All across Russia there are some outstanding areas of natural beauty with huge mountains and vast lakes dotting this enormous landscape. However, this being Russia, controversy and the capacity to ruin natural wonders is never far away and the tragedy of Lake karachay is a prime example of this.
Lake karachay is a small lake situated in the South of the Urals near the town of Ozyorsk. The lake remained undisturbed for centuries until the local nuclear processing facility arrived in the 1940’s.
Sadly, karachay’s sole claim to fame is that it is now the most polluted spot on the entire planet, according to a study by the Worldwatch Institute on Nuclear Waste.
The Soviets began to dump untreated nuclear waste into the lake from around 1951 from the nearby Mayak nuclear waste storage and reprocessing facility. In a time when this type of activity went on unchecked and without reprimand, the practise just continued unchallenged.
In the early 1960’s the lake began to quickly dry out: In 1951 when the dumping began, Karachay occupied an area of half a square kilometre but this had dropped to 0.15 of a square kilometre in 1961.
The damage to the lake carried on through the decade and was exacerbated by a prolonged drought in 1968. Subsequently, winds carried radioactive dust away from the dried lake and irradiated up to half a million people in the vicinity.
It is claimed that those people were afflicted by 185 petabecquerels of radiation and in simple terms, that is comparable to the effects of the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima.
Essentially the damage has already been done but from 1978 to 1986, with dumping halted, the Soviets began to fill in the lake with concrete blocks in order to stop sediments from shifting, thus preventing any repeat of the 1968 situation.
However, some 25 years later, the end product is a natural feature that has the dubious accolade of being named the most polluted place on earth.
The present day
When you think that Lake Karachay is more polluted than Pripyat and the towns and villages around Chernobyl, that is truly a shocking statistic but what does that mean in real terms?
At the side of the lake, radiation levels are at 600 röntgens per hour. In simple terms, this means that by spending just five minutes at the shore, you are very likely to receive a lethal radioactive dose. Within one hour, you will almost certainly have been exposed to enough radiation to kill you and in all probability, you would be dead before you reached the hospital.
The ultimate legacy of the scandalous activities at lake karachay is, as yet, unknown. However, there is a real fear that the radiation could spread and get out of hand completely.
It’s thought that the nearby Tetscha river could be affected and ultimately that could even spread to the Atlantic Ocean leading to a worldwide problem. Above all, it seems as if the world could yet pay the biggest price of the Cold War.