One day in 1960, Lev Tumerman, a Soviet scientist who later emigrated to Israel, set off for home after visiting his brother. As he drove through a deserted region in the southern Ural Mountains, he passed a road sign warning motorists not to stop for the next 20 miles and to proceed as fast as possible. A little farther on he saw why. "To the right and to the left, as far as the eye could see," he later wrote, "there was empty land. The land was dead: no villages, no towns, only chimneys of destroyed homes, no cultivated fields or pastures, no herds, no people--nothing."
What the horrified scientist had come upon seemed to be the result of an event that had occurred several years before--perhaps the worst nuclear accident in history up to that time. Sometime in the winter of 1957-58, it became apparent that the area around the city of Kyshtym, believed to be a center of Soviet plutonium production, was contaminated by large amounts of radiation. Though the causes of the disaster remain murky, the effects seem to have been devastating. As winds picked up and scattered the radiation debris, the poison spread across an area larger than New York City. By some accounts, hundreds were killed and thousands afflicted with radiation sickness.
The secret calamity first began to come into the spotlight in 1976, with the appearance of an article by Zhores Medvedev, an exiled Soviet biologist now living in London. In it, he claimed that the Soviets had carelessly stored radioactive wastes in shallow burial facilities. As the debris accumulated, he wrote, radioactive decay caused the material to overheat and, finally, to erupt like a volcano. The first response to this assertion was pronounced skepticism, even among Western experts. The CIA said there had been nothing but a minor accident, and the chairman of Britain's Atomic Energy Authority dismissed the theory as "a figment of the imagination."
Undeterred, Medvedev began burrowing through open Soviet scientific journals. There he found more than 100 articles discussing the effects of what was called "artificial" radioactive contamination of lakes, fields and forests. Reading the papers closely, he found clue after clue revealing that the contamination had been neither artificial nor controlled. In 1979, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee noticed that the names of about 30 small towns in the region had disappeared from Soviet maps, and that an elaborate system of canals had been built, presumably to bypass miles of contaminated river valley.
To this day, however, opinion remains divided as to the real cause of the disaster. Scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, for example, initially attributed the contamination to fallout from nuclear- weapons testing at Novaya Zemlya, more than 1,000 miles to the north. In 1982, they completed a full survey that confirmed the existence of the devastated area, but they still contested Medvedev's explanation. There was probably never any dramatic nuclear explosion, they argued, but merely a series of minor incidents resulting from the carelessness of Soviet authorities.