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Real life Gamma World
October 3, 2012 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Imagine a lake so polluted and contaminated that spending just an hour on its shores would result in certain death, and the only way seen fit to deal with it is to fill the entire water body with concrete blocks to keep the toxic soil underneath from moving onshore. That lake is Lake Karachay in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast, and it is considered by many to be the most polluted place on the planet.
posted by Chrysostom (31 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great article. This place was also the inspiration for one of the finest progmetal concept albums ever.
posted by jbickers at 6:20 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for cratering the value of my timeshare.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:23 AM on October 3, 2012 [28 favorites]


I thought the Berkeley Pit was the most polluted place? Better yet, The pit is currently a tourist attraction, with an adjacent gift shop. A $2 admission fee is charged to go out on the viewing platform.

[@stupidsexyFlanders even though it's only 9:30am I'm declaring that the funniest comment of the day]
posted by Blake at 6:35 AM on October 3, 2012


jbickers speaks the truth (although Entropia is my favourite). It's disheartening how shortsighted people can be.
posted by ersatz at 6:41 AM on October 3, 2012


While the Japanese were imagining the effects of radiation with movies like "Godzilla", the Soviets were quietly experiencing it for real.
posted by tommasz at 6:52 AM on October 3, 2012


From that Berkeley Pit link: Some of these species ingest metals and are being investigated as an alternative means of cleaning the water.

Wow, just wow.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:56 AM on October 3, 2012


I spent a summer in high school working for a couple of Russian Academics who were writing a book about Mayak. I spent most of my time looking up the uptake rate of various radionuclides into different sorts of soils- they were trying to figure out how much of what had been dumped had been embedded in the clay of the stream and lake and how much had end up in the water supply. Not that much was absorbed into the clay. Which means that the Techa isn't that bad these days. The lakes, on the other hand, well.

On the other hand, most of the fission products that they destroyed that landscape with half-lives of about 30 years, which means only another 240 years before the water is safe to drink.

I'm glad Mayak (I always think of it as Mayak, even though that is only the name of the place that produced the crap, not the name of the places and people that were destroyed because of it) is finally getting some attention. It's quite possibly the third worst nuclear disaster in history (after Chernobyl and Fukoshima) and it predates them by decades.

On the third hand (and who knows, with the amount of radiation floating around, we should have an extra hand or two here) wikipedia says (and I tend to believe these numbers) less than 60 people actually died because of this. Radiation accidents are horrible, but it's their invisibility and permanence in the environment that makes them terrifying to me.
posted by Hactar at 7:14 AM on October 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


I visited the Berkeley Pit (and paid my $2) just over a month ago.

We drove south from a visit at Glacier National Park toward Butte. As you near Butte, a series of hills begin to grow to the west and among them, a towering silhouette. From afar, you can see that it is a massive structure, just as grey and hazy as the hills that surround it. It is isolated, alone, and out of place by its straight lines that contrast the natural curves of the geography. Eventually, you spot signs for the town of Anaconda and can recall, if you have not yet, that what you see is the largest smelter smoke stack in the world and quite possible, the largest free standing brick structure still.

Yet, you pass by this nearly forgotten marvel of the early 20th Century and head for Butte. A shadow of its copper mining heyday, a Joplin of the west, the city suddenly appears as you reach it somewhat lesser than its reputation and history magnified it in one's mind. Its downtown is a map of proud humility, of beautiful turn of the 20th century buildings some which have been restored, others that lie upon the precipice of salvation or ruin, and then those ugly empty spaces which speak of buildings already lost.

From the downtown, the Berkeley Pit is just something that exists within the city but out of sight. It hides behind the remains of the mountain that men mined apart in search of copper and other precious minerals. Even reaching the "visitor center", a low one story building that may have actually been a trailer, it is still hidden from view and chain link fence refuses any climb upward to catch a glimpse. We entered the center which was a mishmash of souvenirs, t-shirts and historic information on the mining, the pit and also the town of Butte. A friendly, if slightly bored attendant accepted the $2 for the privilege of seeing the pit and handed over two generic tickets, the type you buy in giant reels and find at small fairs and carnivals and pointed us out the door.

To reach the pit, you have to go underground. You enter a tiled, fluorescent-lit tunnel that gradually rises, not entirely out of place from the narrow tunnels you find connecting the lines in some of London's Underground stations. At the end is a bright arch of light, the sought after glimpse of the Pit. The walk is at least minute or two and you re-enter the sunlit world on a wooden deck positioned on one side of the former mine. Without a wide-angle lens, and perhaps even then, it is impossible to capture the size of the Berkeley Pit from the viewing area. It has the reverse layering of a wedding cake, one stone carved terrace after another descending toward a brownish red lake filled with water of an unnatural sheen. To a degree, you are somewhat relieved by the presence of the mostly still water, as it fills a void which once was a mountain. The complex itself is virtually one square mile and upon this you look, carnival ticket in hand, upon the silent footprint of mankind's drive for metal.

Thankfully, when you leave, you have the reassurance that its awful majesty will remain only in your mind and in your photographs. You do not have to fear for your health like a visit to the lake in Russia, even if the water supply of Butte is constantly threatened by the polluted pit. There is one last hesitation as you turn to leave because the viewing platform offers more than just a view of Berkeley Pit, it also reveals another pit, albeit small in comparison but still quite large just over the rock wall from the lethal acidic waters. This one is mostly dry and miniaturized by the scale of the operation, the presence of giant white dump trucks and the activity of mining still carried on.
posted by Atreides at 7:55 AM on October 3, 2012 [20 favorites]


We really don't ever learn do we? Thanks for posting, I'm off to quietly weep into my coffee.
posted by arcticseal at 8:08 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


We really don't ever learn do we?
posted by arcticseal


Depressingly eponysterical.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:09 AM on October 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


While the Japanese were imagining the effects of radiation with movies like "Godzilla", the Soviets were quietly experiencing it for real.

To be fair though, they actually experienced the effects of radiation first-hand. First with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then via the Daigo Fukuryū Maru fishing boat incident that directly inspired the concept of the first Godzilla film....

Back on topic, thanks for this article. It's so disheartening to see lives and nature decimated like this.
posted by theartandsound at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, most of the fission products that they destroyed that landscape with half-lives of about 30 years, which means only another 240 years before the water is safe to drink.

I think not. In 240 more years the radiation will be 2 ^ (240/30) or 1/256th of what it is now. Put it this way: would you take a full ounce of toxic radioactive waste, dilute it with 4 gallons of water and feel safe to drink it? Probably not? Same thing here. It's not "safe" by any means and probably won't be for many hundreds to thousands of years.
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 9:07 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


We really don't ever learn do we?

Sure we learn, places like this and Berkeley Pit are where we did the learning.
posted by BeeDo at 9:22 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought the Berkeley Pit was the most polluted place?

Depends on how you define polluted. Berkeley Pit has a pH of 2.5 and is chock full of various heavy metals. Swimming in that water would give you some hellish burns just from the acidity of the water. Add to it arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals. Drinking that water is even worse. If that pit water gets into the groundwater, then you've got useless water for miles.

Lake Karachay is loaded with the highly dangerous caesium-137 and strontium-90. These puppies are some of the worst by-products of nuclear waste. There is so much of these elements that parts of the lake (where the waste entered is the worst) that the radiation level is around 6 Sieverts/hour. These measurements were taken in 1990, which is about 2/3 of a half-life of both Cs and Sr.

Let's pretend the first half-life has passed, and it's down to 3 Sv/hr. This is bad enough that 2 hours in this place unprotected gives roughly a 50/50 chance of even surviving with medical care. Spending 4 hours there unprotected will kill you with a nearly 100% probability. You probably will have a latent phase before death, surviving 2 weeks before succumbing. Hang out there overnight and you won't make more than a few painful days.

On the other hand, most of the fission products that they destroyed that landscape with half-lives of about 30 years, which means only another 240 years before the water is safe to drink.

So in 240 years (8 half-lives) there will be 1/256th of the material, so it will take 512-1024 hours of exposure to give you a sufficient radiation dose for death, roughly 3-6 weeks. Even if half of it blows away in dust storms and floods and other weather events in the next 240 years, you're still talking about enough radiation to kill in 3-6 months.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:26 AM on October 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


My teenager has this pet catch phrase. He uses it so often that the poignancy of the words, which cut into me like a scalpel when first I heard them, is gone now; hackneyed hyperbole robbed the words of their power.

Today, though, after reading this FPP, I feel the words again.

This hurts my soul.

It is too early in the day to make me cry. Where are the kitteh videos and lolbutts threads?
posted by misha at 9:29 AM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just read theartandsound's link to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident. I can only imagine a world free of men like Lewis Strauss. What a genuine dirtbag.
posted by Xoebe at 9:35 AM on October 3, 2012


Eventually, you spot signs for the town of Anaconda and can recall, if you have not yet, that what you see is the largest smelter smoke stack in the world and quite possible, the largest free standing brick structure still.

Stupid misplaced hometown jingoism requires that I nitpick that Anaconda's stack may have been the world's largest when it was built, but there are plenty of larger smelter stacks around today. (Also, a smelter stack from an unnamed town that happens to be 240ft taller than Anaconda's is made of poured concrete, so I make no contentions about brick structures.)
posted by RobotHero at 10:03 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


My FIL was a B-29 gunner in WWII, who volunteered to participate in Operation Crossroads, taking pictures from his plane 10 miles away from the detonation site.Fortunately, he was well out of it by the time of the 1956 testing.

Wikipedia on Project 41 (the test that resulted in the contamination of fishing boat theartandsound linked to): "The most bizarre effects were those by the crew of the Lucky Dragon 5 whereby they engaged in spontaneous acts of cannibalism and most were ordered to be euthenized."

Wow. Brutal, horrifying--there just aren't any words strong enough, are there?
posted by misha at 10:20 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mister Fabulous- I was working from the first spill in 1957 and taking the view that 10 half lives was enough to eliminate radiation (a general rule I was taught when I was a trainee at a reactor (never got the license - the work was dead boring, the physics was fascinating)). Your numbers are quite a bit scarier.

10mSv/hr is the very high radiation area limit for the NRC in the US. The radiation level would be 11mSv/hr by what you were writing above. Give it 10 half lives from now, and that would give you 2mSv/hr, which, while not healthy by any stretch of the imagination is not too far away from living on the grounds of a nuclear plant. ~750 years from now the place will have the same background radiation as anywhere else in the world.

I should really question received wisdom when I'm looking at circumstances that are far outside those which created the received wisdom (rapidly decaying isotopes for gamma spectrography).
posted by Hactar at 11:37 AM on October 3, 2012


We really don't ever learn do we?

This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World is a really good book. Not just saying that as a zinger to the above quote. 15 well written, dramatic stories, each a short standalone history of some of the most infamous human follies.
posted by stbalbach at 11:43 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


This hurts my soul.

Yes.


Thank you for posting this, Chrysostom. It made me sick to my stomach, and I want to cry. I won't favorite it, because I hated reading/watching all the links, but I think that this is one of the most important posts ever made on MetaFilter.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:40 PM on October 3, 2012


I thought the Berkeley Pit was the most polluted place?
Is this really a contest we want to be having?
posted by crazy_yeti at 1:22 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


misha, I'm pretty sure you are reading a creative edit from Wikipedia. The crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru became ill, and one died, but there was no cannibalism or euthanasia.

Generally, if you read anything odd-sounding in Wikipedia, crossreference with more reliable sources before believing.
posted by tavella at 3:07 PM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


*sigh* It hurts me when people allow things like this to happen. It leads people to hate anything nuclear, when we need nuclear research to get things like the radiation treatments my brother received earlier in the year.
posted by Canageek at 4:45 PM on October 3, 2012


Hactar: It probably would be enough in most cases; That is a *crazily* large amount of radiation. My understanding is that most of the land around Chernobyl isn't nearly as contaminated as that lake.
posted by Canageek at 4:52 PM on October 3, 2012




tavella: "misha, I'm pretty sure you are reading a creative edit from Wikipedia. The crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru became ill, and one died, but there was no cannibalism or euthanasia.

Generally, if you read anything odd-sounding in Wikipedia, crossreference with more reliable sources before believing.
"

You're absolutely right. It's Wikipedia, I should have put on my skepticism cap. Here's an actual first-hand account from a crewman.
posted by misha at 8:36 PM on October 3, 2012


Wow, that story is intense. Thanks for that. We humans do some really awful and stupid and preventable shit sometimes, don't we? Good job, team. Reading about this sort of thing has in recent years made me a lot less gung-ho about nuclear power than I used to be. We've fucked it up so many times to disastrous effect. And let's not even talk about nuclear weaponry -- that shit is an abomination and we need to find a way as a species to completely disarm and just walk away from that particular hell-making technology.
posted by Scientist at 6:18 AM on October 4, 2012


Scientist: I'm in favour of using up our nuclear weapons in an Orion drive.
posted by Canageek at 7:30 AM on October 4, 2012


Canageek: Yes! Me too! That would be awesome in so many ways!

Also, more on topic, this is some seriously horrific reading. The almost total lack of safety measures and the extremely paranoid and crippling secrecy that surrounded the Soviet nuclear program is just mind blowing.

Even so, this must not make us recoil in disgust from everything nuclear. The risks are definitely manageable if you aren't the Soviet Union, and in my view, the ultra low risks of local disasters with current generation nuclear technology are much preferable to the almost certain, global disaster of massive climate change.

The only thing we need to do to avoid insane stuff like Mayak ever happening again is to not let a secrecy-obsessed dictatorship with weapon production as its highest priority play around with extremely crude nuclear technology. North-Korea, I'm looking at you!
posted by Spiegel at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2012


I'm not clear on how to compare the magnitude of the problems, or the human health risks, but the US has some highly problematic sites as well. I've heard it argued that clean-up of the Hanford Reservation, in particular, was delayed for years because of secrecy and bureaucratic paranoia on the part of the military and DOE. The main difference is that the US, under pressure from citizens' groups and environmental lobbyists, has committed to spending $ billions to cleaning up or containing pollution from the most dangerous of these sites before further damage is done. But seriously, is it even possible to clean up these sites to some level of "acceptable" risk?

List of Superfund Sites

Hanford Reservation

"The Hanford site represents two-thirds of the nation's high-level radioactive waste by volume. Today, Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States and is the focus of the nation's largest environmental cleanup."

Rocky Flats Plant

"Weapons production ended in 1989 after FBI agents raided the Rocky Flats plant. Operators of the plant later pleaded guilty to criminal violations of environmental law."
posted by sneebler at 10:06 AM on October 4, 2012


Spiegel: I'm very scared of China's nuclear program. They seem to have most of the same problems the Soviet system did.
posted by Canageek at 7:57 PM on October 4, 2012


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