The Chagan river carried no water in the summer. Which was unfortunate because in the spring, it carried rather too much, as the melting snows drove it to spate. The river was, therefore, of little practical value, especially to the patriotic animals of the very practical state farms that littered the surrounding steppes of Kazakhstan.
Such a wanton waste of valuable resources was galling to the energetic Soviet planners of the time. And so they decided to fix the problem – by building a dam. A dam that would hold behind it a reservoir of pure winter melt, and quench the summer thirst of the state owned herds that grazed the steppes, as well as their hardworking caretakers.
Dams are conceptually simple. To build a rudimentary dam, all one had to do was block the flow of the water with a giant pile of earth and rock. The only problem was that making a giant pile of earth and rock cost time and a lot of money. Fortunately, the engineers on the project had an exciting new technology at their disposal – a technology with the potential of permanently transforming how the Soviet Union, and even the world, went about their civil engineering.
And so the Soviets dug a 570 foot deep hole in the dry river bed of the Chagan River. The hole even had a number – #1004. And into this hole, they placed a device – a device sanctioned and paid for by the enigmatically named Program 7. On January 15th, 1965, at 6.00 AM GMT, they detonated the device.
The 140 kiloton hydrogen bomb produced a 320 foot deep crater that had a diameter of 1305 feet. The lip of the crater soared 100 feet into the sky, forming, in a matter of a few explosive minutes, the river barrier that the Soviet planners had wanted.
That spring, the Soviets got not one, but two reservoirs. Waters from melting snow poured into the massive nuclear crater, while the waters of the Chagan River were trapped behind the crater’s lip. The clever civil engineers then dug a channel to connect their two lakes into a glorious unity, thumped each other on the back for a job well done and moved on to the next peaceful nuclear explosion for the national economy.
The Chagan river didn’t cooperate with the engineers for very long. It changed course and began to flow around the obstruction, reverting to its true nature. The man made Lake Chagan, on the other hand, held true, its sheer nuclear walls gleaming on its mirror blue surface. It lay pristine, undisturbed by the cattle of the state farms for whom it had been intended. For somebody had noticed that the new lake was radioactive.