Welcome Kate Brown (UMBC) (Plutopia) and Host Gar Smith (Earth Island Journal) (Environmentalists Against War) (author, Nuclear Roulette)

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Kate Brown’s Plutopia is the tale of two atomic cities —  twin siblings of the Cold War, created for the purpose of harvesting the plutonium that fueled the post-war nuclear arms race.

The top-secret reactors at the Pentagon’s Hanford plutonium plant lead to the creation of Richland, a planned city built in the wind-scraped wastelands of Washington State. The residents – all white and privileged – lived in a perfectly landscaped consumers’ paradise complete with federally subsidized housing and free medical care. Russia’s plutopia was called Ozersk. It was built in the Urals, near the plutonium mills of Maiak, and it was so secret it didn’t appear on official maps.

Both cities existed to serve a common mission – to promote the creation of nuclear bombs. Both offered unwitting residents the promise of prosperity and security while depriving them of basic freedoms and placing them at great risk. Both left a legacy of radioactive contamination that continues to haunt both countries (and will stalk generations to come).

Between them, Hanford and Maiak were intentionally (and accidentally) responsible for releasing 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes – the equivalent of four Chernobyl disasters — over thousands of square miles of downwind land, rivers, forests, wildlife, livestock, farms and families.

With astounding persistence and initiative, Kate Brown devoted several years to exhuming the hidden records that trace the secret history of these two populations – and the forces that conspired to create them. Brown’s investigations took her from dusty government archives in the US to clandestine meetings with survivors in Russia.

Brown’s discoveries reveal how US and Soviet leaders both came to adopt the same model – the construction of “middleclass” plutopias occupied by thousands of citizens blindly engaged in building doomsday devices that could kill millions. Instead of putting nuclear farming in the hands of soldiers, Washington and Moscow relied instead on communities of highly paid nuclear families living in posh, government subsidized, atomic cities.

At the same time Capitalism and Communism provided its “chosen” with the benefits of generous salaries, free medical care, entertainment and a plethora of consumer goods, they maintained parallel communities of migrant workers, prisoners, soldiers and racial minorities who were confined in nearby “staging grounds” and required to perform the most dangerous work. These workers were disposable. They received no medical care. When they became sickened by radiation exposure, soldiers were discharged and prisoners were released.

Plutopia is filled with depictions of Atomic Age working conditions that are absolutely Dickensian. The persistent issues of human corruption and racial discrimination percolate through the histories of both of these “model cities.” While Brown’s disturbing revelations tell us a lot about the buried history of nuclear technology, this “new history” of the Atomic Age also tells us much about the faults of state power and human nature. Plutopia provides a somber accounting of the dangers we have inherited from the past and it sends a chilling warning about the horrors that may still await us.

Kate Brown is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, American Historical Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Harper’s Magazine Online.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a Project Censored award-winning investigative journalist, and cofounder of Environmentalists Against War.

 

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

123 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters”

BevW June 8th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Kate, Gar, Welcome to the Lake.

Gar, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.


For our new readers/commenters:


To follow along, you will have to refresh your browser:
PC = F5 key, MAC = Command+R keys

If you want to ask a question – just type it in the Leave Your Response box & Submit Comment.


If you are responding to a comment – use the Reply button under the number,
then type your response in the box, Submit Comment. (Using Submit Comment will refresh your browser when you reply to a comment/ask a question.)

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 1:53 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Welcome to the Lake. And greetings from the state of California where it has just been announced that our crippled San Onofre nuclear reactor is to be shut down — permanently. There is dancing in the streets.
Now, back to business. Today we have the pleasure of joining Kate Brown, the author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.
This book is a prodigious feat of journalism — a form of nuclear archeology that unearths deeply buried horrors and reveals (literally, in some cases) “where the bones are buried.” Kate’s book is an eye-opener and a jaw-dropper.
In my book, Nuclear Roulette, I cited the explosion at the Soviet’s Maiak nuclear plant (which lead to the evacuation of 270,000 people from hundreds of downwind cities) but I was unaware of a similarly large-scale disaster that Kate Brown reveals in her book. It occurred right here in the US, at the Hanford plutonium plant near Richland, Washington.

Kate, thanks for joining us today. I’d like to begin by asking what prompted you to tackle such a daunting topic? A book about Hanford and the “plutopia” at Richland would have been a major accomplishment by itself. So how did you get interested in Ozersk?

dakine01 June 8th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Kate and Gar and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon.

Kate, I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if you address this in there but what prompted this topic? Did the accidents at 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl have any impact on things at Hanford and Ozersk or was it all part of pretending there were no problems with nuclear activities?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:02 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 2

I started to write this book after I wrote an article about visiting the Chernobyl Zone and an editor asked me to write a book about Chernobyl. I thought there were already too many books on Chernobyl, but I looked into it and learned to my surprise that there were two places in the world that had, depending on whom you asked, two to ten times more spilled radioactive isotopes than Chernobyl, and few people knew of them. These were the plutonium plants Hanford in the US and Mayak in Russia. I wondered why Chernobyl was a household word and few people had heard of Hanford and Maiak.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:02 pm

The residents – all white and privileged – lived in a perfectly landscaped consumers’ paradise complete with federally subsidized housing and free medical care.

Thats one White privilege you can keep. Whats the cancer rate in the Plutopias?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:03 pm

What I learned was really chilling. These plutonium disasters were not accidents—like Chernobyl and Fukushima that occur with the cameras running—but most of the spilled 200 million curies occurred as part of the daily operating order. They were intentional slow-motion disasters. Thousands of people worked at these large plants and over four decades I could find no one –in neither the dictatorial USSR or democratic USA, who had breathed a word of this slow motion catastrophe until the 1980s. The major question for my book was how did that happen?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:03 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 4

How long did it take to research this book? How much travel was involved?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

That is a very difficult question to answer. One premise of the book is that the plutopia–exclusive cities just for plant operators and their families–were set up in part because they did a good job covering over the epidemiological footprint of radioactive contamination. Both towns had a ‘healthy worker effect’ in which the universally employed city of mostly young families, all of whom had health care appeared to offer up very good health. Only years later did studies emerge that workers suffered higher rates of cancer than the general population. Many of the people exposed however were temporary workers who worked construction and clean up. Most of these people have long left and with them they took any possible health effects.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:06 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 7

I researched and wrote the book for six years, from 2006 to 2012. I made dozens of trips to Washington State, California, and the southern Urals. In Russia at times I lived in a small village to be near the closed city in order to interview former workers.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:07 pm

At the same time Capitalism and Communism provided its “chosen” with the benefits of generous salaries, free medical care, entertainment and a plethora of consumer goods, they maintained parallel communities of migrant workers, prisoners, soldiers and racial minorities who were confined in nearby “staging grounds” and required to perform the most dangerous work. These workers were disposable. They received no medical care. When they became sickened by radiation exposure, soldiers were discharged and prisoners were released.

How many prisoners and when was the last year America used prisoners?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Was there any interference by Russian authorities who may have learned of your research? Were US histories easier to access than the old Soviet archives?

Llona Pajari June 8th, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Oooo, this story is so piquante. Did you get many big wigs squirming on interview?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:11 pm

A private company, Prison Industries Inc employed about 3,000-4,000 prisoners from 1945-1947. The prison camp, Camp Columbia, on the banks of the Yakima River, was set up at great cost largely to avoid having to hire minority workers and to help clean up the construction camp area in the industrial zone after the plant started up and was issuing radioactive gases from the stacks.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:11 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 8

Most of these people have long left and with them they took any possible health effects.

I am sure the government is still keeping track of them for a long term multi generational study of the effects of radiation exposure. I understand its hard to get information about this.
Have any of the survivors or their kids and grand kids sued the government for their health problems?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I did not experience any interference from Russian authorities. Workers at the archives were very helpful, so was the archive director in Cheliabinsk, where the closed nuclear city’s Communist Party archives are stored. I traveled by bus and stayed with friends and did not attract much attention. I speak Russian well, thought with an accent.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:13 pm
In response to Llona Pajari @ 12

Most of the big wigs refused to talk to me. And that was ok. They are all on record. I was more interested in talking to people who worked at the plants and lived next door on farms.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:13 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 13

Why try and avoid having to hire minority workers in those days they loved minority workers for these jobs. Did they want to see specifically how Whites react to radiation?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Why did the US and USSR chose to build these “model cities” for civilian plutonium workers? Given the security concerns, why weren’t these projects simply run by the Pentagon and staffed with soldiers?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:16 pm

I honestly do not think there are any long term multi-generation studies of downwind populations in the US. There are more studies of workers at the Hanford plant. The sad story I tell in my book is that officials at the plant and the Atomic Energy Commission failed to ask vital questions about the impact of low doses of chronic radiation on the health of workers and people living near the plant.
In Russia, there were long term multi-generational studies. They sell this data set now for a lot of money.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:16 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 18

Very good point did they want to see how kids react to radiation exposure growing up?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Kate, I surmised from reading the book that you speak Russian. How did it come about that you learned?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Fascination news that Russia is selling this long-term health impact information. I wonder who is buying. Anyone at the NRC? the DHHS?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

No, they felt that minority workers would not be as trustworthy and loyal as white workers. That was the idea at the time. They also said that white workers would not want to live and work with minority workers. When in 1944 the NAACP forced Hanford to hire a quota of 10% African Americans, they set up separate facilities for “Negroes” introducing Jim Crow to the Northwest.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:18 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 19

They sell this data set now for a lot of money.

To America, the Japanese Government I presume and I wonder if they are paid to not sell this information to the press.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:19 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 21

I learned Russian in college because I was worried about the re-charging Cold War (Reagan years). I spent several years working and studying there and wrote my first book, A Biography of No Place, about Soviet history.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:19 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 23

For once racism worked in our favor sort of.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:20 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 22

There are a lot of customers. The Department of Energy has been carrying out research there since the 1990s. Japanese researchers, however, rejected the data sets because they felt that the dosimetric data was too inaccurate.

bigbrother June 8th, 2013 at 2:20 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 2

Gar we have one nuclear power plant still operating in California…the last one is Diablo Canyon 8miless from Los Osos where I live just got the evacuation flyer list of things to prepare. (Bug out list)
Can this one be closed like SONG? If so please help us. Mother’s for Peace has the lead roll. There are four orgs that stopped SONG, they may help? I remember the shelter drills in late 40s in our schools.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Clearly there was racial discrimination in those days. How were women workers treated by the operators of plutonium factories in the US and USSR plutopias?

bigbrother June 8th, 2013 at 2:21 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 22

Maybe wikileaks or other hackers can make it public.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

It’s an amazing book you’ve written – highly readable and packed with tons and tons of detail about the construction and operation of both Hanford in Washington state and Maiak in the southern Urals of Russia. Both were built to create plutonium for weapons. And there is also a huge amount of detail about the environmental destruction that was created in accidents and normal plant operations and then the ensuing radioactive contamination of rivers, soil, air, plants, animals and people.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Both American and Soviet generals at first thought they would run the plants with military labor in garrisons, but after building the massive plants with tens of thousands of mostly single construction workers who boozed and brawled they realized that the workers of plutonium plants could not be as volatile as the product they were going to make. So both Soviet and American leaders sought, strangely, to embed plutonium operators in nuclear families.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:23 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 22

I think in the book it said the US DOE, Department of Energy is buying.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:24 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 29

Strangely, in both countries managers gendered the reactors as male and hired men to work in them and the chemical processing plants (where irradiated uranium fuel cells run through a series of chemical baths to distill down to grams of plutonium) were reserved for mostly female labor because there was a lot of precise measuring (like cooking). Sadly, the processing plants were more dangerous places to work.

ThingsComeUndone June 8th, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Between them, Hanford and Maiak were intentionally (and accidentally) responsible for releasing 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes – the equivalent of four Chernobyl disasters — over thousands of square miles of downwind land, rivers, forests, wildlife, livestock, farms and families.

How did this effect the Salmon in Washington State.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:25 pm
In response to bigbrother @ 28

Diablo will be the next to go. Friends of the Earth played a big role is pressing for San Onofre’s closure and Sen. Barbara Boxer exposed plant owner letters suggesting a cover-up of the risk of an accident from the redesigned steam generators.
The focus now should turn to Diablo Canyon, a troubled plant with many reasons of its own to face a shut down and decommissioning. We’re with you!

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:27 pm

They were worried about the salmon and set up a fishery to test the effects of radioactive waste in water on the bodies of salmon. The fish did not fare well and died in large kills in the test tanks when the level of radioactivity was high. It is hard to say how the plant effected the salmon population in the river over the years because at the same time, the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps were building massive dams downstream, which also harmed the salmon populations.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:28 pm

What was the effect of spills into the Techa, the river running near the Russian plant?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:29 pm

You wrote quite a bit about the people living on the contaminated Techa River near the Maiak plant. What does Techa mean in English?

BevW June 8th, 2013 at 2:30 pm

You’ve written about Hanford and Maiak, how many other “Plutopias” are out there now? Where is the plutonium for today’s reactors coming from?

Llona Pajari June 8th, 2013 at 2:31 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 16

Ah. Still, did you find anything redeeming that the technocrats learned on their atomic plantations?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:33 pm

In 1949, Soviet leaders ran out of underground storage space for high level radioactive waste. Rather than stop production, they dumped 3.2 million curies of waste into the turgid, slow Techa River (techet means to flow in Russian). 28,000 people lived downstream and they had no wells. They drank and cooked with river water, bathed in it and watered crops and livestock. Only in 1951 did Soviet officials realize this disaster and found areas ticking at very high rates of radation. The people too were sources of contamination. They slowly evacuated in the subsequent decade 10 of 16 villages. The tragedy now is that people still live on the river.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to BevW @ 40

I am not sure if civilian reactors use military stores of plutonium to operate.
There are many plutopias in the world. The village, for example, that hosted the Fukushima plant was a specially funded “nuclear village”. Residents received in agreeing to live near the plant community centers, swimming pools, day care centers, amusement parks (with nuclear themes) and even free diapers.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

You wrote that Gene Murphy was chief of the local Sierra Club and also, at the same time, a communication specialist with a Hanford contractor and that he championed the N reactor at the plant. You wrote that, at the time, he even recognized he was influenced by his day job.

Have you followed his path at all? It’d be interesting to know which direction he went over time?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:36 pm
In response to Llona Pajari @ 41

Yes, I think in the end the technocrats were very good at running cities. They created places that people loved to live in and to which residents were very loyal. I think this shows that big government when it spends regally on social, educational and medical services can make a positive impact.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:37 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 44

I did not follow Gene Murphy’s path. That is a great question.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:37 pm

The Fukishima “village” and these two state-owned cities demonstrate how effectively an urban community can be managed and controlled. On the surface, these towns looked like paradise but they were really DuPont-owned “company towns” — controlled encampments where residents traded privacy for prosperity. Was there ever any dissent or rebellion inside these plutopias?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Did your research show you what the effects have been in Oregon from Hanford? It’s not exactly an idle question. I lived in Eugene, Oregon from 1975 to 1993.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:41 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 47

I could find very little dissent in either plutopia, Ozersk or Richland. Former school teachers told me that Richland teenagers did not protest the Vietnam war or openly rebel in the sixties. In Ozersk, a few young people sided with the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956, and they were silenced.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:41 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 44

I don’t know about Gene Murhpy but I worked with Dave Brower at Friends of the Earth (after his stint at the Sierra Club). Dave was initially pro-nuclear because he believed the new plants would take the place of damming wild rivers for power. He soon changed his thinking. As he remarked (in a classic “Browerism”) “It seems that, whenever we discover a new form of power, we go out and wreck something with it.”

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:43 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 48

There was a study in the 1970s, I believe, about higher rates of cancer along the Columbia River on the Oregon side in several counties. The AEC put some researchers on it to discredit the original study. Most of the contamination from Hanford that touched populations came in the form of gases and particles from the stacks and waste in the ground heading toward aquifers. That is why the most vocal population on the Hanford topic are the “Downwinders.”

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:45 pm

If things were quiet and stable in the Plutopias, were there ever any complaints or actions in the plants in response to working conditions? Especially when workers began to show signs of illness. I’m haunted by your description of the young women in the processing plants, pale, gaunt, bent and old-before-their-years.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:45 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 50

How fortunate you were to work with David Brower. He’s one of my biggest heroes.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:47 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 53

Truly, it was a gift. Dave’s my hero, too.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:48 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 52

Yes, there were reactions to the visible illnesses especially of workers at the very polluted and accident-ridden Maiak plant. At party meetings, workers asked about what leaders would do about the plant’s “fungus”? After a big explosion in 1957 of a waste storage tank, a lot of people got scared and quit their jobs, leaving the city. It was hard, though, to live in the Soviet provinces in the 1950s. There was little to buy, so the same workers wrote letters begging to be taken back.

At Hanford, assurances that the plant was safe seemed to have been very effective at appeasing the local populace. Workers told me that when a guy got dosed and became an invalid, they gave him a “lifetime job,” meaning pay without having to work for the rest of his life.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:51 pm

You made the point at the end of the book that we’re all citizens of plutopia – that we’ve all made the trade-off of consumer and financial security for civil rights and political freedoms. I think you’re right and, at the same time, that hit me very starkly.

You’ve also made the point that suburbia (plutopia) in both the US and Russia were basically exported from the nuclear cities near the plants.

It’s hard to wrap my head around how much my lifestyle has been influenced by the production of nuclear weapons.

I grew up very near Levittown in a community that was built in 1951.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Unfortunately, those “lifetime jobs” probably resulted in something more like “half-life-time jobs.”

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:52 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 56

Yes, those are the points I made. You read me quite well. I do think we are all in a way complicit in the militarization of our landscape, in going along with it for the good of our property values and the future of our kids, whom we want in good schools, in safe communities… Doesn’t that sound like plutopia?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:53 pm

You mentioned the large explosion at the Maiak site. Could you describe Plutopia’s two great nuclear disasters — the 1949 Hanford “Green Run” and the “Kyshtym Belch” of 1957?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:55 pm

The cover of the book showing the quonset huts completely startled me when I received the book. Before we moved to the Levittown area, we lived in veterans housing that were attached wooden buildings. Close by was more veterans housing that were quonset huts.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I would say that the greatest disasters were the decisions to dump radioactive waste into holes in the ground (“reverse wells”), into trenches, open ponds and swamps, into local rivers and air streams every day of production for four decades. This intentional spillage of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order is what made for disaster.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 2:56 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 58

The promise of prosperity seems to be an effective means of social control. As Brecht said: “Who feeds the belly, owns the man, sir!” But instead of bread and circuses we wound up with bread and cesium.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 2:57 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 58

Yes, it does sound exactly like plutopia. A very apt title, especially considering the conclusion.

Llona Pajari June 8th, 2013 at 2:58 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 56

we’ve all made the trade-off of consumer and financial security for civil rights and political freedoms

Wouldn’t you agree that our analogous situation today entails more elite cynicism?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 2:58 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 62

Yes, prosperity gave a lot of people confidence–in themselves, in their leaders, in the soundness and justness of their communities and nations.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Returning to a previous question, could you describe Plutopia’s two great nuclear disasters — the 1949 Hanford “Green Run” and the “Kyshtym Belch” of 1957?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:01 pm
In response to Llona Pajari @ 64

I’m afraid there was plenty of that cynicism earlier too, in the fifties and sixties, and with it the managers, technical elite and corporate brass show a fair amount of disdain for the working classes.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I really didn’t know the US and Russia were ramping up for more nuclear weapons manufacture. Where are they slated to mine the uranium from? And where are the plants that will be producing the plutonium? And where are their brains to continue this disaster?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Have you stayed in touch with some of the people you’ve interviewed in Russia? With folks in the Hanford area?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:04 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 68

One of many Atomic Age ironies is that some of today’s US reactors are being fueled by repurposed nuclear warheads from Russia. A grotesque kind of paying-it-back.

Llona Pajari June 8th, 2013 at 3:05 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 58

Complicit in a way … is this retroactively complicity, in hindsight? We are talking about a society architected by national security considerations.

Euphemism is our way of life.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:07 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 70

Really? Do you know which ones?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:07 pm

In 1949, the Soviets tested their first bomb. That shocked American military leaders and a few months later at the Hanford plant, they carried out an experiment in which they processed “green” fuel; that is fuel that had cooled not 90 days but about 30 and was still highly radioactive, especially with radioactive iodine. They guessed that Soviets were making bombs with green fuel and they wanted to know how far they could trace the radioactive gases from the plant as a way to perfect nuclear espionage on Soviet sites. The “Green Run” was a failure: it rained, bringing down the radioactive gases (11,000 curies of radioactive iodine among them) on the eastern Washington landscape and scientists were unable to track the gases as they spread unpredictably through the air.

In 1957, an underground storage tank at the Maiak plant overheated an blew (they have to be cooled continually to keep from exploding). A cloud wiht 20 million curies of radiation went skyward and spread in the shape of a tongue outward from the plant toward communities of Tatar, Bashkir and Russian farmers, who were out taking in the fall harvest. Many of these farmers were called on, even children among them, to clean up the accident, burying contaminated crops and earth and evacuating contaminated villages.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:08 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 69

Yes, I was in Seattle this past week and saw a few former whistle blowers. I also meet when I give talks more and more people from Richland and Russian nuclear cities.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:09 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 70

That is amazing and a strange part of the late-in-life marriage of the American and Soviet/Russian nuclear complexes at the end of the Cold War.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:09 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 73

Not offhand. I suspect it’s “lost in the mix” but it’s worth trying to find out. I’ll see what I can discover.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Gar, total congratulations on San Onofre. When I saw the news yesterday morning, I was ecstatic.

After you close Diablo Canyon, please do help us close down the South Texas Project. It used to be called the South Texas Nuclear Project, but they decided to rename it more innocuously.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Could you give a bit of background about the Richland whistleblowers — what prompted them to action and what response they received?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 77

Gar, How were you involved in the San Onofre closure?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Offhand, would you say it was easier to get info for Plutopia in the US or in Russia?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Has the book been translated into Russian? Other languages?

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:16 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 78

The first whistle blowers cropped up in the early 1980s after the mothballed Hanford plant was reopened in the Reagan era. Some of the workers were truly frightened by the daily danger of working in an obsolete and creaking old plant with dangerous and sometimes undetected stores of plutonium and radioactive waste. Those people were the first to make calls from phone booths to local reporters.

Later in the nineties, a series of whistle blowers have emerged who have been alarmed by the at times cavalier designs and practices and rushed pace of the Hanford clean up. Cleaning up nuclear waste is just as hazardous as producing it.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:16 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 79

Merely writing about it from a distance, signing petitions, making phone calls. The usual B-team work. None of the heroic heavy lifting.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:17 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 80

It is easier to get information on the US nuclear sites. The DOE has a archival website called DOE Opennet and on it you can search through tens of thousands of documents. Russian officials keep a much tighter lid on their nuclear sites and history, though there is a published ten volume collection in Russian called “Atomnyi Proekt.”

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:17 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 81

Plutopia will be translated into Japanese later this year.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:18 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 82

At what point did the government officially inform workers and residents that the plant had been producing plutonium? What was the reaction to the news?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:19 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 85

Great news. I’ll alert my friends at Green Action!

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:21 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 86

American workers learned in 1945 that they had been making plutonium and the reaction was one of pride that they had done their part to end the war.

Soviet workers usually only knew of plutonium unofficially, unless they were high level officials, but it was really only a secret for children and some wives.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

You wrote about the NAACP and the Seattle Urban League working to end racism in the hiring at Hanford and how that gave CJ Mitchell an opportunity to move up from a laborer position to a good job at the plant. You describe his fear of unpleasant racism in front of his children when the van arrived in Richland with his family and possessions. A woman was approaching and it took him awhile to realize the woman was holding a plate of cookies. The woman has since passed away, but he wanted to be sure you put her name in the book.

Which you did.

I’m wondering if you sent CJ Mitchell a copy of the book so he could see for himself?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

What is the state of Hanford today? I understand the underground storage leaks continue to worsen and there now are fears that fires could break out.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:24 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 89

I sent Mitchell the chapter before the book went to press. He liked it.

bigbrother June 8th, 2013 at 3:24 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 67

Read some of your text with interest perked by your concerns and your expressive writing. As a part of the Manhattan Project secrets you reveal how Big Brother takes over society based on national security. I wonder if the per kilowatt cost of nuclear power has ever been accurately compared to other sources after environmental impact. You got great reviews. Lets imagine what hacker could do to a plants computer controls? These operations are bombs waiting to explode. I have been reading the cyber wars.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:28 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 90

The Hanford clean up has been going on since the early 1990s. This is a multi-billion dollar operation (about 2 billion a year) and involves building a vitrification plant to transform the highly radioactive sludge in the underground tanks (170 of them, 350 million curies) into glass blocks for safe storage for, hopefully, the next 240,000 years. The problem is two fold. The old, “temporary” tanks are leaking, have been leaking since the 1970s and it is dangerous to go near the tanks or work with them because of the high levels of radioactivity.

The second problem is that several of the designers of the vitrification plant have gone on record to say that the plant as it is being built could very well have a hydrogen explosion, sending up with it the radioactive sludge. Once the plant is up and running, it will be so contaminated that large portions of it will be off limits for humans.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:29 pm

To bigbrother:
I cite a number of full-cost-accounting comparisons in Nuclear Roulette. One of particular interest is a study by Mark Jacobson at Stanford U — Life-cycle Assessments: Best to Worst. Wind is tops, nuclear comes in next-to-last, before coal.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:32 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 83

Oh, I thought Friends of the Earth was more directly involved. My mistake.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:33 pm

The book is filled with scores of historic photos, many of which are probably being published for the first time. What difficulties did you encounter in locating these photos?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:33 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 91

:)

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 96

There are about 30,000 photos in the DOE archives, a lot of them on line. Hanford had a plant photographer and he was busy! The Soviet photos were harder to find. They also come from an archive of the Communist Party. Citizens were banned from taking photos in the closed city, so I found only a few family photos. Also a Dutch photographer, Robert Knoth took some haunting shots on contemporary life in the contaminated zones.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 96

To greenwarrior:
In fact, FOE was instrumental in watchdogging the San Onofre plant and forcing its demise. Among other things, it obtained incriminating memos through an FOIA request that exposed Southern Cal Edison’s collusion in lying to the NRC about the new generator designs and expressing concerns that the new design could fail.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Your book contains numerous revelations about US scientists testing radiation exposure on unwitting prisoners and volunteers. Some of these experiments were even conducted here in Berkeley, at the University of California. Could you cite some examples? And how were the findings handled?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Do you know what became of Gofman and Tamplin, researchers who wouldn’t go along with the Atomic Energy Commission’s desire for sanitized safety statistics? Did they go on to have fulfilling careers or did they suffer repercussions for their very public discussions of the findings that by 1969 there were 32,000 excess deaths with many thousands more expected?

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:43 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 99

Okay, that’s what I thought. I got confused when I saw you’re with Earth Island Journal. (I erroneously saw the Earth in Earth Island Journal and translated it to Friends of the Earth). My bad. I’m glad that’s cleared up.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:43 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 101

I know John Gofman suffered immensely. He lost government funding for his research projects and had to leave the University of California. He went into private life and became a passionate anti-nuclear activist, forming a nonprofit advocacy group and pushing the then-heretical message: “There is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation.”
I had the pleasure to know John and profiled him in an article for (… umm… Hustler magazine).

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:43 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 102

That’s OK. I’ve had the honor of working for both organizations.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:45 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 100

Once the Hanford plant produced its first radioactive waste, it was sent to Berkeley to be tested. Dr. Joseph Hamilton ran the study to see how soils, plants, animals and humans reacted to this first waste and then later, when it was produced, to the new element on the periodic table, plutonium. Hamilton at first was enthusiastic about the idea of using Hanford waste to make weapons. He dreamed of spreading Hanford gasses over enemy cities and lacing Hanford liquid waste in enemy drinking water supplies.

When he was sent the first milligrams of plutonium, Hamilton had it injected into unwitting patients at the university hospital. He wanted to know, not how they reacted to plutonium coursing through their veins, but to see where the plutonium lodged in the body and if there were any agents that could cleanse a body of plutonium. The new element proved surprisingly resistant once lodged in vital organs and bone marrow.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Are you familiar with the work of Paul Fusco on Chernobyl?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Years after the original spread of radioactive contamination, how are Russia and the US handling the human and environmental impacts of the radioactive pollution that still surrounds these plutopias? I know the government responded to the contamination of the Rocky Flats nuclear site by declaring it a “nature reserve” suitable for elementary school field trips.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:49 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 106

Not intimately, no.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

It was very startling to read that only 1/3 of Russian infants are born healthy. In your opinion, how much of this is related to radioactive contamination?

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I was wondering, have there been any attempts to put survivors of these two plutopias in contact to share experiences?

BevW June 8th, 2013 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the last few minutes of this great Book Salon discussion,

Kate, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, atomic families and cities, and the disasters.

Gar, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Kate’s website and book (Plutopia)

Gar’s websites (Environments Against The War) (Earth Island Institute) and book (Nuclear Roulette)

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

Tomorrow: Lori Wallach / The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority; Hosted by Dave Johnson

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:53 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 109

That is one of those questions that is so hard to answer. I am sure that on the whole, across the country, much of that statistic is related to diet, prenatal health care, environmental conditions (smog, chemicals, stress) and to alcoholism. Radiation, however, especially fallout from the massive tests of super bombs in the Cold War period played a role. In my conclusion of Plutopia, I was trying to make a larger point of the impact of the militarized landscape on public health, on the health of human bodies generally.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:54 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 108

He did some amazing photography of the aftermath of Chernobyl and he’s put together a slide show that he’s narrated. There are some pretty graphic images of birth defects. Here’s the website. It might interest you when you have some time.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:54 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 110

The two groups made substantial contacts in the 1990s, traveling to visit one another.

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 3:55 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 113

Thanks, I’ll take a look right now. And thanks for reading.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Are you planning another book?

bigbrother June 8th, 2013 at 3:56 pm

To Kate: Nice work thanks the future of the biosphere hangs in the balance. Two more plants in the South to go online. Yuk

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:56 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 113

Another dedicated nuclear photojournalist is James Lerager.

Gar Smith June 8th, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks to all for your questions and observations. For those who have not yet read Plutopia, I hope you have a chance to put this book on your summer reading list – and then work hard to hold our representatives more accountable for their actions in the future.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:56 pm
In response to Kate Brown @ 115

Thank you. The book was great.

greenwarrior June 8th, 2013 at 3:57 pm
In response to Gar Smith @ 118

Thanks, I’ll look him up.

Elliott June 8th, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Thank you both for coming
Great discussion
Best of luck with the book – sure is eye opening.

Thanks Bev!

Kate Brown June 8th, 2013 at 4:04 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 116

Yes, it is a collection of essays called Being There, about what a writer encounters while trying to get the story.

Sorry but the comments are closed on this post