September 01, 2012

Urals Nuclear Disaster

Several years ago I traveled to Chelyabinsk Oblast to take part in a seminar. The event was held at a lakeshore health resort nestled among rolling hills. It was winter in Siberia, and the lake was covered in dazzling white snow that glistened in the sunlight. The setting was stunning. “This is our own little Switzerland in the Urals,” the locals proudly proclaimed. I was so taken with the natural beauty of the setting that I seriously considered bringing my family back for a vacation the following summer.

Before I departed, one of the conference attendees gave me his book: The Development of the Nuclear Industry in the Urals. By the time I finished reading it on the plane home, all my dreams of a Siberian summer vacation had evaporated, even though the health resort was some distance from the town of Ozyorsk, whose troubled history was chronicled in the book.

Humans have been ravaging the Urals for centuries. These beautiful, low-ranging, forest-topped mountains with countless lakes and rivers have always been well-suited to human habitation and have drawn waves of settlers over tens of thousands of years. Yet they are also rich in natural resources, which humans began extracting from them on a large scale centuries ago. The first factories were built here in the seventeenth century, and they rapidly grew in number and size. The perpetual quest for coal, metals, and precious and semi-precious stones has driven humans to gnaw into the Urals’ bowels and disfigure the landscape with smelting and processing plants ever since.

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