Before Chernobyl: the secrets that paved the way for disaster. Adam Higginbotham examines how secrets and suppression of news in the Soviet nuclear programme paved the way for a sequence of increasingly catastrophic accidents. The afternoon of Sunday, 29 September 1957 was sunny and warm in Ozersk, deep in the interior of the Soviet Union. Many of the inhabitants of the town, set amid the forests of the southern Urals, were attending a football match. When the sound of an explosion rolled over the crowd, few spectators even looked up; they knew that convicts working in the nearby industrial zone had been dynamiting foundations for new buildings, and apparently thought little of it. The match continued. In fact, the explosion had not happened on a construction site. It had occurred in Waste Tank #14 at the Mayak Production Association, a complex of plutonium production reactors and radio-chemical factories staffed by people from Ozersk – and among the most heavily restricted sites in the Soviet Union. Officially, neither the town nor the Mayak plant even existed. They were so secret that their names had never appeared on any maps; they were nodes on a network of so-called closed cities known only by numbers and operated by the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building, the clandestine agency that oversaw the Soviet atom weapons programme and much of the civilian nuclear industry. Scientists and technicians who worked there had access to privileges and facilities out of the reach of most Soviet citizens; in exchange, they were forbidden from communicating with friends and relatives in the ‘big world’ – essentially, anywhere beyond the perimeter wire.
History Extra 23rd Aug 2021 read more »