Plutopia: Interview with Kate Brown on Talking Stick TV (transcript)

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
by Kate Brown, 2013

Transcript of interview: 
Mike McCormick interviews historian Kate Brown on Talking Stick TV
January 18, 2014

Do we all live in Plutopia? This is the disturbing question implied by Kate Brown’s book. By describing the towns where Americans and Soviets made plutonium for their nuclear weapons, she raises troubling questions about how the project influenced urban design and social structures of the post-nuclear world. We all became unwitting participants in the plutonium economy. She says toward the end of this interview, “… this epitomizes a lot of shifts we find in American society in the post-war years… making these kinds of exchange of body rights, rights over one’s body, and civil rights and freedoms for consumer rights and financial security, and national security made sense to a lot of Americans, not just people in Richland.”

If you can’t find the time to read the whole book, this interview serves as the next best thing. It was so good that I realized a transcript of it could serve as a comprehensive journal article that summarizes the contents of the book and all the research that went into it. I found a way to download the terribly inaccurate automated subtitles that Youtube produces, then transformed them into a proper transcript.

(Slightly edited for better presentation as a published text)

We are talking today with Kate Brown. Kate Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She has published articles in The American Historical Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Harper’s Online Edition, Critica, Slate Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement. She is the author of A Biography of No Place: from Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland, winner of the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for the best book in international European history, and she is here to talk about her new book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.

So, to start out, tell us, what was the motivation in writing Plutopia?

Well, I wrote a book that ended in the Chernobyl period, a book about Ukraine. It’s a book about how this multi-ethnic borderland after 25 years had no ethnic minorities at all. The Jews, the Germans, Byelorussians, the Poles—they were all gone. And then twenty-five years later, everybody was gone. It’s the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, and after I wrote the book I took a week summer holiday in the Chernobyl zone, and I wrote an article about it. Then an editor contacted me and asked me to write a whole book about Chernobyl. I thought there are a lot of books already about Chernobyl. I started sniffing around and I realized there are two places that had two to four times more spilled radiation than Chernobyl, and nobody had ever really heard of them. Hanford, of course, is well-known in Washington State, but not much outside Washington, and then there’s this Maiak which is in the southern Russian Urals, and it’s the answering plutonium plant for the Soviets. I thought about that, and Chernobyl is a household word, but very few have people heard about Maiak and Hanford, and I wondered why. The more I thought about it Chernobyl and Fukushima were sort of camera-ready events that occurred in one day. They blew up, the cameras were running, and they played out in a couple of weeks as big media events. Hanford and Maiak were different. They occurred behind military barricades, they occurred over four decades, and there were no accidents. There were accidents, but not really big ones. The real catastrophe occurred by design. There was intentional daily dumping of radioactive waste into the air, the ground and the water, and that to me was a chilling realization because I thought there are tens of thousands of workers who have gone through these big factories and they all were witnesses. Not one of them said anything until the 1980s. I thought, “How did that happen? How could you have this place where this kind disaster, a slow-motion disaster is going on, and nobody speaks up about it. How did they get people to do that?”

So I started looking into it, and I realized that both places had these limited-access cities exclusively for plant operators. That’s Richland in eastern Washington, and the Russian equivalent of Richland is called Ozersk. It was first called Chelyabinsk Forty. It was a code name meant to trip up the CIA. And I think the key to this complicity of silence, this conspiracy of silence, was these exclusive cities which I called Plutopia, which were set up so that working-class plant operators could live and get paid like the upper-classes, and in that way they started to align themselves with their bosses and their superiors, in really strange, mystifying ways.

So how did both of these facilities come about, both Hanford and Maiak?

I tell the story as a tandem history going back and forth between the American landscape and the Soviet landscape, and there are some surprising similarities because considering the great, vast differences between the two countries, leaders in both countries—and these were military leaders who ran these places—thought that they would build these vast factories with militarized labor living in camps. And that’s how they set it up, and so at Hanford they had Camp Hanford. It was 60,000 people living in barracks, and they brought in migrant workers from all over the country to build this vast plant. These, mostly guys, but also single women, boozed and brawled and ran off and had sex in really sort of alarming ways. In Russia, the same thing: they brought in gulag prisoners, German POWs, deportees—ethnic deportees from other parts of the country—and then set them to work building this vast plant. They boozed and brawled and had sex and were disobedient in very similar ways, and that really struck these military leaders. They realized that when they staffed these plutonium plants, once they had been built, they could not have workers who were as volatile as the product they were about to make. You can imagine a brawl or a fist fight or a strike at a plutonium plant—if somebody has some luddite action and starts banging on the equipment. That terrified them. They were terrified of these working-class people. They really didn’t like them much, so they decided that the solution to securing nuclear weapons would be the nuclear family, strangely enough. And so they set up these special towns where they had workers who were embedded in their nuclear families, living in these atomic cities, people who were paid well, whose families became dependent on this one product, and that bought a lot of complicity and loyalty and silence.

These places were federally-subsidized. People lived in these remote settings, rural, sparsely located, where the surrounding population were poor farmers who lived kind of hand-to-mouth. If you can think of eastern Washington in the 40s and 50s... Certainly the Soviet countryside was virtually impoverished for the 50s and the 60s. These places lived well. They had freestanding houses in Richland. People got thirty percent more pay, fantastic schools with PhDs teaching in them, wonderful recreational programs, and everything was very affordable. People rented houses for maybe thirty-five dollars a month. Across the river in Pasco, in the Pasco ghetto where African-Americans had to live, they paid a hundred dollars a month for a shack with no plumbing, a spigot and a dirty mud fence outside.

The same thing in Russia. They had this gated city, walled off from the rest to the community, walled off from the gulag camps and the garrisons of soldiers. Inside that gated community you could buy Finnish overcoats and German shoes and Romanian plums, chocolate and sausage—unheard-of luxuries in the Soviet provinces in the 40s and 50s. Local people started calling them “chocolate people,” just like they called Richland the Gold Coast. Outside of this gated community were gritty industrial settlements with names like Asbestos and Asbestos II where people could buy gray macaroni and then stood in line for that gray macaroni, then went home to the their dugout hovels, stooping and coughing as they went in. Their kids went to the second and third shift at overcrowded schools and they started working when they were twelve. So these special communities, these Plutopia, bought working class people in these child-centered communities a chance for social mobility and the kind of life that they never expected to lead in their lifetimes.

And did they only have that while they were working there? Did they have people that moved out and still retained their social mobility?

That’s a great question. So what you find in these towns is a certain kind of fear, and it’s not a fear of the bomb plant blowing up, and it’s not a fear of being bombed by the enemy. Those were very legitimate fears, but the people didn’t tend show it… I don’t see any evidence that they harbored them much. Instead, their biggest fear was getting tossed out of this Plutopia, this Garden of Eden. And so in Richland parents worried that their kids might misbehave and get a ticket from the police, and that that might be grounds for the father, the breadwinner in the family, to be fired from the plant. Everybody knew if you got fired, you had a month to move out of Richland and lose all these privileges that living in Richland entailed. If you did something wrong at the plant, if you said to your boss, “I think these conditions in which we’re working are particularly dirty,” that would be grounds for termination. The same thing in Ozersk: if a worker drank too much, slept with other men’s wives—that was taken up at a party meetings, and they threatened people with eviction. If I your kid dressed like Elvis Presley, listened to the Voice of America, that kid would be sent to boarding school outside the gated community and could never return, and parents were OK with that. They let their kids go because they so wanted to stay in this Eden.

There was a big explosion in 1957 at the Soviet plant in an underground waste tank—the same kind of tanks they’re having problems with now at Hanford—it overheated and blew. It blew twenty million curies of radioactive waste into the air and created a big cloud of fallout, ash and fallout, and it was hard to hide. And people who lived in the city started to get nervous, and they started resigning from the plant and leaving, but after a couple months I find all these letters of people requesting to come back. They said, “We can’t live out here in the big world. It’s too difficult. I was stupid. Please take me back.” I think for me the message from that is that they preferred the risks of living in their Plutopia—the certainty of being fed and living well—to the possible risks of putting themselves and their families in danger.

Now did they know when they were living there the danger… of the risks that are evident today from nuclear materials?

Well, there was a lot of minimizing of the risks, and a lot of “real men don’t worry about the risks of radiation,” a lot of machismo, and this relativism and a lot of minimizing. So you’d hear if you lived in Richland it was more dangerous to operate your household appliances than to work in the plutonium plant. You would hear a lot about background radiation in Denver, and that radiation is a normal part of life. This is of course manufactured, this plutonium is a man-made product—the most volatile product humankind has ever made and there’s nothing natural about it.

There is nothing natural about the millions of gallons of radioactive waste that come from irradiating a hundred tons a uranium, processing it down to a few kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. Plutonium plants are the messiest stop in the assembly line for nuclear weapons and these plants generated a great deal of waste. Part of the reason, and this is going to your question about what people knew, is that there wasn’t a lot of talk about this waste and there wasn’t a lot of focus on it. They spent more on the Richland annual school budget than they spent on dealing with radioactive waste in the fifties. And so they did what humans do with waste. They buried it. They dug holes in the ground and poured in medium-level waste, they put low-level waste in the river and they took high-level waste and they dug holes, made tanks and stuck it in the tanks. These were temporary solutions when they came up with them. They knew this could not be a long-term solution. Now, sixty years later we still have the same tanks that are leaking, heading towards the aquifers and heading towards the Columbia River. These temporary solutions have become semi-permanent and it seems almost unfixable. To this date we have no technological solutions to what to do with that waste.

And again you mention the explosion in 1957 with a tank there. Were they basically having the same problems and doing the same things we were here?

Yeah, they didn’t spend much on waste. They didn’t invest much in it. In fact, in 1949 the Soviets were racing to catch up with the Americans in terms of the number of bombs. They started their project in 1945 right after Hiroshima. Two weeks later the Soviets got ahold of an Air Force bombing map targeting with these new nuclear weapons who we would possibly bomb. They realized that there were fifty Soviet cities on that map. Now it was August 1945, the Soviets and Americans were still allies. This was shocking. So the Soviets felt they needed to build a nuclear shield as they called it… needed to do it yesterday, and so they set about… what they thought they were doing was securing the nation from an imminent American nuclear apocalypse, an attack that would create nuclear apocalypse in the Soviet Union. So this was something that really couldn’t wait, and so in 1949 they built these underground tanks. They were following the American model and they ran out of tanks, and so they could have stopped production, and built new tanks, then start producing again, but that would have slowed down their production of weapons, so they decided to keep producing and to dump that high-level waste instead into the Techa River. 

Now, unlike the Columbia, the Techa River is a slow, turgid muddy river that gets bogged down in a number swamps and lakes on its way down river where 28,000 people were living directly on the river. They had no wells and they were drinking from this river, bathing in it, fishing in it, swimming in it. Irrigating their crops and their livestock in this river. They didn’t know in 1949 this was happening, and only in early 1951 did they go down with some geiger counters and take some measurements. Scientists who went there were horribly shocked. The kids, everything was irradiated, the cooking supplies, kitchens, their homes the food, and the bodies of the people who lived there. The kids’ stomachs were dangerous sources of radiation, so they set about evacuating 10 out of 16 villages, but that was a very slow process. It took about 10 years and they left a number villages. They left the biggest ones, probably because it was expensive to move them—the bigger ones—to rebuild facilities for them elsewhere, but over time, in the 60s, they thought this was kind of a natural experiment going on (the third generation of people [is now] living on contaminated territory). It would be interesting to know what happens to people living on contaminated territory, so doctors started showing up every year taking blood samples, and when they developed them, running people through whole body scanners, taking readings of the ambient environment for radiation, radioactive contamination. They have this amazing database now which they sell. They advertise, “We have the only three-generational cohort of people living on irradiated territory. If you want our biomedical data sets, you can have it,” but the people who live there of course did not know about this until after Chernobyl.

Now they have political organizations called the White Mice, for instance, where they feel like they were left there to be tested. That’s a suspicion they have and there might be something to it, so what they got was something that so far has been diagnosed only in the Russian Urals and is called chronic radiation syndrome [CRS] and it’s a syndrome that comes from long-term exposure to low doses of radiation and a body eventually comes up with cancer with this kind of exposure, but long before you get cancer people get symptoms such as chronic fatigue, anemia, severe anemia, diabetes, problems with the circulation system and digestive tract. People have trouble with fertility and their offspring have all kinds birth defects, autoimmune disorders, and so on. So what happens is a whole community of people, for instance, in Muslioumovo, still living there at the Techa River, who just don’t feel right and the kids are minimally functioning.

When I would show up they would offer me a meal. There are no jobs in this community because how can you have any kind of thriving economy in irradiated territory? So they are farming. They are living off the land, which takes on new meaning on contaminated ground. They offer you goose and veal and cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes, none of which you can eat. So that’s the real tragedy about these places, and I think in the American context with the downwinders, if you go to those communities they have many of the same complaints that these people in Muslioumovo have, that Russian doctors have diagnosed as chronic radiation syndrome.

Now chronic radiation syndrome is too vague of a complaint to really hold up in an American court. If you are going to sue a corporation for contamination, what you need is a singular disease that can be clearly traced to a single radioactive isotope. So iodine in the air, iodine in the thyroid, thyroid disease, thyroid cancer: that’s a rock solid case, but vague complaints from a number of different kinds of radioactive isotopes that are synergistically working with DDT in the environment and other chemicals? We don’t have the kind of sophisticated medical science to even evaluate that. And scientists who’ve been mostly working in labs, not among populations, haven’t even really asked those questions in the American landscape. That’s one of the strange things about the story. There are some uses to a closed society. The Americans at Richland, at the Hanford labs, were nervous about asking questions about what happened to the downwinders when they were breathing in all this: from the Green Run, for instance, eleven thousand curies of radioactive iodine. 

What happens next? They can’t ask these questions because they’re worried about undue alarm, public hysteria. They talk about not the threat of radiation, but the threat of public exposure, not exposure to radiation, but exposure to the public finding things out. As one official put it when I asked why these studies of downwinders were never carried out in the 60s, he said, “Well, what if we found something out?” In the Soviet case, it’s not an open society. There’s no independent press, so the doctors were freer to ask open-ended scientific questions about these populations, secure in what they thought would be the knowledge that nobody would ever open their classified medical records. Of course, when the Soviet Union fell apart, these records were opened, and we find all these what they call “data sets” of people who’ve been living long-term in these places. And in many ways [these are] a more sophisticated understanding of what radiation does to the human body long before cancer manifests itself.

Talk more about the Green Run.

So the premise of writing about these two towns together is that they are very much in conversation with each other throughout the Cold War. Hanford is created; the Maiak plant is its answer, and the two are alike… They used to say in Ozersk if you dug a whole straight through the earth you would end up in Richland. And that’s how I see them, as two cities that are rotating on an axis around the globe and when one plant builds more reactors, the other plant has to answer with more reactors and more processing plants and more plutonium. So in August 1949, the Soviets tested their first bomb in Kazakhstan, in Semipalatinsk. Americans had pilots circling the globe with air filters there to detect just this eventuality, and so they knew right away that the Soviets had tested this bomb, and they were shocked because they didn’t think the Soviets would have a bomb for maybe ten, maybe twenty years. They underestimated the Soviets greatly, so they were scared by this, terrified. What are we going to do? We need to know how much the Soviets are producing, how much plutonium they’ve got going there. 

They guessed quite rightly that in a hurry the Soviets would produce bombs with green fuel, meaning that when you irradiate uranium fuel cells, the safest thing to do is to put them in a pool of water for three months so that they can decay the short-lived radioactive isotopes like radioactive iodine. But if you’re in a hurry, you don’t have three months, so you do thirty days, and then you get what’s called green fuel. This is very dirty radioactive fuel that then you process through the plants. As they process it through the plants, radioactive gasses and much higher concentrations of radioactivity go up through the stacks and spread into the environment. And one can detect them on the global pathways (airways). So that’s what the Americans were probably trying to do when they ran the Green Run in November, just two months after the Soviet test of 1949.

Out at Hanford they processed green fuel and the whole experiment went wrong. They would like to have waited for weather that was clear with the wind picking up, lofting and dispersing this radioactive gas widely across the landscape, but instead they set a day when the winds were drafting down towards the earth and then on top of that there was rain that was bringing the gasses right down to the ground. They tried to track this—there were about eleven thousand curies of radioactive iodine that came out that day, out of the stacks. They tried to track it but they found that their filters clogged up, that their planes got lost, but they did notice that there was just as much radioactivity in Walla Walla sixty miles away as there was right next to the plant stacks. 

What they found is that rather than radioactive waste dispersing evenly across the landscape in some diffuse pattern—so everywhere there would just be a little bit of radioactivity that wouldn’t hurt anyone—what they found is that radioactivity goes with the pathways, either in the ground or in the water or the air, to certain spots repeatedly creating what they called hotspots. So places in Walla Walla tended to be hotspots. Places on up-slopes of valleys tended to have hot spots, and you were unfortunate if you were in those spots where the radioactivity had concentrated rather than being diffuse. So there are a lot of people who feel like the Green Run—especially if they were young at the time and they were in these pathways—they feel like the Green Run was the cause of some of their problems with thyroid cancers, thyroid disease, and other maladies that they had.

I’ve interviewed downwinders who lived in Walla Walla at the time and one of the women there took us to a cemetery there—they have specific baby cemeteries and you can just see dozens of these babies that died in the same time period. That seems highly unusual to me.

I saw that and there’s a very similar Spokane cemetery, same kind of thing. About 30% of a 150-year-old cemetery. 30% of the bodies in there are babies in the 50s. So I asked a grad student of mine to run a study of the census of Benton and Franklin counties around Richland from 1950 to 1959 she found that there’s this big spike in infant mortality. That’s children dying within the first years of life in exactly Franklin and Benton counties, especially in Richland. Now, I find it strange that fifty years later I’m the first one to uncover this? And I think that reveals the lack of curiosity about public health around this plutonium plant that has been manifest all these years because to find out too much would be a problem.

And yet it seems from your earlier statement about how if the Soviets were doing something then the Americans responded, “Oh, we’ve got to do that.” If they’re doing this testing on their own people, you would think the Americans would have said we’ve got to do testing on our people, too.

Yeah, you would have thought that, and it’s true that in the 1960s the Americans… at the Hanford Labs… the plant closed really about 1964. They ceased to produce much plutonium after 1964. They moved the plutonium production facilities more to Savannah River in Georgia, and they were looking for something to do to keep these people employed… in these nice houses… at this point by 1964 people in Richland had bought their own houses, and they didn’t want to be living in a ghost town and lose their investment in their real estate, which is usually an American family’s major investment, so they were desperate to have another economy to depend on. One of those was in fact research in the Hanford Labs, so they did start doing for the first time research on what they called “human subjects” around the area, and they developed a whole body counter and went around in the community of Ringold right across the river from the plant, a small farming community. They ran a study in the early 60s. There were only twenty people in the study, and two kids in the study came out with very high counts of radioactive iodine in their bodies. But even when they found that, they said the gratifying result of this study is we only found two kids out of twenty with high counts. So even when they did very small, limited studies, they still were Pollyannas about looking at the results of these studies, or looking any farther.

What they tended to do was come up with research programs that generated income but didn’t have much medical value. One of these was the prisoner testes study in Walla Walla at the State Penitentiary. In 1962, there was a criticality accident. Three guys were exposed to the blue light of a limited chain reaction. They got very sick from it. They were put in the shielded hospice, a special hospital ward. Doctors in spacesuits treated them because these guys were so radioactive for a time after the exposure. One of the things they discovered is that these guys all lost their sperm and became infertile for a period of time after this accident. You can see this is as a factory full of men and a lab full of male scientists. This made them very nervous and so they wanted to find out what this was and why this was caused… if they could reverse it.

So they came up with this prisoner testes study where they went to Walla Walla and they got volunteer prisoners, paid them five dollars and then set up a special bed in which the men laid face down, and then their testes were submerged in body-temperature water and they shot them from both sides with x-rays. They started at two rads; no sperm, went up to four rads, no sperm. They kept going higher and higher to 60 rads. This was a twelve-year study with no change in the results. I asked a lot of times, “What’s the medical value of continuing to go higher and higher on these guys when you know that they’re not going to have any sperm after two rads? Why go to sixty and why do it for twelve years?” The only answer I can come up with is that it was a lucrative government grant for a long-term study. Two professors, one at the University of Washington, the other at the University of Oregon, ran the study. They worked in Hanford Labs. People at Hanford Labs were very nervous about this. Nobody wanted to press the button to zap the testes: “You press it.” “No, you press it.” This was going back and forth in the correspondence because no one wanted to be liable because they realized that there was something a little bit fishy about this study. So finally they had prisoners press the button for each other. They called them inmate technicians. Later some of the prisoners who came up with cancers and became sick, and found this to be very painful, said, “You know, this inmate didn’t like me and he held the button extra-long.” There was something highly immoral about the whole project, yet it went on for 12 years. So that’s the kind of medical studies that the Americans were up to.

I also heard from people who remember when they were kids maybe participating in that whole body counter testing. Did that occur anywhere beyond that particular city you mentioned?

They went around to schools and they had a bus, and in the bus was a whole body counter. They invited the kids and they gave them comic books and lollipops and made it fun. These kids went through the whole body counters in the farm communities outside Mesa, for instance, O’Connell, Pasco and then in Richland itself. People remember, especially the farmers in Mesa and Pasco. They talk about how they had to go through these whole body counters and then they had these green books that were distributed by the scientists at the plant asking them to write down everything they ate in this crazy detail. They would laugh about all that crazy detail: “I can’t believe we had to do that.” At the time, I think people thought it was maybe a sign that they were being cared for. [They thought] “They’re looking after us, and if they find something wrong they will tell us.” I think in some ways these studies gave people a sense of assurance that the scientists, who know so much, who in our open democratic society are looking after our best interests, would let us know if there were some problem.

There are some parents who said that they were never consulted when their kids were going through those programs at school.

Yeah, remarkable, huh? It just happened at school without any kind of releases. Yeah, that’s how they just went to the schools and did it.

There was another account of households where there would be a drop-off in the morning of empty milk bottles that people would give urine samples into, and then put out, and there’d be the equivalent of the milkman coming by later in the day to pick up urine bottles.

Yeah, it’s amazing. When I think about it: here were these Americans living in a thriving democracy. They were making bombs to defend American democracy, yet in their town they had no free market. The corporation selected businesses and gave them monopolies, and then since the businesses had monopolies, they made sure they set prices, and went around and checked prices. So it was sort of like a little bit of a planned economy. There was no free press. GE [General Electric] set up the Richland Villager and they hired a former army censor to be the editor. He knew just the kind of stories they wanted. Or the PR [public relations] department just wrote the stories. So there was no free press. There were no local governments because GE set up an advisory council and selected people to be on it, and those people were paid employees and had to be docile. There was no city hall. There was no town council. There was no mayor. A GE lawyer ran the town. There were no local governments and there was no freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. People knew quite clearly they could not say what they wanted to say. They couldn’t join a political party that would be too far to the left or they would lose their place in the town.

So here were these Americans giving up their basic rights, and they were even giving up their rights over their bodies by putting… being willing to put their urine samples on the front stoop every morning, willing to let their kids be run through these whole body counters. So I think one of the compensations for them was they gained in exchange consumer rights. They gained the right to have this cheap, affordable housing, secure pay at thirty percent more than the surrounding counties, and available goods and great opportunities for their kids in these superior schools with the superior recreation programs—all tax-free. Local taxes did not exist. All federally subsidized. And that’s this notion of a consumers' republic.

All across America in the post-war period Americans gave up notions of American egalitarianism and opportunity and equality for all, equal opportunity for everyone, in exchange for moving into limited access all-white suburbs and housing that was federally subsidized by the federal government in the form of FHA loans, and then subsidies to build national defense highways [the interstate highway system] out to them from the increasingly blighted inner cities where minorities were left behind.

I think the differences between Pasco where temporary construction workers lived—construction workers who were black who lived in Pasco had to live in the Pasco ghetto in a sort of Jim Crow* situation—and Richland, the Gold Coast, epitomize these stark contrast all across America between the blighted inner cities, increasingly blighted, and increasingly all-white affluent suburbs. And in that all-white affluent suburb, as in Richland, people believed that everybody lived like them, that America was a democracy, that everybody was the same. It was a classless society and everybody had an equal opportunity. They didn’t see because they were cut off from it and because it was better not to see the Pasco ghetto on the other side, just as they didn’t see the blighted inner-cities and think it had anything to do with them. It seemed natural that those people just didn’t make the grade. They weren’t good enough to get to a place like Richland where only the chosen few lived. I think this epitomizes a lot of shifts we find in American society in the post-war years. So making these kinds of exchange, of body rights, rights over one’s body, and civil rights and freedoms for consumer rights and financial security, and national security made sense to a lot of Americans, not just people in Richland.

It just seems like there’s a bit of karma at play there, that those that really benefited financially and felt security are the ones who are now coming forward and trying through lawsuits to get compensation for their long-term exposures to the radionuclides coming out of Hanford.

Yeah. Most of the downwinders are people who were in the farming communities. People who worked at the plant were monitored and they wore badges and their environments were monitored, so it’s much easier to reconstruct their exposure and to say, “Oh, yeah, that cancer you have could possibly be caused by Hanford exposures, so here’s compensation." Workers got compensation at the plant, already in the 90s. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars was something that came cross right away in the 1990s. Downwinders were not monitored. They didn’t wear badges. Their ambient environment wasn’t monitored, so when they say, “My cancer is caused by Hanford,” it’s much harder to make the case. Once again there’s this divide between the people who worked at the plant, who agreed to take these risks, who also get compensated for the risks that they take, and then there’s this other divide in the farmers who did not agree to take these risks, who did not work at the plant, who are still not compensated. These downwinders’ lawsuits have been going on for twenty-five years. People who were plaintiffs have died of their cancers by now. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are in bankruptcy, and the federal government has spent sixty million dollars defending these corporations because they had vowed to defend from the start. That was part of the original agreement. A law firm in Chicago, Kirkland and Ellis, has made a lot of money in fees defending these corporations with taxpayer dollars.

And again this gets back to what you brought up earlier… that this is a military-run city and installation but they doled out most of the work to these contractors that came in and cleaned up, so to speak.

Right. And a lot of the dirty work in both these places… people now in the Fukushima context we call jumpers… were not regular employees, long-standing employees. They were people who came in, worked temporarily and were sent out to do construction work on contaminated ground underneath the streams of the smokestacks, where this yellow plume is coming out that eroded women’s nylons. Those were construction workers. A lot of those construction workers out in eastern Washington were minorities. They did not live in Richland. They lived in North Richland or in Pasco. They worked for a couple years and then maybe they’d move on. When there was a spill or something needed to be cleaned up, those people often did it too. They were not monitored. That was part of the corporate policies. You don’t monitor these temporary workers. So they left. There are probably three hundred thousand workers who worked in these places and left, and we don’t know. They took with them their ingested radioactive isotopes. They took with them their possible medical complications. When they tally up the number of workers who were exposed and who are sick at Hanford, that’s just a tiny fraction of the people who were actually exposed on the job. The same thing happened in Russia. They brought in prisoners and conscripted soldiers to do the dirty work at the cleanups. Local farmers had to do cleanup work on this river when they evacuated these places. Those people were never monitored either. So jumpers, temporary workers who served as jumpers, were instrumental in creating a mirage of healthy pink Plutopias.

Did the US use any, in addition to the radioactive experiments they did on the prisoners, did they use prisoners in any other capacity for building Hanford?

Yes they did. In 1944 they had what they called a severe labor crisis. This crisis was inspired not only by the fact that it was wartime and workers were in short supply, but also by the fact that they equated a secure labor force with whiteness, so they did not want to hire, neither the Army Corps nor Dupont [the private contractor], they didn’t want to hire African-American workers or Mexican-American workers. There was a surplus of both of these categories of workers because, as we know, it was a segregated US Army, so there were 300,000 approved A1 African-American draftees that weren’t going into the army because there was no place for them since they weren’t fighting. There was lots of Mexican-American labor that was organized in farm administration mobile camps to do migrant work for harvests. Those guys could have been called in to do a lot of this manual labor for jobs, but they didn’t want these people. They didn’t think they were secure enough, so finally the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] got involved and said you have to take a minimum quota of 10 percent African-Americans. So they built a special segregated part of Camp Hanford for what they called “the negroes” at the time. They had separate facilities. They introduced Jim Crow to the Pacific Northwest, but they also built Prison Industries Inc. A private company came and said, “Listen we can put up a labor camp right here and that will help you with your labor force.” So they brought in white conscientious objectors from McNeil Island, set up whole separate facilities, a labor camp for them. They spent several hundred thousand dollars building this thing, then these guys were used to dismantle Camp Hanford at the end of 1945, to harvest fruits that were left rotting on the vine in this new territory that had been zoned off from the local farmers, and do other kinds of jumper-related work. It was a very expensive thing to do, and it was all really to avoid hiring minority labor because minorities were associated with disloyalty or volatility.

So about the dismantling of Camp Hanford at the end of the war: they didn’t need the military barracks anymore?

They built Camp Hanford right on the plant premises and so once they started producing plutonium it was a dirty landscape, so they needed to get the people out. They couldn’t have 60,000 people living right directly next to these reactors which could blow. They were brand new. They really didn’t know how they would work… The processing plant was really the dirtiest [of all the facilities]. They thought the reactors would be more dangerous, but it turned out that the processing plant where they take irradiated uranium fuel cells and run them through a series of chemical baths to distill away tiny grams of plutonium [was more dangerous]. That job was often given in both countries to women, even though it turns out those were the dirtiest jobs. And at Dupont they were saying… what do you think they’d write to the Army Corps? [Such things as] “Maybe because we’re going to make this super poisonous product we shouldn’t hire women who are younger than a menopausal age. What about fertility problems? What about mutants and monsters in offspring?” In these letters they were real nervous about it. When people say, “Oh, they didn’t know much about radiation in the 1940s,” that’s absolutely not true. They knew a great deal and they were worried, but because again they had this labor crisis which was an artificial labor crisis based on notions of class and race and loyalty, they hired… they recruited women from across the country and put them in these radiochemical processing plants and exposed them. They did the same thing in Russia. They gendered the physics and the reactors as male and radioprocessing as female because in there you have solutions and you pour two cups into here. It was like cooking, and the women at Hanford, they would say the bosses… when they applied for a job, the bosses would say, “Do you like to cook or sew?” This one woman told me, “I didn’t like to do either, but I said I’d prefer to cook” and they said OK, you go to the radioprocessing plant because there you’re measuring potions. They thought women would be especially good workers because they were very accurate and they’re good at following directions specifically. They didn’t ask a lot of questions. That was their notion of women.

And how did they present the job, in terms of hazard to the women…?

Well the women said, “I was real nervous about going to these places.” Then I asked a lot of questions about safety. The men who were the supervisors—and men [not women] were supervisors at these places—were  sent to Chicago, the University Chicago, and they were given training. They were taught what the process was. The women were not sent anywhere for training. They were given a very brief three-week “this is how to do things” and not given any background about what the chemistry and the physics were to the kinds of processes they were doing. So they were basically made to work in ignorance, and they were hoping that in so doing women would worry less about what was happening.

But they caught right on. There was a woman, Marge DeGoyer, and she told me that those guys, those chemists with their fancy college degrees, "They would come to our lab, and they would hand us formulas over the threshold. They wouldn’t even walk in our labs because they knew it was so dirty." And as I talked to Marge… she’d had cancer all over her body and she died just a couple months after I interviewed her… [She told me] there was sort of a hierarchy of labor from working class all the way up to management, and with it was a hierarchy of exposure. The more you knew, the more you could keep yourself safe from exposures, and the less you knew, the more you could blindly stumble into harm’s way.

I have to assume there were no labor unions to protect these people.

There eventually was a nuclear workers’ labor union that emerged later, and what they seemed to be interested in was acknowledging… getting the corporations to acknowledge that the workers were working in hazardous environments—not always so much so that they would change the hazardous environments but it seems more so that they would get them extra pay—hardship pay. That was what the union wanted to deliver to their workers.

There was also a carpenters’ union and I found most of those records have disappeared, but I did find some snatches of things where the carpenters’ union was writing in saying, “Listen, our guys are out there in these fields working and they’re not being monitored, and they’re developing strange sores on their arms and the doctors tell them not to worry about it, it’s not cancer, but they don’t feel very well. They’re having troubles with their lungs.” So there were these issues that were coming up and the union representatives were worried about them, but unions, especially during the war years and in the 50s, union representatives did not have access to the plant. They could only meet plant workers outside of the gates. So these big gated-off factories gave the corporations that ran them a bubble of immunity to do more or less what they wanted to inside those walls while they ran these plants. I would argue there’s a little bit of that to the cleanup as well.

Talk about those people now outside of Richland, the farmers that are trying to get recognition and or compensation. One of the people in your book is Tom Bailey.

Everybody in eastern Washington knows Tom Bailey because he’s been a very outspoken proponent of the downwinders, and he’s a guy who has the gift of the gab. He knows just about everybody around, and he spends a lot of time in coffee shops picking up information. When I first met Tom, I must tell you I thought he was kind of crazy because he was telling me the most crazy stories about how the feds used to come in beige cars to the Pasco slaughterhouse and get the organs from their sheep and their cows after they’d been slaughtered, and they would take them off in stainless steel dishes. He would tell me stories about reverse wells where they dumped in medium-level waste that then went into the shared aquifer. He would talk about babies born without heads in what he calls the “cancer mile” around Mesa. I just thought he had the gift of the gab and was given to exaggerate, but I found as I did research that a lot of what Tom told me turned out to be true. 

I could find evidence of it in the archives. A lot of what he knew about how the winds sweep up valleys… He would say, “I ran for public office and I campaigned among old people because old people vote, and I would go to these communities and they would have all kinds old people. I turned to my friend and said ‘why don’t we have any old people in our communities?’ And he’d say they all died of cancer.” Tom said the people who lived up the hillside; those communities all got poisoned. People down in the valleys were safer. I also thought that sounded very random, but then I found studies that said exactly that, and then Tom would say, “I finally realized why I’m OK and all the goody two-shoes I went to school with are dead! I said, “Why?” and he said, “Well, when their parents told them to the drink their milk and eat their vegetables, they did, and I snuck off to the store and ate Twinkies and Coke.” And I did find actually a study in which pigs that were fed a local diet got sick, and pigs that were fed a poor and artificial diet (in Hanford they did these studies on animals) thrived. So it was it was kind of odd that over and over again these crazy-seeming stories from this apparently unreliable narrator turned out to have a good deal of truth.

It sounds like we’ve finally found a single place where eating Twinkies and Coke is actually the healthy way to go.

Amazing as that sounds.

Talk about where you got the bulk of the information for your book.

Information is always a problem when you’re talking about secret military installations in both Russia and the United States. After the Chernobyl disaster, local populations in both places… and these activists are real heroes. I think we need to reflect on that... [activists] demanded to see the record of contamination in both of these nuclear facilities. Activists among the downwinders, led by some Seattle reporters and some reporters in Spokane got—and The New York Times—got the Department of Energy to declassify tens of thousands of documents. The Department of Energy sort of over-declassified, threw all these documents at the feet of these activists, thinking that they would be intimidated in this welter of technical material, and they would back off, but they didn’t. They started reading it. They got scientists lined up and they got people for technical information. They found all these amazing stories in these records, and that really blew apart the Hanford myth of safety.

The same thing happened out in the Russian Urals. Activists got together. They started talking to the people in these villages. They started talking to defecting plant workers who had amazing stories to tell about these accidents, these disasters in 1957 and with Techa River, and they got them to declassify a fair amount of information.

So I used those records that were declassified, and then I would go talk to people and especially in Russia people were nervous about talking to me. I couldn’t get into the closed city, so I camped out in a village just outside of the closed city, and I lived in this little hut, and I had to chop my own wood and pump my own water and carry it with a wooden yoke from the well. But I had this modern cell phone and I would wait for that cell phone to ring. My contact inside the closed city would call me and say, “I’m sending one out to you, and this one’s kind of nervous, so I couldn’t tell her you were American, so I said you were Estonian.” We would meet at a third neutral location in a senior center, and I would interview these people, and they would tell me their stories. Some took a look at me and realized I was American and turned around and left, but others were quite brave and courageous and told me what they could of their stories. And a lot of people did because they were sick and they felt they had been made sick by these plants and that they had been denied compensation, so they had reasons to talk to me, too. They thought that that would be good for them.

I talked to doctors who had done medical research. I talked to people who had worked as engineers and physicists at the plants. I talked to everybody I could who was willing to talk to me. Those oral interviews I would cross reference with the archival documents, and I got as close as I could to what I thought was the truth. But I would invite my readers to read it and judge for themselves.

And some of those documents, in addition to being in your book, are available online now.

Right. There is a DOE [Department of Energy] open net which has… I don’t know… more than 60,000 documents and photographs, and you can just click on them and download these documents and read them for yourself. It’s fascinating stuff, and there are more stories to be told when people have the patience to go through them.

And did you find people in the tri-cities over at Hanford to be fairly open about this?

Fairly open, but not always that open. There’s a certain long-lasting boosterism in the tri-cities: “We don’t have a problem here,” and there’s a divide between the people in Richland who are seen as sort of cut off from the local farming communities, and the local farming communities can sometimes be a bit resentful of Richland and its pre-eminence in the tri-cities. There are all these tensions going on, so one time I was invited to a dinner party then I got disinvited. Those kinds of things would go on. I was working in... Richland has a local museum... an archive of the museum. I was working there in 2008. In 2009, I showed up again, and the whole archive had disappeared. It had been taken by the feds, the archivist said, to be vetted for post-9/11 material. This archive had people’s memoirs and family photographs—I think nothing that would threaten national security, but in the post-9/11 climate, access to information was getting more and more limited each year that I did research on this book.

Finally, what are you hoping will become of your book?

I hope that people will look at this tandem history and see that there are some striking similarities between how easy it was to deny radioactive contamination and public health effects in both the socialist Soviet Union and in American democracy, and that despite the vast differences in these two countries and these two political systems, there was something overarching about the nuclear umbrella that created very similar kinds of cultures and social systems, and systems of knowledge. We need to take a really close look at how the demands of nuclear technology and nuclear secrecy and security create systems and communities that are extremely undemocratic and hierarchical, and also create these plutonium disasters, the full impact of which we’ve yet to really fully digest…

… both figuratively and literally. Well with that we are unfortunately out of time. I want to thank you very much for spending time with us today.

Thanks, Mike, very much.

See the previous post on this blog related to this topic: Commucapitalism in Cold War Plutopia.

*The Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States, lasting from the time of Reconstruction until 1965, enforced racial segregation in a “separate but equal” status which actually produced grievous inequality. 


Peddlers of the Apocalypse: Voices from Chernobyl, and Expo 86

The prime years of my life are bookended by Chernobyl and Fukushima. All the important things happened there between the ages of 27 and 52. In April of 1986, I was in training for one of my first jobs out of university as a host at the Canada Pavilion of Expo 86 in Vancouver. When the news broke about an explosion at a nuclear power plant in the USSR, I was struck by how little the people around me seemed concerned about it. We were working in a stunning new architectural landmark now known as Canada Place. The views of the mountains and the harbor were spectacular. The staff of young hosts had been selected from all over Canada as if in a modeling audition (I exclude myself—I got in through a second round of last-minute hiring). There were only two things this group wanted to do: work and party.

Everyone was getting ready for the big opening day, the excitement of greeting the world and all the VIPs that would be coming through. Lady Di and Prince Charles appeared at the opening. Vice President George Bush came one day. I saw Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pause to wave at the staff for a few minutes. John Travolta came to see the exhibits one hot summer day, and every female staff member left her post immediately to get a glimpse of him. And this was in the doldrums of his career between Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction.
Most days it was an annoying stream of tourists from the Midwest, people seeing mountains and ocean for the first time ever. In the first week of operations, a nine-year-old child died in the rotating theater that moved the seated audience from the Goose and Beaver show (that was a real thing, I kid you not) in the Canada Celebration Theater to the film in the Earthwatch Theater. The child had made the mistake of sitting on her father’s shoulders while the whole platform of seats rotated through a low opening in the wall. I have always felt haunted by this accident because at first look I had thought it seemed dangerous, but I said nothing. I was just hoping I didn’t get assigned to this theater where I’d have to be the one pressing the button. During training, when we were asked, “Any questions?” it was clear they didn’t want any pesky questions from the trainees, especially ones like “Who dreamed up this accident waiting to happen?” A week later Expo opened on the grim note of a dead child, but a large compensation was paid out quickly and the show went on. Expo turned a profit and put Vancouver on the map, supposedly. This marked the beginning of a new era for the city when its economy shifted from a dependence on natural resources to a reliance on real estate speculation. Real estate is actually called an "industry" now.
Chernobyl was happening as the background to all of this, and I wasn’t busy most of the time when I was just pacing the deck of Canada Place, waiting to “host” and answer questions from the tourists in either of Canada’s official languages. Remembering it now, it seems ironic that our Alfred Sung-designed uniform jackets were the color of uranium yellowcake.
There was a lot of time to just look at the big sky and think about what was happening over the horizon on the other side of the world, or to wonder what my counterparts at the USSR pavilion were thinking while they had to put on a brave face for the tourists. There was talk of radionuclides circulating the globe, and a barely-averted second explosion that could have heavily contaminated all of Europe. Years later I learned that the RADNET monitoring post in Revelstoke, British Columbia recorded a big spike in Iodine 131 (251 Bq/cubic meter, on May 13, 1986). But at the time no one around me cared or wanted to understand. The Expo 86 theme was “world in motion, world in touch,” transportation and communication, but everyone preferred act as if Ukraine was on another planet. It was strange to realize that this is what it would be like if the world were about to end. There would be no panic. No one would want to stop his daily routine or forget about whatever simple comforts and joys he might have to look forward to. We’ll keep shopping and saying “have a nice day” until the very last moment. We couldn’t even face up to our own techno-bureaucratic failure and shut down a theater long enough to properly show remorse for the death of a child.
Reported in The Hour, Norwalk, Connecticut, May 10, 1986
Looking back on it now, it seems like after 1986 I went to sleep for the next twenty-five years, most of which I spent in Japan. I forgot about Chernobyl, and seldom thought about what millions of people under the fallout were living through, how it had divided their lives into two distinct parts: a pre and a post- catastrophe. In my long sleep I had many nice dreams, one particularly good one in which I was married to a beautiful woman and we had three fantastic children. Such an indulgence. The events of the world--like the many disconcerting incidents at Japanese nuclear plants--sometimes disturbed this dream, but not enough to stop me from getting back to it. It didn’t end until the meltdown fallout landed in my yard in March 2011.
Now I’m awake. I can’t forget, and I can’t go back to sleep. Every April when the Chernobyl anniversary comes around I go back to the oral histories and recall what the catastrophe revealed to people there: a truth about the post-nuclear world that most people prefer not to think about.
You can learn so much more from the oral histories compared to the scientific reports. I reach to the shelf now and thumb through these books like my grandfather once looked through the Bible every April looking for inspiration for his Easter sermon in his small-town Anglican Church.
This year I reread the account of Sergei Gurin, a filmmaker from Minsk who was sent to Chernobyl to record man’s historic battle against his own creation. He began by following the training and habits which told him to point his camera at heroes, and feats of sacrifice and hope, but the radiation slowly broke down all accustomed ways of looking at the world, melted his fear of showing something that didn’t fit with standard propaganda. Finally, he saw a question from a child as a voice from the future, something which forever turned his gaze toward that which he said had been completely ignored in Russian culture and Soviet ideology.

Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2005)
by Svetlana Alexievich, pages 105-114

… I started filming the apple trees in bloom. The bumblebees are buzzing, everything is bridal white. Again, people are working. The gardens are in bloom. I’m holding the camera in my hands, but I don’t understand it. This isn’t right! The exposure is normal, the picture is pretty, but something’s not right. And then it hits me: I don’t smell anything. The garden is blooming, but there’s no smell. I learned later that sometimes the body reacts to high doses of radiation by blocking the function of certain organs. At the time, I thought of my mother who is seventy-four years old and can’t smell, and I figured it had happened to me too. I asked the others. There were three of us: “How do the apple trees smell?”
“They don’t smell like anything.”
Something was happening to us. The lilacs didn’t smell—lilacs! And I got this sense that everything around me was fake, that I was on a film set. And that I couldn’t understand it. I’d never read about anything like it…
… One day I filmed people who’d been in concentration camps. They try to avoid meeting one another. I understand that. There’s something unnatural about getting together and remembering the war. People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another. There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about. About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative. In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books. Sooner the other way around. People aren’t heroes.
We’re all peddlers of the apocalypse. Big and small. I have these images in my mind, these pictures. The chairman of the collective farm wants two cars so that he can transport his family with all its clothes and furniture, and so the Party organization wants a car too. It demands fairness. Meanwhile, I’ve seen that for several days they don’t have enough vehicles to transport kids to nursery school. And here two cars aren’t enough to pack up all their things, including three-liter cans of jam and pickled vegetables. I saw how they packed them up the next day. I didn’t shoot that, either. We bought some salami, some canned food, in the store, but we were afraid to eat it. We drove it around with us, though, because we didn’t want to throw it out.
The mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse, also. That’s what I understood. Man will gossip, and kiss up to the bosses, and save his television and ugly fur coat. And people will be the same until the end of time. Always.
… I have this big, long film in my memory, the one I didn’t make. It’s got many episodes. We’re all peddlers of the apocalypse.
One time we went with the soldiers into a hut, and there was an old lady living there.
“All right, grandma, let’s go.”
“Sure, boys.”
“Then get your things together, grandma.”
We wait outside, smoking. And then this old lady comes out: she’s carrying an icon, a cat, and a little bundle in a knot. That’s all she’s bringing.
“Grandma, you can’t bring the cat. It’s not allowed. His fur is radioactive.”
“No, boys, I won’t go without the cat. How can I leave him? I won’t leave him by himself. He’s my family.”
Well, with that old lady, and with that apple tree that had no smell, that’s when I started. Now I only film animals. I once showed my Chernobyl films to children, and people were mad at me: why did you do it? They don’t need to see that. And so the children live in this fear, amid all this talk, their blood is changing, their immune systems are disrupted. I was hoping five or ten people would come; we filled the whole theater. They asked all sorts of questions, but one really cut into my memory. This boy, stammering and blushing, you could tell he was one of the quiet ones, asked: “Why couldn’t anyone help the animals?” This was already a person from the future. I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not everything living. Only humans. We don’t descend to their level: animals, plants, that other world. And with Chernobyl man just waved his hand at everything.
I searched. I asked around, and I was told that in the first months after the accident, someone came up with a project for evacuating the animals along with the people. But how? How do you resettle them? Okay, maybe you could move the ones that were above the earth, but what about the ones who were in the earth—the bugs and worms? And the ones in the sky? How do you evacuate a pigeon or a sparrow? What do you do with them? We don’t have any way of giving them the necessary information. And also it’s a philosophical dilemma. A perestroika of our feelings is happening here.
I want to make a film called Hostages, about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed. I go to the Zone now, all these years, I see a wild boar jumping out of an abandoned human house, and then an elk. That’s what I shoot. I want to make a film, to see everything through the eyes of an animal. “What are you shooting?” people say to me. “Look around you. There’s a war on in Chechnya.” But Saint Francis preached to the birds. He spoke to them as equals. What if these birds spoke to him in their language, and it wasn’t he who condescended to them?

Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2005)
by Svetlana Alexievich, pages 105-114

See also:
"Svetlana Alexievich wins 2015 Nobel prize in literature," The Guardian, October 8, 2015.