Welcome to Sillamäe
The region’s fate was sealed in the post-WWII years upon the discovery that oil shale contains small amounts of extractable uranium. The infamous uranium processing and nuclear chemicals factory was quickly built by 5000 Russian political prisoners, while the town centre was built by 3800 Baltic prisoners of war who had previously served in the German army. By 1946 the city was strictly off limits to visitors; it was known by various spooky code names (Leningrad 1; Moscow 400) and was often omitted from Soviet-era maps. Yet life for the workers who lived here was generally better than in other parts of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Only unfinished uranium was processed at the plant, though the eerily abandoned buildings on the city’s western border are testament to Soviet plans to process pure, nuclear reactor–ready uranium. Only the disbanding of the USSR saved Estonia’s ecology from this. Uranium processing ceased in 1989 and today the radioactive waste is buried under concrete by the sea. Fears of leakage into the Baltic have alarmed environmentalists; EU funding has been channelled towards ensuring the waste is stable and safe, at enormous cost.
These days the privatised Sillamäe plant is the world's main producer of the rare metals niobium and tantalum, which are used in the manufacture of medical and electronic equipment, among other things.