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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Nuclear Blasts Begin to Hit Home

The Soviet Union, consumed by a mania for gigantic development, routinely used nuclear blasts in construction and mining projects from 1965 to 1988, never bothering to calculate the cost to people or the environment.


"They never studied the long-term effects," said Boris Golubov, a scientist leading an inquiry into the explosions. "And we're only starting to feel them now.''


In its haste to develop its vast resources at all costs, Golubov said, the Soviet Union set off 116 nuclear explosions for technical purposes. The most modest of them was equivalent to the explosion at Hiroshima. A large number were five to 10 times more powerful, and one was 165 times more powerful.


Golubov said there was simply no thought given to the effect on people and the environment. Though the blasts were carefully controlled at the time of the explosion, they were quickly forgotten, he said. No one studied their impact.


The explosions were monitored in the rest of the world -- their force could hardly have gone undetected -- but most Soviet scientists knew of them only by rumor until 1990, when the old controls on information began to weaken. The average person had no idea that there was any danger, and there was no debate about the wisdom of this course.


Today, the consequences of that heavy-handed policy are still unfolding, Golubov said. Together with unsafe Chernobyl-like nuclear power plants and wanton disposal of nuclear waste at sea, Russia has inherited a nearly catastrophic radiation problem.


The nuclear bombs were used across a wide swath of the Soviet empire to build dams, prospect for coal, gas and oil, create underground reservoirs and even to blow apart huge rocks to get at the metals inside.


Though the explosions were underground, their results were often wildly unpredictable. Some heaved tons of contaminated dirt into the air. Others profoundly altered geological structures, such as a project at Astrakhan near the mouth of the Volga River. There, Golubov fears, radioactive water will eventually flow into the Caspian Sea, home of the caviar industry.


Others undertook to rearrange nature, reversing the flow of great rivers.


"Of course it was a mistake,'' said Golubov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "They often didn't get the results they wanted. And they could have got results by other means. It was stupid.''


In those days of megalomania, before the Soviet Union collapsed, the pursuit of power was paramount, scientists said. Technology was worshipped, and it was considered foolish to drag around tons of TNT when a small, awesomely powerful bomb could do the work more quickly and cheaply.


In Yakutia, a diamond- and oil-rich autonomous republic in Siberia now called the Republic of Sakha, a dozen blasts were set off from 1974 to 1987.


"It was a terrifying time,'' said Alexander Tsygonov, a nuclear radiation inspector in the capital of Yakutsk. "And there was never any discussion of it until 1990.''


The first explosion in Yakutia, near the huge diamond mine at Udachny, was a failure. The equivalent of 1,800 tons of TNT, set off at a depth of about 300 feet, was meant to create a dam to produce water for diamond processing.


"It was too close to the surface,'' Tsygonov said, and the only result was a highly radioactive mound of dirt, which can be seen today from the town.


Udachny, an Arctic town of 22,000 which had only 5,000 people then, is only 2 1/2 kilometers away. Inhabitants reported seeing a mushroom cloud, but no one was unduly alarmed.


"The population wasn't informed about nuclear explosions,'' Tsygonov said. "They trusted the authorities.''


In 1978, a blast equivalent to 20,900 tons of TNT was set off at Kraton 3, 35 kilometers from the Yakutia diamond town of Aikhal, which is 160 kilometers from Udachny. The Geology Ministry was trying to draw a geological profile that would indicate whether the ground held ore or other valuable deposits.


The explosion left far more radiation than was expected, making it impossible to do any sort of mining. Tsygonov displays a picture of the site, a desert-like field with a dying forest behind it.


Golubov said the explosion went awry, the cement cork plugging the hole blew out and a stream of radioactive gas spewed into the air.


"They analyzed accidents when they occurred,'' he said, "but the effects of five, 10 or 15 years later were ignored.''