A massive sealed doorway to the facility
The town of Krasnokamianka in Crimea, Ukraine is a scenic place surrounded by forested mountain slopes, gardens, vineyards, and red stone – for which the area is renowned. However, underground there is something arguably much more sinister. During the Soviet occupation, subterranean tunnels and chambers were built in Krasnokamianka to host an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
All that is left of the tunnel’s ventilation system
During and immediately after World War II, research into atomic weapons became a priority for the Soviet Union. It was discovered that nuclear programs were being run by the US, Canada and Britain, and this spurred the Soviet Union to begin its own atomic weapons development program. The program then gained momentum after the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A tunnel entrance
The Ministry of Medium Machine Building was tasked with managing the Soviet nuclear program, which included the creation of nuclear warheads. Although scientists were needed for research and development, the facilities where the arsenals were located were military installations. One such site was this one in Krasnokamianka. The weapons were not manufactured here, but they were assembled and stockpiled on site, held in readiness in case they were needed.
A view of the forested landscape surrounding the installation
Construction of the underground nuclear workshop and storage facility in Krasnokamianka began in 1950. The location was chosen because of the secrecy afforded by the surrounding mountains, as well as the buffer this setting helped provide in case of a nuclear accident. It was also an advantage that, at the time, the site wasn’t marked on many maps.
The assembly hall where the nuclear weapons were put together
As you would expect, security was tight at the military facility. Entrance to the tunnels was gained through heavy-duty steel doors that weighed hundreds of tons. These massive fixtures were opened by an electric motor or, in the case of a power outage, by rolling them back with a winch handle – a slow and difficult process. From the outside, the doors were also camouflaged to blend in with the mountainside.
According to the photographer who took these photos, most of the metal in this section of the facility has been removed by looters, and the walls are caked in soot.
A barbed wire fence regularly patrolled by armed guards with dogs surrounded the site, and there was also a highly sensitive alarm system in place. Power was supplied from the grid and, when that failed, by back-up diesel generators – so the alarms were always functional. In case of an airstrike, the underground facility is said to have been able to withstand the force of a 10-megaton nuclear explosion.
A tunnel leading to the weapons storage room
The facility itself is an extraordinary example of Soviet engineering. The tunnel enters one side of the mountain and exits on the other, over two miles away. Rail tracks from the entrance were designed to carry heavy goods to their destined chambers on trolleys. Meanwhile, the hall where the weapons were assembled was fitted with hoists and an electric crane.
The rail tracks for moving parts and goods around can be seen on the floor of this tunnel.
Much of the tunnel building work was carried out by Soviet prisoners, albeit those with mining knowledge or experience. The Ministry of Medium Machine Building’s department of construction, Glavgorstroem, oversaw the work. The conditions for the prisoners couldn’t have been too harsh, however, as after their release many chose to stay and work at the site as paid laborers.
The photographer noted that the bricks in this section were added after the facility was abandoned.
For the military officers stationed here, work could occasionally be dangerous. For example, every now and then the weapons’ neutron power sources had to be checked. These were stored separately from the weapons – in containers whose walls were made of thick wax, with the containers then placed in individual metal safes. The room housing the sources was so radioactive that a tungsten light bulb would only last 13 minutes before burning out. A person could safely stay in the room to collect the sources for inspection for a maximum of 43 seconds.
These days, the site serves as a base for Ukraine’s Internal Ministry troops.
The officers who had to deal with these radioactive sources worked on a roster to minimize their exposure. Even so, they received high doses of the neutron radiation, which sometimes led them to develop symptoms such as bloody diarrhea the next day. Fortunately, this type of neutron source had begun to be phased out by the 1960s.
The floor has been broken up in this section.
Sadly, because of the classified nature of their work, officers who suffered ill health later on didn’t have any documents to prove that they had been exposed to radiation in the line of duty. Perhaps for the same reason, they have not received much recognition. An ex-soldier who worked at Krasnokamianka, Captain M.N. Izyumov, asked in a 2006 essay why those who worked in the Soviet nuclear weapons industry during the Cold War were not honored the way pilots, sailors and astronauts were.
The white paint on these walls is relatively well preserved.
Of all the work that took place at the underground facility, perhaps the most secretive was weapons assembly, which was performed only by highly trained specialists. For example, different sets of individuals were responsible for putting together the weapon casings and for preparing the charges. All of this was highly classified, and none of the workers discussed what went on – not even with their families.
A closer look at a heavy door
As the Cold War progressed, the Soviet Union stockpiled more and more nuclear weapons, and those who worked in facilities such as Krasnokamianka were under pressure to meet the growing demand. Moreover, they were required to not only store the weapons, but also to deliver them to different destinations. To do this, they put together special transport teams of carriers and technicians who were ready to do any emergency repairs that might be needed along the way. Needless to say, traveling along bad roads with a nuclear bomb was a very hairy proposition.
The assembly hall, now empty, except for some debris
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Ukraine had the third largest strategic nuclear weapons arsenal on the planet, but in 1996 it became a non-nuclear country and announced that it would no longer produce, store or use nuclear weapons. This meant that the stockpiles were returned to Russia.
A tunnel filled with rubble
Today, the site belongs to the Ukraine Ministry of Internal Affairs, which acts as the country’s civilian police authority. The troops based here belong to the special operations division Tyhr (Tiger). The main tunnel is now used to store ammunition, while another smaller storage room holds the tools that were used to work on the nuclear weapons. The rest of the underground facility is abandoned. Nevertheless, the facility remains a monument to the colossal nuclear stockpiling of the Cold War.