Atomic Lake Chagan: How the USSR Used Nuclear Explosions to Solve Peaceful Problems

In the 1960s, during the Cold War between the USSR and the United States, the two countries competed not only in the space race, but also in testing atomic weapons. However, in addition to military purposes, Soviet scientists considered the possibility of using nuclear explosions to solve industrial and other nonmilitary problems. The idea of using nuclear explosion energy to lay water canals, extract minerals, destroy glaciers, and other peaceful purposes was “borrowed” from the West by the Soviet leadership.

In 1957, the United States launched the so-called Operation Ploughshare (Operation Lemech), a program under which the Americans carried out 27 peaceful nuclear explosions. A similar program appeared in the USSR in 1965 and was carried out until 1988 in Yakutsk, Kemerovo, Uzbek SSR and other regions. Within its framework, a total of 124 peaceful nuclear explosions were conducted.

One of the most famous projects on the use of nuclear explosions for peaceful tasks was the project to create an artificial lake Chagan in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan. According to the scientists’ idea, the crater created by the nuclear explosion could be used to create an artificial water reservoir. At least forty such reservoirs were planned to be located in the arid Kazakh steppes. Scientists envisioned using them to solve the problems of summer drought and as places for watering farm animals.

The first industrial nuclear explosion in the USSR took place on January 15, 1965 in the floodplain of a small river Chagan, which is a tributary of the Irtysh. For this purpose, scientists created a well about 178 meters deep and laid a nuclear charge with a capacity of 140 kilotons. The power of the explosion was so great that 10.3 million tons of soil were lifted into the air to a height of more than 950 meters. A crater 100 meters deep and 430 meters in diameter was formed at the site of the explosion. Tons of rock were scattered within a radius of several dozen kilometers.

In the spring of the same year, work began on digging channels to drain flood waters from the Chagan River into the sinkhole. The work was carried out very quickly, the scientists wanted to have time before the spring flood. But in the end, when all engineering works were completed, an artificial reservoir with a total volume of about 20 million cubic meters appeared on the territory of Kazakhstan. Soviet specialists realized that meltwater could carry settled radioactive dust from the entire region into the Irtysh, so to prevent such consequences, a protective platina was also erected on the lake.

However, the use of nuclear explosions for peaceful tasks had serious consequences for human health. As indicated by various sources, between 180 and 300 people worked in the blast zone. All of them subsequently developed chronic diseases due to high radiation doses.

Today, more than half a century after the first nuclear explosion in Chagan, the lake still exists and is used for irrigation of agricultural land. However, the use of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes has not been widespread and has been recognized as ineffective.

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