Between local fire departments, the military, and public servants like health inspectors, there are plenty of people working to ensure public safety. We rely on government to keep us safe — but what happens when they ignore that responsibility?
Unfortunately, that exact scenario happened all too frequently in the Soviet Union. But while we’re familiar with Chernobyl, there’s actually an even more dangerous spot in Russia that was kept hidden for years, even from the people that lived there.
During its years of operation, the Soviet Union was full of secrets. While outsiders often wondered what was going on behind the Iron Curtain, most citizens were kept in the dark as well.
Between the secret police force prowling the cities for dissidents and gulags in the Siberian country side, there was plenty the average Soviet didn’t — or simply wasn’t supposed — to know. The biggest secrets were kept far from prying eyes.
And where can you keep massive government projects hidden? Well, if you’re a Soviet official, you keep your biggest secrets under wraps in what are called “closed cities.”
Closed cities were special areas controlled by the Soviet government. While people lived and worked there, only authorized citizens could enter the city via checkpoint. Most closed cities were kept off official maps, hiding them from the world.
One of those cities was City 40, now known as Ozyorsk. It sits near a lake just south of Yekaterinburg, but the city was far from a rural paradise. In fact, authorities had to convince residents to live there.
Because as you might imagine, living in a secret city wasn’t exactly desirable. So, the Soviet Union had to get creative in convincing residents to deal with a life of security checkpoints and isolation.
Their offer? Residents of City 40 were provided with apartments, healthcare, and other privileges that the rest of the country could only imagine. Grocery stores were always fully stocked. But those perks came at a price.
See, those living in the closed city were subjected to some of the most dangerous work possible, as they would be the driving force in one of the world’s first-ever plutonium processing plants.
At the time, the Cold War was ramping up and the Soviet Union couldn’t fall behind the United States. Losing out in the arms race could be a death sentence for the nation. Politicians knew they had to take action.
So City 40’s citizens powered the war effort, processing plutonium for nuclear weapons. And while that job was far from a picnic, there was still something worse going on behind the scenes.
After the plutonium was processed, the plant was left with nuclear waste, which, as we now know, is a massive safety hazard. Worse, authorities weren’t disposing of that waste properly. They were simply dumping it into the environment.
Exposure to radiation can have all sorts of side effects, ranging from immediate radiation sickness to longer term cancers. How could the Soviet Union get away with poisoning their own citizens?
Well, given that the plant was in a closed city, the authorities could more or less do as they pleased. The outside world didn’t know the city existed deep in the forest, let alone that it was being poisoned.
Over the plant’s lifespan, it’s estimated that the amount of contamination released was two to three times larger than Chernobyl. But the pollution hit one area harder than the others.
City 40 was built alongside the Techa River, which felt the brunt of the dumping. While the river and its surroundings are still radioactive to this day, it also carried a large amount of the pollution elsewhere.
The river runs into Lake Karachy, which once looked like a perfect place to stop for a swim in the Russian countryside. Now, you wouldn’t want to even think about dipping a toe in that radioactive water!
Today, that ordinary-seeming lake is one of the most contaminated spots in the entire world. Known as the Lake of Death, the body of water was reportedly twice as radioactive as the heart of Chernobyl.
In fact, the pollution was so deadly that the Russian government finally took steps to contain it. The lake was filled with concrete blocks and eventually covered with layers of rocks and dirt, turning it into a permanent waste storage facility.
Despite all the hazards, some people still call Ozyorsk home. The passing of time and all sort of health risks simply can’t overpower the pull that keeps them anchored to the former City 40.
Ozyorsk is still technically a closed city, making residents hesitant to leave. Not only would they be leaving everything the government provides for them behind, but they could never return to the area.
It all comes down to a simple reality: even in a contaminated city that was kept off the map for decades, there’s no place like home. And believe it or not, that’s even true for Chernobyl.
On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat of the former Ukranian SSR exploded during a routine safety test. Radioactive contaminants spread tens of thousands of miles across Eastern Europe.
Due to the incredibly slow degradation of the radioactive fallout, the areas contaminated by the catastrophe were deemed unsafe for humans to live in for hundreds – even thousands – of years. As a result, a 1,000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was created to discourage people from doing so.
While most complied with the restriction, a handful of lifelong residents decided to stay put in spite of the threat of radiation. Yet despite the presence of a few brave souls, the nearby towns and cities that once housed millions slowly began to crumble away.
The Long Shadow of Chernobyl
Three decades later, the Exclusion Zone remains almost completely abandoned, a ruined relic of the past completely frozen in time. But although the human population here has been reduced to near-zero, other populations have begun to thrive.
The descendants of the pets left behind during the initial evacuations still reside in the Exclusion Zone and continue to proliferate despite the high levels of radiation. The Clean Futures Fund, which has worked to care for these animals over the years, estimates that more than 600 strays call this area home.
Along with stray pets, the Exclusion Zone saw a dramatic increase in the number of wild animals in the area. In fact, some scientists believe that the local animal population is actually greater now than it was back in 1986.
Elk, deer, foxes, and bison are among the various groups of animals that have been spotted roaming the area, and with a lack of human interference, their numbers have exploded in recent years. Even the European brown bear – a species not seen in the region for nearly a century – has been spotted in the Zone.
Taking this phenomenon into account, conservationists are now making attempts to use the Exclusion Zone as a means to protect endangered animals. After releasing a herd of rare Przewalski’s horses into the area, scientists have seen a steady increase in their numbers as well.
But it seems that the native gray wolf population has benefited the most from the absence of humans. Without any natural predators, wolves have become the most prevalent species in the Exclusion Zone.
Scientists believe that the wolf population here is actually seven times larger than those of most uncontaminated reserves. In fact, wildlife ecologist Jim Beasley once estimated that the wolves of the Exclusion Zone outnumber even those of Yellowstone National Park.
Yet while it’s certainly a good thing that these animals have done so well, there’s still the question as to what kind of long-term effects the radiation will have on them. Thus far, scientists’ observations have been mixed.
Despite their large numbers, most of the stray dogs in the Exclusion Zone are struggling to survive. They primarily rely on scraps left behind by visitors for food, and very few of them live beyond the age of six.
Smaller animals like birds, fish, and rodents have also begun to exhibit the damaging effects of radiation, such as the development of tumors and cataracts. Albinism and other genetic disorders are also common, and the rate of growth abnormalities has spiked as well.
Even the insect world has been rocked by this radiation. Most spiders that reside in the Exclusion Zone can no longer spin geometrically perfect webs, and the lifespan of most bugs has decreased due to a higher susceptibility to parasites.
There is also fear that these animals will begin to venture beyond the Exclusion Zone, contaminating other areas and passing down their mutated genetic code to future offspring. This fear is especially true of the area’s birds, who can cover much larger distances than their four-legged counterparts.
Yet wolves are also known to stray to other parts of the region, most often in search of a mate. Given their large population and ease of mobility, this could pose an enormous threat to neighboring ecosystems.
To study this risk, scientists tracked these wolves and found that their influence may not be limited to just neighboring areas. One wolf traveled a staggering 250 miles in 2018, though to some, this was actually a positive.
World Economic Forum
According to Anders Moller, a scientist at the University of Paris-Stud, this wolf could travel such a great distance proved the effects of radiation on animals may not be as devastating as once believed. In fact, some have asserted the populations of the Exclusion Zone may have actually adapted to the radiation.
Though the long-term effects of this radiation remain to be seen, there’s no question the animals of the Exclusion Zone are more than capable of surviving. It might be worth taking a page or two from their book, however, as we humans come in contact with plenty of radiation in our daily lives — and most of us do so without even knowing it!
Because they carry the isotope potassium-40, bananas actually emit tiny traces of radiation that even a Geiger counter can pick up. But don’t cut ’em from your diet just yet. You’d have to eat about 500,000 bananas before you’d start feeling queasy.
Airport scanners are a problem too. In an instant, the controversial tool that TSA agents use to quickly search travelers for contraband exposes you to more radiation than you’d see living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year.
The danger doesn’t stop once you’re through security, either. At about 35,000 feet, a six-hour flight from New York City to Los Angeles exposes travelers to radiation levels equivalent to about 400 trips through those airport security body scanners. Yikes!
Thanks to radioactive substances released through smoke, living within 50 miles of a coal power plant would expose you to far more radiation than if you lived the same distance from a nuclear power plant.
The Sunday Leader
In Brazil, the roots of trees that produce Brazil nuts extend so far into the ground they actually reach radium-rich soil. The radium—a natural source of radiation—then makes its way into the nuts themselves.
In the 1960s, it was common for dish and pottery makers to use thorium, potassium-40, or even depleted uranium oxide in coating glazes. Eating acidic foods on these plates could leach some of those elements.
kevinspage / YouTube
You know exit signs lining every hallway at the office or public place that show you the way out? They stay lit without electricity by utilizing a hydrogen isotope called tritium, a harmful radioactive substance if ingested.
The cylindrical bulbs of fluorescent lights produce that unsettling light in office buildings and classrooms often contain the radioactive isotope krypton-85. However, the other non-radioactive chemicals utilized in these bulbs are even more dangerous.
Master Sgt. Phil Speck / Kentucky Air National Guard
To actually detect smoke, some smoke detectors utilize americium-241, a radioactive isotope. Luckily, it’s surrounded by foil and stuff, so as long as you don’t eat the hallway smoke detector between hamburger buns, you should be safe.
Hoppy and Jumpy / YouTube
While it’s great for absorbing your cat’s hard work, the bentonite clay that makes up cat litter contains naturally occurring uranium and thorium. This causes a lot of problems when litter ends up in landfills or in drinking water.
Paper gets its shine from a white clay called kaolin. And as with kitty litter, it’s that clay that makes this radioactive because it contains traces of uranium and thorium.
Cosmic radiation is a real thing, especially for Colorado folk. The sun emits electromagnetic particles and ultraviolet rays, and the people of Denver—a city situated more than a mile above sea level—are exposed to about twice as much radiation as those living at sea level.
The very counters that make your kitchen pop have trace amounts of uranium and thorium in them. That uranium decays into a gas called radon, which can do some serious health damage. Luckily, the granite keeps most of it contained!
Granite and Marble Specialties / YouTube
Grand Central Station in New York City sits on a granite foundation and boasts granite walls, which, remember, holds radiation. In fact, the station emits more radiation in a year than the legal limits imposed on nuclear power plants would allow.
While it’s no mystery medical scans and X-rays give off radiation, just how much often flies under the radar. A single chest X-ray, in just one second, emits one-fifth of the radiation a nuclear power plant can legally emit in an entire year.
If you thought the chest X-ray was bad, a single blast from a CT scan gives off more radiation about eight times the amount nuclear power plants can legally emit in a whole year.
Cigarettes are bad for your health in more ways than one. Tobacco leaves contain traces of polonium-210, an element Russian government authorities allegedly used to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko, a political enemy (left). The element can build up in a smoker’s lungs and organs over time.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cell phones emit radio waves that may increase the risk of cancer or alter your brain in other yet-to-be-measured ways. Still, a lot of science argues that phones are perfectly safe.
San Diego Union Tribune
When you sprinkle fertilizer on your lawn, you’re laying down soil that’s rich with potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen. That phosphorous can contain uranium, which is considered “weakly radioactive.” Still, it could make its way into any food grown in that soil!
Even you — yes, you! — are a radioactive being. Bodies contain elements like potassium-40, uranium, thorium, and carbon-14, the decay of which allows scientists to determine the age of skeletons with carbon dating.
University of California, Irvine / Flickr