Sillamäe Again

Here’s a light but crabby post for a Saturday. Fits my mood.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Sillamäe, Estonia, and more thinking about it. So when a publication screws up the facts, I feel a need to respond.

This time, it’s Atlas Obscura doing a remarkable job of stuffing errors into a short article.

When the article was first published, they confused ä and a, but they’ve fixed that now. Quotes from the article are in italics.

Due to the building of a uranium enrichment plant in the region, it became off-limits to anyone other than those directly linked to its operations.

One of the favorite misconceptions about Sillamäe is that it had an enrichment plant. Anyone who’s been there or cares to look at an overhead photo can see that there is no enrichment plant. What the Soviets did there was produce yellowcake from uranium ore and concentrates. Here are short and long references on that.

Even the architecture of Sillamäe is different than typical Soviet style; the buildings were built in the style of Stalinist neoclassicism.

The original buildings were. There are also Khrushchevian and Andropovian style buildings that were added as the town grew.

The main example is the town hall building that looks just like a church but has never served as one.

The town hall has always seemed to me to be more Estonian-style architecture, perhaps with a dash of Jugendstil. I’ve always wondered about that. The apartment buildings nearby are much better examples of Stalinist neoclassicism.

In the five decades of its functioning, the plant in Sillamäe refined over 100,000 tons of uranium, which was in turn used in 70,000 nuclear weapons, including the Soviet Union’s very first nuclear bomb.

I would have to go back to the longer of those two references to get the exact number, but simply dividing 100,000 tons of uranium by 70,000 nuclear weapons gives somewhat more than a ton of uranium per weapon, which is far too much. And the Soviet Union had more than one yellowcake plant. Perhaps the 100,000 tons refers to ore.

The Soviet Union had 40,000 nuclear weapons at its peak, the US 30,000. So 70,000 is the maximum that existed in the world at one time.

The story that Sillamäe provided the uranium for the Soviet Union’s first nuclear bomb is tempting in terms of timing, but the first Soviet nuclear test was of a plutonium bomb. It’s possible that Sillamäe provided the uranium for the reactors that produced the plutonium, but it’s not documented in the West, as far as I am aware.

This extended period of radioactivity did not leave the landscape unharmed and even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the operations were winding down at the plant. 

What does this – “This extended period of radioactivity” – even mean? The environmental damage that my Estonian colleagues and I faced was a gigantic tailings pond (waste depository) on the edge of the Baltic Sea. The Estonians remediated it and converted the plant to no uncontrolled emissions in 2009.

After the collapse, it was liberated along with the rest of Estonia, and the factory was adapted to process rare metals and particles.

“It was liberated” – The Estonians liberated themselves and contributed mightily to the fall of the Soviet Union. The plant converted from yellowcake to rare earth metals and oxides in the mid-1980s. And what does “particles” mean?

the street names are often in Russian

I recall the street signs being in the Roman alphabet, but I could be wrong, or some might have been changed back as Estonia becomes more relaxed about language.

The photos are nice – I love the town hall and Mere Puiestee (Ocean Boulevard), that wide street between the apartment blocks – but they left out the best one, the monument to the atomic workers, at the top of this post.

I wrote more about my experience in Sillamäe. I recommend that article to Atlas Obscura.

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