Plutopia

Front book cover of PlutopiaThe subtitle of this book by Kate Brown, “Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” reveals that the author was not a fan of plutonium production. The book focuses on the Hanford plant near Richland (site “W” in Manhattan Project language) in eastern Washington State and the Soviet Maiak facility near Ozersk (“Lakedale”) in the southern Russian Urals. People who lived in nuclear cities that were havens for workers, especially in the Soviet Union, but the primary focus of the book is about the hazards created. “Each kilogram of final product generates hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste.“Ozersk was one of ten nuclear cities in the Soviet Union that existed secretly, off the map…” One statement that expresses the general conclusion of the author is that, “The lethal landscapes surrounding the plutonium plants are pockmarked with landmines of percolating radioactive waste and people who are persistently sick…”

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Matthias was the man responsible to get Hanford built and running under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers with the DuPont Corporation as the contractor responsible for operations and Crawford Greenewalt as the project manager. About two thousand residents of Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland received notices in February 1943 that the federal government would be taking their land. The federal appraisers offered payments that the people considered to be unacceptably low. The people “…faced with invasion by their government, they had no recourse but to pack up and file a petition in court, hoping to get a better price.”

Reminiscent of Oak Ridge, Hanford began to hire mostly young women as chemical operators in the plutonium separation plants. It was said the DuPont focused on hiring those women because they were paid less and unmarried women didn’t qualify for subsidized housing. They also proved to be excellent workers because, just like at Oak Ridge, they followed “…the same recipe, exactly the same way, over and over.”

“DuPont engineers designed a waste disposal system in which they piped the most dangerous waste into underground storage tanks, while they mixed low-level waste with well water and poured it into depressions in the ground, creating swamps and ditches of radioactive mud…” There were attempts to stop the practice, but it continued for decades.

I found an unexpected bonus when I reached a chapter describing the beginning of the Soviet interest in U.S. research on nuclear weapons. Anatoli Iatskov walked into the Moscow offices of the scientific journal Questions of Natural and Technical Sciences one day in 1992. He identified himself as “…the assistant ‘resident’ of the Soviet espionage ring in the United States and that he had served as a handler of atomic secrets…”He brought a thick packet of classified documents to support his claim. The allegation that the information for the Soviet atomic programs had been stolen from the United States “…dropped like a bombshell on Russian society.” Soviet scientists who had been credited with the success of the Soviet programs were not pleased.

Unlike the United States, the severe poverty and massive loss of lives and industrial capacity from World War II had slowed the construction of the Soviet version of Plutopia. “If, as the common Soviet wisdom went, the Americans would have dropped bomb on the Soviet Union had the Soviets not rapidly armed themselves with a ‘nuclear shield,’ then Soviet spies had saved the nation from certain nuclear annihilation.”  The book describes the details of how the Soviets sought to establish espionage networks in the United States following the diplomatic recognition provided by the Roosevelt administration in 1933.

Igor Kurchatov was appointed to lead the Soviet project to develop an atomic bomb. He was given a small organization and the incredibly valuable information stolen from the U.S. by Klaus Fuchs. For example, Fuchs reported that the Americans had determined that a bomb could be built from a new element named plutonium, which could be made by bombarding uranium with neutrons.

The Soviet area near Lake Kyzyltash was selected to build their reactors, and there were no real roads to the site. Military garrisons were thrown up in eleven “corrective labor camps” for the conscripts, ethnic German internees, and prisoners who would begin building the facilities. There wasn’t enough food for the workers, so the camp commandant set up literacy classes to teach the workers how to write letters home asking for care packages of food and clothing. These letters went to a population that was also starving.

The book changes subjects to discuss how the Soviet Union felt betrayed by the Allies after World War II. Lavrenti Beria briefed Stalin that the Americans had a secret war plan calling for nuclear attack on fifty Soviet Cities. “From London, Klaus Fuchs estimated the Soviets had until 1949 before the Americans could generate enough bombs to wipe out the USSR…”

Kurchatov activated the reactor nicknamed “Annushka” in June 1948, and, “For the scientists, the dials illuminated the path to the Soviet ‘nuclear shield’.” Problems began immediately. The control rods were lowered back into the reactor. A few repairs were made while workers and supervisors, including Kurchatov, were exposed to excessive amounts of gamma radiation. “Hundreds of men suffered nausea and nosebleeds followed by intense pain and knee-buckling fatigue.” “Cleaning up Annushka, workers received 100 to 400 rem…” compared to the established limit of 30 rem. The hazards and pollution continued until January 1949 when it was calculated the reactor had created exactly enough plutonium for one “fat man” design atomic bomb.

Anyone expressing concern was told that people died at the front, and, “This is also the front.”

There is a chapter titled “The Vodka Society” that describes repression and alcoholism in Ozersk. Soviet officials believed chocolate, red meat, and vodka “…worked to cleanse radioactive isotopes from the body…” Workers received vodka if they were exposed to radiation on the job. They would leave work and for the nearest pub or kiosk to drink more. Alcohol abuse was widespread where it had already “…been a working class and village pastime.” There are descriptions of the dumping of nuclear waste into the Techa River that caused the need to evacuate downstream villages. The “Kyshtym Belch” was the explosion of an underground nuclear waste storage tank that required evacuation of the “irradiated trace” downwind of the explosion.

The United States had a glut of plutonium by 1964 and President Johnson announced Hanford would be gradually shuttered. In the early seventies scientists began leaking documents about the “…staggering scope of Hanford’s waste management problem.” “In 1989, DOE officials shuttered the plutonium plant and admitted they had a serious environmental catastrophe in need of a cleanup.” Hanford was managed by du Pont, General Electric, Rockwell, Westinghouse, and Fluor.

Despite the dominantly negative information, the author does acknowledge that, “Most Manhattan Project researchers were focused on the immediate goals of winning the war and minimizing the loss of American lives. They lined up potential casualties in nuclear weapons plants alongside the greater risk for battlefield soldiers and judged nuclear risks to be comparatively negligible.”

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