Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
by Kate Brown
Oxford University Press, 2013, 416 pp.
When Russian and American nuclear scientists began to collaborate at the end of the Cold War, both sides quickly perceived the remarkable similarity of the workings of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and the American Department of Energy. “Identical twins” were the words of one Russian lab director I met at a scientific conference.
The opening of secret archives and closed cities has since set loose a flood of historical writing about atomic weapons programs. Technology, espionage, and health and environmental problems in both countries have been examined in popular and academic works. But despite the obvious parallels, comparative studies have been rare.
Kate Brown, a historian at the University of Maryland, begins to fill this gap with Plutopia, a fascinating study of the plutonium-making towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk in the Urals. Interviews with long-time residents and workers, some arranged with great difficulty, help Brown probe beneath a strenuously sought-after facade of normalcy.
The two settlements, created in haste when the countries were making their first atomic bombs, were soon upgraded into model cities. Ozersk’s standard of living was so far above the Soviet norm that residents insisted on keeping their town fenced in after glasnost allowed its opening. Richland, never fenced, was an island of suburban affluence among hardscrabble surroundings.
The building of the first Soviet bomb was under the direct control of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria. His minions, tasked with building a nuclear reactor and plutonium separation plant, turned instinctively to prison labor.
The initial impetus for civic improvement, in both cases, was the demand of atomic production for a stable, skilled workforce willing to accept unusual risks to health. After a while, the complex of town and factory took on a bureaucratic and political momentum of its own. Brown shows this mechanism at work on the Soviet side; the reader wishes she had similarly penetrated the inner workings of the American bureaucracy.
The building of the first Soviet bomb was under the direct control of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria. His minions, tasked with building a nuclear reactor and plutonium separation plant, turned instinctively to prison labor. Progress was slow, and the endemic disorganization of the gulag made a mockery of the secrecy that was of course insisted on.
Observing the chaos on a 1947 inspection trip, Beria purged the project leadership and put one of his enforcers in charge. Inmates were replaced with “free” laborers, penned in much like prisoners but rewarded with rations of chocolate and vodka that were a luxury on the outside. As the years went by, the construction camp was built up into the model community of Ozersk.
Not just the city, but its surrounding waterways, were excised from all published maps until the Soviet Union fell. Brown takes this as a metaphor for Ozersk’s position apart from the rest of Soviet society, but it also illustrates the difficulty of maintaining secrecy. For the censors overlooked one very visible document: hanging prominently all those years in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum, a Russian scientist once gleefully pointed out to me, was a historic map drawn by the first explorers of Siberia. There, under the gaze of foreigner and native-born alike, the plutonium center’s two secret lakes were clearly marked.
The plant itself, known as Mayak, operated from the first with a callous disregard for human lives. When pipes clogged or equipment broke down, unsuspecting workers would be sent in to receive deadly doses of radiation. The workforce soon realized that danger lurked, and safety was upgraded to prevent loss of trained employees. But as the factory aged, radioactive waste increasingly escaped. Horrific episodes of sickness and death ensued in the agricultural environs.
The American Hanford Works, although its problems were never on the same scale as Mayak’s, did no little damage to its own surroundings. Here the course of events was different. Dupont, the builder of the first installations, tried hard to minimize releases of radioactivity despite wartime pressure to cut corners. But things went downhill after General Electric took over in 1946. As years passed, the site came under the control of an insular permanent bureaucracy that paid little heed to the revolving-door contractors nominally in charge.
Regrettably, Brown’s command of the scientific side of the story is often shaky. Vagueness and misplaced emphasis are frequent, and flat-out errors crop up here and there. (She suggests, for example, that iodine-131 detected in December might have originated from a spill in April—an impossibility due to the isotope’s eight-day half-life.) Technically minded readers will also wish for at least a summary description of the workings of the production plants—the early chapters, especially, read in places like Hamlet without the prince. Another puzzling omission is Zhores Medvedev’s account of the 1957 explosion of a high-level nuclear waste tank at Mayak, published in the West in the 1970s. Medvedev, managing to piece together the basic facts of the disaster from clues in published scientific articles, gave the best possible demonstration of the difficulty of keeping atomic secrets.
These failings hardly detract from the value of Plutopia. Brown draws the right lesson from her accounts of poisoned workers, contaminated land, and the ensuing struggles over health risks and victim compensation. In the east as in the west, only under public pressure did a production-oriented bureaucracy begin to clean up.
Benjamin Ross, an environmental consultant in Washington, is author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment. He was involved in safety studies of nuclear waste disposal for many years and worked in partnership with a Russian nuclear institute in the 1990s.