This is my review of the 2015 book by US historian Kate Brown, named “Plutopia“. You might have previously read my review of her most recent book, “Manual for Survival“, about the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine. The two stories are very connected.
In Plutopia, Brown studied two nuclear worker communities, both toiling to produce plutonium for their nations’ insatiable nuclear weapon arsenal: the capitalist Richland near the Hanford plant in USA, and the socialist Ozersk near Mayak in the Soviet Union. If you think those were very different: no. Not even ideologically. Both plants heavily polluted the environment and poisoned people, including and especially those living downwind and downstream the rivers they were built on. Both worker communities, the American and the Soviet one, were made-up of faux-middle class state-subsidy pampered employees, carefully screened for health, ethnicity and political loyalty, including to the need for an nuclear arms race, a loyalty which held even after the Cold War ended. Both nuclear projects discriminated against undesirable ethnicities and young women, who were sent to do the most dangerous jobs, exposed to worst radiation doses and then discarded, their exposures and fates not even recorded.
“Plutopia” showcases how similar the US capitalism and USSR socialism could be. Both communities, cordoned off behind a military fence, believed they lived in a utopia, one capitalist, one communist. No crime, no dissent, no political deviants or trouble makers, and their cherry on top: their communities were racially pure. The blue collar workers had privileged and cheap housing, best healthcare ever, huge salaries, and (in the case of Ozersk) also fully-stocked shops. They felt like the wealthy middle-class of their managers, which turned them unconditionally loyal. All that was possible by huge state subsidies, because everything in the capitalist Richland and socialist Ozersk was paid and controlled by the state. Everybody was under tight surveillance in those nuclear communities, while the industry bosses embezzled gigantic sums of governmental money while refusing to invest in work safety or radioactive waste disposal. There was hardly any difference between US and Soviet nuclear projects in this regard.
In human costs, the Mayak story was certainly much worse, but that was not because the Hanford managers of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and their business contractors DuPont and GE were more responsible, they were most definitely not. USA is still a democracy and there was some oversight by the independent media working with whistleblowers (AEC fully controlled the local media of course, and nosy journalists investigating nuclear pollution at Hanford and elsewhere were threatened, one whistleblower, Karen Silkwood, was killed). Also, the US victims of radioactive exposure could sue, at least they tried: the government squashed those lawsuits by rolling out biased experts and rigged analyses.
Mayak was a nuclear disaster shadowing that of Chernobyl. It was doomed from the start. The geological and topological conditions in the Ural area where Mayak was built were unfavourable, selected for secrecy and proximity to the closed military city of Chelyabinsk, and not for suitability. In 1947, USSR just emerged from a devastating World War II with tens of millions of Soviet citizens dead, infrastructure in the west in ruins, food scarce, which led to post-war famines. The Soviet ruler was the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin whose paranoia knew no borders and whose central idea of leadership was executing, starving and deporting “enemies of the people” en masse. For Stalin, all this translated after WWII into a preparation for a nuclear war against USA, and it’s not like the American generals, politicians and industry bosses were opposed to the idea. Otherwise they would have dismantled Hanford, once the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki was dropped and WWII ended, instead the production was sped up, causing even more pollution. Both sides wanted to be prepared for a full-out nuclear war, long after Stalin died and in fact even after USSR collapsed. Even now, Putin’s Russia keeps stocking up on nuclear arms while USA invests today more money into its nuclear arsenal that at the peak of Cold War.
The Hiroshima bomb was made of the radioactive uranium-235, which is extremely rare in nature and is therefore not a feasible source to build a nuclear arsenal. Yet radioactive plutonium-239 can be easily made by neutron irradiation of common uranium-238 from uranium ore, in fact this is how even civilian reactors operate. Some, like Chernobyl, were built for dual use: producing plutonium both as civilian energy source and as weapon-grade material for nuclear warheads. In fact, the Chernobyl RBMK reactors were designed by the Mayak engineers.
Aside of non-neglectable danger of accidents, meltdowns and explosions (see Fukushima, 2011), there is even now the small issue of spent nuclear fuel which contains plutonium and other radioactive isotopes with thousands of years half-time decay rate. The reactors also must be cooled to prevent them from going pop, which adds another source of radioactive waste to be contained. In the early days, the cooling was done with water, while both USA and USSR decided not to waste any money on waste containment. The highly radioactive radioactive effluent was simply dumped back into the river, while the rest was either shot into the sky from exhaust towers or buried underground. The problem with long-lived radioactive waste is that it cannot be cleaned, it can only be diluted, dispersed or moved from one place or another. “Clean” nuclear energy is great fun, because it is the future generations who play the bill, unless the underground waste doesn’t explode or leaks into the ground water earlier. The clean-up costs for Hanford and Mayak today are in several hundreds of billion dollars each, and even that money has been embezzled on both sides.
The first reactors which USA built in Hanford, Oak Ridge and of course, Los Alamos were of military use. Soviet spies stole all designs and built their own carbon-copy, the Mayak plant in the Urals. Once Stalin learned of the US bomb programme via spies, long before the newly appointed US President Harry Truman did, he ordered to build a Soviet nuclear arsenal, for which a plutonium producing plant was needed. The blueprints came from USA.
Brown notes however that while people working at oak Ridge and Los Alamos were eagerly passing onto Soviet spies even the most top-secret files, nothing ever leaked out of Hanford. She explains that with the privileged and pampered economic situation the inhabitants of Richland were afraid to lose. It was the same reason Ozersk (and other Soviet nuclear communities’) citizens remained loyal at all times, happy to live locked up behind a fence: nobody wanted to be evicted and go back to living in the destitute rest of the country.
The man in charge of the Soviet nuclear weapon programme was Lavrentiy Beria, chief of KGB’s precursor NKVD and a professional mass executioner. In brief, human lives were exactly of zero concern to the Soviet leadership compared to the urgent goal of establishing USSR as the nuclear power, both in bombs and civilian energy source.
In 1947, USSR had no money at all but a paranoid ambition to become a nuclear power based on the know-how stolen from USA. What it had in spades, was a impoverished and destitute population, and most importantly, an enormous slave workforce of disposable humans whose lives were worthless to the state: prisoners, undesired nationalities, but also army conscripts, kept in conditions not much different of prisoners. As NKVD boss, Beria was also in charge of the system of Gulag, which is a Russian acronym for State Agency for forced labour Camps. When Mayak was built, there were initially no bulldozers, no other machinery: the underground reactor structure had to be dug with picks and shovels, Brown describes this as “Bronze Age Atom”. The manual construction work was done by Gulag prisoners, army conscripts, and resettled ethnic groups, mostly Russian Germans. That was not exactly planned for, quite the opposite: Beria specifically ordered for the top secret Soviet nuclear project not to employ potential “traitors” (specifically Gulag prisoners, Russian Germans, western Ukrainians and Balts), but preferably ideologically vetted ethnic Russians. In reality, there was hardly anyone else to do that awful job in the southern Urals.
Whenever radiation leaks happened, it was the Gulag prisoners and army conscripts the plant managers sent in to clean up. Crews were sent out to sop up spilled material, because plutonium was valuable and could not let go to waste, unlike their lives. One time, the reactor was overloaded and jammed, so the workers, prisoners, soldiers and deportees were sent inside the reactor to unload irradiated uranium plugs by hand. They dashed in and out, returning already nauseous and gulped down a glass of vodka as cleansing agent. In fact, vodka was decreed the official reward policy for soldiers, prisoners and workers by the Mayak boss and NKVD general, Ivan Tkachenko, and eventually became the standard Soviet medicine for radioactive exposure. As the result, Mayak plant workers arrived home both radioactively contaminated and drunk.
Oh and if you think, who cares, let dangerous criminals, murderers and the like, do those jobs to repay their dues to society: well, it was more complicated than that. The Gulag labour force had its own hierarchies, and it wasn’t always the guards who were on top. In fact, criminal gangs were running the Gulag on the inside, the guards were afraid, subservient or even business partners to the crime king pins, who were the most dangerous and hardened criminals. These distributed the work quota to other, weak prisoners like the many political ones, while they themselves run a business of stolen goods and such. The Soviet authorities never recorded how much radioactivity the prisoners, conscripts and cheap migrant labour like ethnic Germans were exposed to, or what happened to them afterwards. It is however known that many died of radiation exposure already on the job.
In USA, AEC tasked to build a nuclear plant in 1942, partnered with the biggest industrial company at the time: DuPont. The company was openly against all state interference (especially to support the poor) while having politicians on payroll and making most of its profits from governmental military contracts during WWII, resulting in a military-industrial complex not unlike that of USSR. DuPont management was also openly racist, in order to work at Hanford you had to be ideologically vetted, healthy, and most of all: white, preferably Protestant, Jews were not allowed, at least initially. Blacks were even prevented from settling in the neighbour communities, and we are talking of those communities way outside the fence, where even shop signs clearly said “No Dogs or Negroes”. Richland became one of the first planned American dream towns, perfectly white and prosperous. Like the Soviets, Hanford management initially used (white) prisoners as free construction force, simply to avoid employing Blacks. Black and Mexican labourers were initially excluded outright, and later used only for dangerous construction and clean-up jobs, their exposure and fates never recorded or bothered for. A situation somewhat similar to Hanford’s Soviet counterpart, Mayak.
Like Mayak in USSR, Hanford in USA employed young women to do the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs processing plutonium, the likely reason being in both the capitalist and the socialist economy the cost factor: women salaries were a fraction of mens’. At Hanford, plagued by workforce shortage, white women were recruited for yet another reason: to avoid employing Blacks. Of course these women, the Russian and the American ones, were not told about the dangers, they had no protective gear whatsoever, not even gloves, intentionally so in order to save money and to speed up work. Many women became visibly sick while already on the job, which scared other employees. All became chronically ill and many died early, their fates often unrecorded. Thing is, nobody bothered about plutonium radiation much anyway, as it is a weak gamma ray emitter, while alpha and beta radiation travels tiny distances and can be stopped by a sheet of cardboard.
Yet radioactive fission materials are a toxic and often lethal thing when ingested or inhaled. They not only can cause various cancers (primarily thyroid, due to uptake of iodine-131, a plutonium fission product), but also damage the cardiovascular and immune systems, which in turn can contribute to all possible secondary malaises, including seemingly unrelated but deadly infections. Ingested or inhaled radioactive plutonium also destroys bones. Science, which funding often comes directly or indirectly from nuclear industry, rarely bothers with studying these internal effects, and focusses almost exclusively on the effects of externally applied ionising radiation, where high doses are indeed required to negatively affect health. Yet what Hanford and Mayak (and later Chernobyl) did was to expose workers and inhabitants to radioactive pollution which was uptaken internally, while the victims were left utterly ignorant as to the dangers they were knowingly subjected to by the plant managers.
With Science having Spoken, the nuclear production was declared as relatively safe, especially in USSR the safety was less of an issue since the rest of the country was heavily deprived, destitute, and polluted in other ways. When Chernobyl went pop, the authorities both Soviet and Western dismissed all health problems of Ukrainian and Belarus farmers as the scrounging whine of stupid lazy inbred alcoholics. In fact, this is how USSR used to describe (literally in these terms) the Mayak pollution victims, and this is how Russian authorities describe them even now. Even in USA, certain parties with vested interests describe the Hanford pollution victims in these terms.
The constant dangers of radiation exposure was the reason even Mayak eventually had to do what Hanford did and started pampering their employees. From 1947 till 1960ies, the management had trouble recruiting people while those already working in the fenced off zone were often sick or dead from radiation exposure. The disease was called “the fungus” because obviously there was no radiation. Eventually the prisoners, conscripts and undesired workers were moved outside the zone, which made the town appear safe and free from crime. Apartment blocks with spacious flats were raised and the shops stocked with everything the rest of the country did not have, including caviar. Ozersk became a communist utopia, just like its mirror town of Richland was built to be a capitalist one. The residents of both were deemed even healthier than the nation’s average, which surely proved that radiation was perfectly safe. In fact, they were recruited for being particularly healthy in the first place, and those who got sick were sent away. Plus they bought their food in the grocery shops, while the communities outside the fence ate from the radioactive land.
While the communities of Richland and Ozersk were kept relatively clean of radioactive pollution, the surrounding countryside did not matter. Both Hanford and Mayak shot radioactive elements out of the smokestacks and dumped radioactive effluent into the river, Columbia and Techa, respectively. Spent fuel was not even let to cool properly before dumping, which released huge amounts of radioactive iodine into the environment. The worst radioactive waste was buried or stored in open trenches, which of course at some point ended up in the environment, too. Once there, it became bioavailable: plants, fungi and animals took it up and concentrated it in their bodies and fruits. Humans at the top of the food chain concentrated the radioactivity even further: they caught the fish, shot the game, foraged for mushroom and berries, drank the milk, ate the (occasionally deformed) livestock and consumed their harvests, all of those radioactive. The same happened later on in the Chernobyl polluted areas while the science even today refused to discuss bioavailable radiation, only external exposures by gamma radiation.
As Hanford has been polluting the Columbia river and the surrounding air and land with radioactive waste, the white privileged residents of Richland were regularly screened by plant doctors, their organs were harvested when they died. What happened to the poor people in the neighbourhood, especially to the Black community in Pasco, that DuPont and AEC could not care less about. Once, in 1949, radiation was released from smokestacks into the air intentionally, during so-called Green Run. The idea was to emulate the Soviet plutonium pollution from Mayak in order to be able to quantify the production volume by measuring radioactive contamination at the distance. At the end, each side knew exactly how much plutonium the enemy’s plant was making, only the workers and residents on the spot had no clue at all. In USA, irrigation projects with the radioactive Columbia river water began and the land around Hanford was sold for farming. When someone fo teh farmers or former plant emplyoees tried to sue for radiation damages, the management quickly paraded their pay-rolled scientists to declare, including in scientific journals, that radioactive iodine and other fission products were perfectly good for health.
Even less inhibited than Hanford, Mayak was dumping unprocessed radioactive waste into the slow and muddy Techa river, one of the reason was: but the Americans do it, too. Between 1949 and 1951, 20% of this river’s water consisted of Mayak’s radioactive effluent. Only in the 1960ies some kind of control over radioactive waste dumping was introduced. Entire communities downstream of Techa were poisoned with radioactive plutonium, iodine, strontium and other fission products. Since the majority of the populace there was of Muslim minority, the Soviet authorities were not really bothered. Initially nobody cared at all, eventually measurements were taken, proving that it was deadly to even stand at the bank of the Techa river for just one hour. The villagers were literally all radioactive.
Evacuations were ordered, but took more than 10 years, and even then many villagers were moved just to the opposite side of the radioactive river or not moved at all. A totalitarian state which used to efficiently deport hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of days (like Crimean Tatars or Volga Germans) could not be bothered, because there was no political urgency, and the villagers’ lives were near worthless. The village Muslumovo was the largest one not evacuated, simply because it was too large, hence too expensive to resettle. As the name says, Muslumovo is a village populated by Muslims, in this case Tatars and Bashkirs. USSR was a very racist state, at some point Ozersk authorities started a witch-hunt on “cosmopolitan” Jews among its employees (who were almost all ethnically Russian, plus some vetted Ukrainians).
Reactor accidents happened at Hanford, for example in 1955, which released huge quantities of radiation. But the worst accident took place at Mayak. In 1959, the Kyshtym disaster happened (named after the lake Kyshtim it rendered lethally radioactive). Because safely disposing of radioactive waste was not something the authorities were interested in, the underground plutonium waste tanks eventually overheated and exploded, in an equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb, just as the town’s populace was watching a football game. A typical mushroom cloud arose, radioactive soot flakes snowed over everything, the radioactive cloud drifted and precipitated over a stretch of land which became permanently uninhabitable. There were no emergency plans, the clean-up work took a year and involved mostly urgently bussed-in soldiers, students, some non-relevant Mayak personnel and, outside the gates, villagers, mostly women, many pregnant, and even children, because they all were perfectly expendable. Many if not all these “liquidators” died, some right away, others later, on cancer and other diseases, but the fates of 92% of them were never officially recorded.
Also after the Kyshtym exposion, not all villages were evacuated, again to save money. In the usual practice of Soviet racism, a village named Tatar Karabolka was left behind on radioactive land, but the neighbour village named Russian Karabolka was moved.
The Mayak pollution also let radiation research thrive. USSR became the lead nation in radioactive biology even before the Chernobyl accident, thanks to the the studies it established on the long stretch of land contaminated by the Kyshtim disaster and the Techa communities like Muslumovo. The weird aspect is that because the research was top secret, the Soviet biomedical experts never knew the actual radiation doses their samples, human, animal and vegetal were exposed to. They estimated those doses by calculating chromosomal abnormalities under the microscope. When Chernobyl exploded, USSR had the exact kind of top experts, unmatched worldwide, to study the effect of the fallout, while the West was ridiculing the Soviet scientists and doctors as ignorant stupid hacks.
The radioactively polluted areas around Mayak and Hanford are now heavily populated, the industry of death led to an impressive local economic growth. Money continued flowing into employment at the plant for decades and does so even now, this time into decontamination. Ozersk remains a closed city behind a guarded fence, no foreigners allowed and Russians only with a permission, the citizens voted to keep this rule after the fall of USSR. The villagers at the Techa, ridiculed by the Russian state as lazy inbred alcoholic welfare scroungers, never received any compensation, and never had the money to move away. Unlike the ideologically brainwashed Ozersk residents, the villagers very soon understood they lived in a nuclear disaster zone, and avoid the river and its water at all costs. They also don’t eat the local radioactive mushrooms and berries themselves, but sell them in nearby city of Chelyabinsk. Kids only swim in the river when journalists pay them $20, for a bit more cash you can film some men fishing in the Techa, for your TV documentary about stupid village hacks. Today’s Russian state uses the villagers for generations for scientific studies on biological effects of radioactivity, you can buy the datasets.
Brown’s book follows the history of the two nuclear communities from the 1940ies till just a few years ago. As in her book on Chernobyl, she gives voice to the whistleblowers, on both sides and in particularly in Russia. The historian narrates how these whistleblowers were persecuted for uncovering the dangers of radioactive pollution, while themselves suffering debilitating and eventually deadly health effects of the radiation. She also mentions scientists who changed their judgment to accommodate nuclear industry or state authorities.
There is so much more information in that book, it is definitely worth a read.
Disclaimer: As usual, I receive no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the publisher upon request.
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Thank you for this excellent review. In part because of your reviews, I got “Midnight at Chernobyl”: It’s a page turner. When I’m done with that, I will read “Manual for Survival”.
I guess I could write “Midnight in an Academic Lab”. Any non-fiction I could write here would be boring, but maybe a fictional one in which the protagonist works in a highly productive 24/7 fraudatorium, like Bharat Aggarwal’s lab.
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another fun factoid: the government built homes for workers at Oak Ridge were built of ‘cemestos’ – a lovely concoction of asbestos and corn fiber. Sturdy & comfy but easier/cheaper to leave in place than remove. Hence many still exist and are occupied.