Kate Brown on Richland and Ozersk, a pair of shiny, happy communities that produced plutonium—and deliberately polluted the environment with radioactive waste.
“Disasters by design.” That’s how author Kate Brown describes Richland and Ozersk, a pair of cities—the former in eastern Washington state, the latter in the southern Russian Urals—created for the purpose of producing plutonium, making them ground zero for the Cold War-era nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union. In the recent book “Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters” (Oxford University Press), Brown relates how operatives at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Richmond) and Maiak Plutonium Plant (Ozersk), polluted the air, water, and soil with so much radioactive waste that hundreds of square miles of land remain uninhabitable.
What makes Hanford and Maiak so remarkable, though, is that most of the environmental damage was done on purpose. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Richland and Ozersk remained silent about the ongoing contamination, in part because they were afforded the opportunity to live in secure, upscale communities, with zero unemployment and better housing, schools, shopping, and recreational opportunities than would otherwise be available to blue-collar workers. In other words, the two cities were consumer utopias, hence Brown’s term, plutopia.
In the following Failure Interview, Brown explains why prosperity took priority over safety, how the Americans and Soviets disposed of the radioactive waste, and why the legacy of illness and environmental damage promises to continue into the distant future.
Tell me about Richland and Ozersk.
They were special, limited-access cities that were highly subsidized by the governments that oversaw them, and highly controlled in terms of surveillance. But what really made them tick is that they were consumer utopias. The plutonium plant operators were factory workers yet paid like their professional class bosses. And residents were assured of jobs, which for working class Americans and Russians in the 1950s was a big deal. They also had guaranteed state-supported health care. The schools were fantastic and there were afterschool programs for sports and music and very safe environments for young people. Plutopia created patriotic, loyal citizens who were willing to remain silent, even as they witnessed environmental disaster.
Why did prosperity take priority over safety?
They were showcase cities. Even though the Soviet one was off the map, people who lived around there knew of the place and the same with Richland; people knew they produced plutonium. They were showcase cities because they were youthful (average age 26), and they appeared to be extremely healthy communities. There were no indigent, no poor, and no unemployment. So in and of themselves they sold nuclear safety, just by their pure existence. So it behooved the people who ran these places to shift funds from waste management into housing, schools, and programming. In Richland they spent more on the annual school budget for a handful of schools than the entire waste management budget for the entire year. This is shocking, considering that they produced hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive waste every year.
Tell me about the disposal of toxic waste at Hanford and Maiak.
Both the Soviets and the Americans thought a lot about producing plutonium. They didn’t think much about what to do with the waste. They knew it was a problem and they knew it was dangerous. The dodge—that they didn’t know what they were dealing with—is not sustained by the archives. In 1936, they knew quite well that radiation causes cancer and genetic damage. By 1944, DuPont was calling plutonium “super poisonous,” saying: We realize that the greatest hazard at the plant is the product we are about to make.
Both the Soviets and the Americans had this confidence that they would figure out what to do with the waste. In the meantime, they didn’t do anything different; there was no innovation. They did what humans have always done with waste; they buried it in the ground [in big, single chamber waste storage tanks]. Medium level waste they dug trenches and holes in the ground and just put it in there. And the low level waste they dumped into [the rivers].
How did Maiak differ from Hanford?
The Russians were on a skimpy budget—and this is the big difference between the Russian landscape and the American one. The Soviets really had no business building a bomb in 1946. They were short of everything [materials] and they used forced labor, including POWs. The men were hungry, ill-clad and poorly housed and they did a terrible job. So the plant was very inefficient and produced a lot of waste compared to the American plant. And in 1949 they ran out of underground storage tanks. One option was to shut down, build more tanks, and then start production again. But they were terribly afraid that the Americans would bomb them, as they had a U.S. Air Force bombing map of 50 Soviet cities that were targets for nuclear weapons. So they felt they couldn’t stop producing plutonium and they took the high-level waste—a Dixie cup of which, in an auditorium of 150 people would kill everybody in the room—and put that waste into a turgid Chinca River. It bogged down and clogged the lakes in its path. They didn’t tell any of the 28,000 people who lived along the river—people who drank from it, swam in it, ate fish from it, and watered their crops—that it was highly radioactive. And they didn’t even go check for three years, when they went downriver and discovered that everything was hot—off the Geiger counter—even the bodies of the people who lived there.
Another disaster occurred at the Maiak plant in 1957 when the cooling system failed and overheated and literally belched 20 million curies of radioactive waste into the air, which created an area that to this day is uninhabitable. The point I make in my book is that most of the waste that went into the environment was not due to accidents. It was intentional and part of the daily operating order. It was how they designed the plants. And since they did not—and have not to this day—figured out what to do with this waste, it continues to be a major environmental disaster at both places.
How did this affect the health of workers and those who lived nearby?
There are two ways to get sick from radiation. One is to get zapped by high levels of radiation, like what happened at Chernobyl. People bleed from their orifices, they feel nauseous, their hair falls out, they grow very weak and vulnerable to almost any illness and they die. That happened at both plants.
But the second way to get sick—and this is the most common way—is to weaken after long-term exposure to lower doses of radiation. The big danger is ingesting radioactive isotopes like radioactive iodine, plutonium, and strontium. Once you ingest them they mimic the biological minerals and chemicals that the body creates and lodge in vulnerable organs. For instance, strontium and polonium are sucked up by the bone marrow because they appear to be like calcium. People with chronic radiation syndrome have terrible aches in their bones and their joints. They suffer from chronic fatigue. They lose their appetite. They get anemic. They get autoimmune and digestive disorders and strange allergies and skin rashes. Organ after organ starts to peter out.
But these illnesses don’t have that stand-alone quality that severe radiation illness has. So it’s hard to detect and diagnose. And the Americans never really did. They seem to have focused largely on the cancers that you could prove in court. The Russians were interested in keeping workers safe and healthy and they didn’t care so much about liability. So they studied the workers and detected major changes in blood cells and saw the beginnings of what they diagnosed as chronic radiation sickness. In a closed society scientists don’t have to worry about mass hysteria. So the Soviet scientists could ask more open-ended questions and their knowledge about the long term effects of low-level radiation was more complete.
Where do things stand in terms of the environmental impact today—and going forward—especially at Hanford?
They recently had the seventieth anniversary celebration of the plant and the [month long] celebration included a James Bond gala ball and a casino with plutonium chips and there were a lot of speeches about the valor, courage, intelligence, and ingenuity of the first workers. [Meanwhile] people out there are living off of this massive Superfund site—about a hundred billion dollar project. But there are 350 million curies of radioactive waste buried in an unstable climate in these tanks underground and some of the tanks have been there since the ’40s. They are single-walled tanks that have holes in them and are leaking into the groundwater and then heading towards the Columbia River. Other tanks have double walls but some of them are also thought to be leaking and they are trying to figure out what to do with this waste because nobody can go near it. The cleanup has to be done with robotic vacuum cleaners. And once you suck it up out of those tanks, the question is what to do with it next.
They are building a vitrification plant; they have been building it for five or six years. The idea is to take this radioactive sludge, which is the consistency of peanut butter, and turn it into glass blocks. Then the glass blocks will be stored in a vault chamber underground. In theory that would be great except the chief designer [of the radioactive waste treatment plant], Dr. Walter Tannosaitis, has gone on record to say that the plant could blow up from a hydrogen explosion, and if it does, it will blow this radioactive sludge all over the place. It’s a very complicated plant to build, and once completed, it will have to be operated robotically. It’s an extremely challenging engineering feat.
So we have a real problem that has not been solved. Contractors earn millions of dollars in bonuses for making targets but the quality control of the targets is limited at best and because of the bonuses there is not a lot of interest in entertaining problems that are raised by whistleblowers. Dozens of whistleblowers since the 1990s have encountered outright persecution: Cold War-style following people, trying to get compromising information so they can blackmail them, listening to people’s phone calls. And unfortunately those kinds of tactics continue to this day. It doesn’t look hopeful.
Meanwhile, the Russians are selling nuclear power plants abroad, and part of the deal is that if you buy a power plant you get to take this waste that nobody wants—these irradiated fuel cells—and send them back to Russia, where they put them in the Maiak plant. That place is bogged down in waste, and the waste is still mounting.