The starting point for writing The Chernobyl Privileges came about because, coming up to the 30th anniversary of one of our greatest man-made environmental disasters, I didn’t know anything about the event, and felt that I should. So I began reading about what happened at Chernobyl — particularly Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, and Adriana Petryna’s A Life Exposed. What I learnt was both terrifying and heartbreaking. What I also discovered was that, with what happened at Mayek in 1957, Chernobyl was far from a one-off.
In the early hours of September 29, 1957, a tank containing nuclear-weapons waste exploded on the grounds of the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s primary spent-nuclear-fuel-reprocessing centre. According to Radio Free Europe’s Tony Wesolowsky, fallout from the disaster affected more than 200 towns and villages and exposed more than 240,000 people to radiation. But that accident was just the peak moment of an ongoing slow disaster in which radioactive waste had been seeping into the ground and groundwaters of the region since the reprocessing centre’s establishment.
Sixty years on from that catastrophe — and thirty years on from Chernobyl — the Mayek plant is still Rosatom‘s main nuclear fuel processing plant. At the time, Mayek was a secret site and the town in which most of its workers lived, Chelyabinsk, was a “closed town”, and details of the disaster didn’t emerge until August 1987 in Austria, when the Russians provided the report on Chernobyl to the international community.