What could be more relaxing and beneficial to your health than an hour’s stroll beside a lake? This might be the case just about anywhere in the world except for Lake Karachay. Spend an hour beside this lake, and it will be your last.
It isn’t frigid temperatures, riptides, or dangerous wildlife that make this Russian lake so deadly. Although located in Siberia and subject to its frigid climate, no one dies from hypothermia after swimming in Lake Karachay. Its calm, still waters present no threat of dangerous currents. You’re guaranteed to be unmolested by any wildlife — assuming you encounter any at all. The killer is radiation — and lots of it.
The lake is located within the Mayak Production Association, one of the largest — and leakiest — nuclear facilities in Russia. Until 1990, the Russian government would not even admit the facilities existed. Operators found the Techa River and Lake Karachay to be convenient places to dump radioactive waste. Poor designs and abysmal safety practices resulted in a number of serious accidents and severe radiation leaks throughout the 50’s and 60’s. These incidents merely piled on to the already-mounting radioactive contamination of the area.
If you didn’t hear about the radioactive disasters at the time, it was because the government went to great efforts to keep the entire nuclear program secret. It did not even show the nearby city Chelyabinsk on its maps. Although some people from the city and nearby villages were evacuated at the time, many were allowed to remain, unaware and unconcerned about their increasingly radioactive drinking water.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the region experienced a drought in the 1960’s, leading to receding water levels at the lake. The exposed lake bed was replete with extremely harmful radioactive isotopes, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. Just to add insult to injury, 1967 brought a severe windstorm for an extended time. The winds stirred up and spread radioactive dust from the exposed lake bed over an area of approximately 2,700 km, affecting half a million people.
As the health of the lake’s surrounding population began to decline, the government still declined to acknowledge the existence of the faulty reactors that were responsible. More and more residents of nearby communities fell ill. Doctors were not allowed to diagnose radiation sickness, so they classified the illnesses as the mysterious side effect of a “special disease.” These side effects were hardly trivial: cancer incidents increased by 21%, birth defects were up by 25%, and leukemia incidents shot up by a staggering 41%. As many as 65% of those in the nearby communities fell ill with varying levels of radiation sickness.
Still unwilling to admit to the existence of the leaky reactors, the government tried to address the problem. Beginning in the 1980’s, engineers lined the bottom of the lake with 10,000 concrete blocks to serve as a barrier against the radioactive sediment.
By the time the Russian government officially acknowledged the nuclear program in that region, Lake Karachay had officially become the most polluted lake in the world. A lethal dose of radiation for a human is 500 roentgens in 5 hours. Standing on the banks of Lake Karachay for a single hour would expose you to 600 roentgens of radiation. (Curiously enough, it takes about 1250 roentgens to kill a chicken and a whopping 125,000 roentgen to kill a cockroach.)
In total, Lake Karachay accumulated 4.44 exabecquerels of radioactivity over the years. This puts Lake Karachay on par with the area surrounding Chernobyl, where, in 1986, a meltdown released between 5 and 12 exabecquerels into the atmosphere.
In 2003 investigators were shocked — yes, shocked — to discover that the Mayak nuclear reactor had been dumping radioactive waste into open water. Its operating license was revoked. This, and other clean-up efforts are starting to pay off. Downstream, the Techa River’s water is almost entirely free of radioactive cesium. Upstream, however, is a different story. There, the river is likely to remain deadly for a few more centuries.
On a positive note, if you want to start a sanctuary for chickens or cockroaches, now you know where you can find some appropriate lakeside property at a very cheap price. Of course, if that doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always the option of buying a piece of the sun.
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