Discover the World’s Only “Atomic Lake” Where Locals Catch Radioactive Fish

Written by Kristen Holder
Updated: May 28, 2022
Image Credit Alexyz3d/Shutterstock.com
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Once part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is now home to an atomic lake created during the USSR’s reign. This lake is in the northeastern part of the country.

Kazakhstan is a country in Central Asia, and it is the 9th largest country in the world. It’s the largest landlocked country on earth, and it’s famous for its massive oil reserves. It is also one of the places on earth that have experienced the most atomic bomb explosions. The Soviet Union carried out hundreds of atomic bomb tests in this country.

How was the Atomic Lake created, and why was it made? Is the lake and the fish in it radioactive? We’ll answer these and a few other questions in this article.

How Was the Atomic Lake Created?

Lake Chagan
The USSR detonated an underground atomic bomb to create the Atomic Lake.

USGS/NASA Landsat Program; comparison made by Szczureq / This file is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”. (See Template:PD-USGov, NASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)

In 1965, the Soviet Union detonated an underground nuclear bomb with the hope that it would create a massive hole. The explosion was successful and created a hole that’s a little over 325 feet deep and about 1300 miles wide.

The nuclear test that created the Atomic Lake was called the Chagan Nuclear Test. It took place at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. It was meant as a peaceful detonation to see if a lake could be created, so it was technically a success.

A 140 kiloton bomb was detonated in the Chagan River’s bed, creating the lake that exists today. The bomb was burrowed about 580 feet under the riverbed and the blast shored in water, causing the hole that was created to fill.

The Chagan River now feeds this manmade lake. More than 10 million cubic meters of soil were moved in the blast.

Why Use an Atomic Bomb to Create an Atomic Lake?

Both the United States and the USSR had programs that tested whether canals, lakes, harbors, and other waterways could be created through nuclear means. It was also thought atomic bombs might be useful in drilling for oil.

The Soviet’s program was called the Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy. It was modeled after Operation Plowshare in the United States, which had similar aims. Both countries concluded that nuclear means were not going to aid in the development of infrastructure. The USA stopped tests in 1977 while the Soviets kept toying with the idea until 1989.

The Semipalatinsk Test Site wasn’t created for this test. At least one nuclear test per month was conducted here over a period of 40 years. Nuclear testing ceased at this site in 1989.

Is the Atomic Lake Radioactive?

Chagan River
The water at the Atomic Lake is 100 times more radioactive than normal water.

Uralsk Review / Creative Commons – License

Yes, the atomic lake is radioactive. The water is 100 times more radioactive than normal water. The Kazakh government has done little to try and remediate the situation. The surface of the water is not as radioactive as deeper water. Locals swim and fish in the lake. However, a strong odor does emanate from the lake. The wind can carry this odor, which affects nearby settlements.

At the time that this lake was created, it was believed that radiation and the fallout from atomic clouds would be blown away. There wasn’t any expectation of irradiation or long-term effects. Unfortunately, there have been medical consequences for the inhabitants of Kazakhstan that live next to nuclear test sites, including the Atomic Lake. An increased risk of cancer and birth defects are two examples of radiation-related medical complications.

The development of solid tumors is 50% higher than the national average in Semey, the nearest city to the Atomic Lake and its associated test site. The cancers most seen are lung and breast cancer.

There is an 80% higher rate of gene mutation in adults and a 50% higher mutation rate in their children in the affected region. These mutations may make people more prone to diseases and create other complications.

Are the Fish in the Atomic Lake Radioactive?

Crucian carp on a serving platter
The radioactivity of the Atomic Lake does not deter the locals from eating the fish they catch.

New Africa/Shutterstock.com

A few years after the creation of the lake in 1965, the Soviets tried to breed fish in the lake, but it didn’t go well. Around 90% of all the fish died.

Carp were introduced into a watershed in Kazakhstan in the 1940s and have proliferated. They now inhabit the Atomic Lake. Locals fish for these carp and eat them despite the carp being more radioactive than the water.

Carp eat insects and grasses, and as they consume these contaminated products around the lake, it concentrates in their flesh. While grass has managed to grow around the lake, there are no birds or terrestrial animals that live on or near the lake. It isn’t recommended that people eat the few fish that can survive the radioactive waters, but the locals do anyway.

Is the Atomic Lake One of the Most Dangerous Lakes in the World?

The lake was way more dangerous when it was created than it is today. Some of the things that locals can do in the water now would not have been possible a few decades ago, such as fishing and swimming.

While the atomic lake is dangerous, it isn’t one of the most dangerous lakes in the world. It won’t immediately kill you like a boiling lake, it isn’t set to explode like some noxious lakes, nor is it as toxic as Lake Karachay in Russia. Lake Karachay is a toxic waste dump that will give a person a lethal dose of radiation in 30 minutes.

The Atomic Lake does support minimal life, and it’s possible to touch the water without suffering immediate consequences. That doesn’t mean the dangers at the Atomic Lake are trivial. The water is not potable, nor can the land around it be used for agriculture or grazing.

Did the Sand and Rocks Turn to Glass at Atomic Lake?

Kharitonchiki was created when sand and rocks melted in an atomic explosion. It is a glass-like residue that can be found all over the shores of the Atomic Lake. Any nuclear bombing site may have material like this, but their comparative compositions will be different, and each site’s “glass” is unique.

This “glass” is created from melted quartz. This quartz was part of the sand and rocks that were sucked into the fireball and then melted. It probably rained from the sky and then hardened to create what is seen today.

Similar glass can be created by lightning strikes and meteor impacts.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance ghostwriter that specializes in SEO content. I have always loved writing, and when COVID happened, I went at my passion full tilt. I'm currently in Spokane, WA by way of Phoenix, AZ, though I'm originally from Sacramento, CA. Freelancing allows me the freedom to move around as I please.

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