oh, you wish! Going to the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster of former USSR would be a health retreat by comparison! No, today we’re going to the Karachay lake in the southern Ural mountains in western Russia.

Ever heard of it? Probably not, and that is strange considering that an hour picnic by the lake in 1990 would’ve given you a radioactive dose more than enough to kill you according to Washington, D.C. based Worldwatch Institute on Nuclear Waste.

Lake Karachay, Chelyabinsk, Russia: These days the lake is mostly covered with concrete. In 1990 standing on its shore for more than an hour would be lethal

Its original size is even smaller than the Berkeley campus, but to be honest, it doesn’t look much like a lake anymore. Today, it is mainly covered with concrete to prevent further leakage of radioactive material from the eleven feet deep radioactive sediment covering the lake’s bottom. The lake itself is located within the Mayak Production Association, a nuclear facility that was one of the USSR’s most important nuclear weapons factories. With few environmental concerns in mind, the lake was used to dump nuclear waste during the attempts to catch up with the US in the Cold War arms race. However, as if the waste dumping itself wasn’t enough, two accidents would end up making the conditions even worse.

In 1957 an explosion occurred at the Mayak facility’s nuclear waste storage tanks, spreading radioactive particles over a 9,000 square mile area around the plant. And then again in 1967, the Lake Karachay waters dried up as a result of a severe drought which enabled radioactive dust from the lake bottom to be transported by wind, affecting another 900 square miles.

One can draw many conclusions from a field trip to Lake Karachay. Some will see it as the absolute proof for the faults of nuclear power, others will see it as an argument to switch to ‘clean coal’. What struck me the most was the fact how most people, including myself, had not even heard of many of these places lurking in the background of mankind’s environmental relation to nature.

The risk of nuclear disasters are used by both sides of the debate. To environmentalists, the vast consequences of nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi argue for the need for sustainable energy sources, to the nuclear proponents the extreme rarity of these disasters become an argument for a continued use.

Today, I have decided to not engage in this debate but encourage both sides of the argument to look broader than the potentiality of disaster or the measurable kWh. Nuclear energy does not begin in the power plant, and rarely ends when the energy is efficiently produced, with nuclear weapon facilities, uranium extraction and deep geological repository only being some of the effects of our energy source.

For further readings, see:
Cochran et al.
“Radioactive Contamination at Chelyabinsk-65, Russia” National Resources Defense Council, Washington D.C. 1993.
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Daily mail, 2012-10-09. “Is it the Most polluted place on Earth? The Russian lake where an hour on the beach would kill you”
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Room at the top, 2007-09-20. “Most polluted places on earth”
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Wikimedia Commons, 2010-04-30 “Satellite image map of Mayak”
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Christofer Ahlgren

Christofer is an exchange student from Sweden, currently studying at Berkeley during the final year of his Bachelor in Environmental Sciences. Blogging topics will range from how to make your life a little bit more Green, to structural environmental solutions affecting entire cities, from Berkeley to the other side of the world and back.

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2 Responses

  1. Cindy says:

    Well! You thoughts are amazing and I really appreciate. Regards Cindy Josef

  1. September 4, 2016

    […] Inside of what was once a Soviet Union nuclear weapon factory is a lake pumped full of more radioactive material than anything else on earth. Lake Karachay is so radioactive that you would only have to stand near it for an hour for it to kill you. […]

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