The bomb and the explosion of U.S. suburbs

How Hanford's nuclear role spawned a suburban 'plutopia' that mirrored a secret Russian city.
Housing for workers became an early model of the suburban tract home developments that spread across America.

Housing for workers became an early model of the suburban tract home developments that spread across America. Photo/Courtesy of the U.S. Energy Department

Hanford's T Plant processed the plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It is still used but for treatment and testing of radioactive wastes.

Hanford's T Plant processed the plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It is still used but for treatment and testing of radioactive wastes. Photo/Courtesy of the U.S. Energy Department

The women's barracks at Camp Hanford in 1944

The women's barracks at Camp Hanford in 1944 Photo/Courtesy of the U.S. Energy Department

Historian Kate Brown

Historian Kate Brown Photo by Marjoleine Kars

Of all the stops on the nuclear weapons assembly line, plutonium is the dirtiest. Each kilogram of final product generates hundreds of thousand of gallons of radioactive waste.

— Kate Brown, "Plutopia"

Just three days after Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb attack in history, an American B-29 dropped a second nuclear device on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, incinerating a large area of the city and evenutally killing an estimated 80,000 people.           

If there is such a thing, the bombing of Nagasaki was a tragedy of errors. The original target of the second atomic bomb was the arms manufacturing city of Kokura, but bad weather and mechanical failure saved Kokura and, rather than dropping the $2 billion bomb into the ocean, the B-29 “Bockscar” flew onto and destroyed its secondary target, Nagasaki. That bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was the first plutonium weapon in history, made from material produced at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

Richland in Washington and, later, Ozersk, Russia, were the first two cities established to support plutonium production, to power the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals at the nearby nuclear plants at Hanford and at Maiak.                    

In her groundbreaking new book on these two cities, "Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters" (Oxford), historian Professor Kate Brown traces the parallel history of these cities based on her extensive study of official documents, other archival materials and dozens of interviews with affected citizens in both the United States and Russia. "Plutopia" tells the story of the plutonium plants and the experience of plant workers and citizens in the immediate area of the plants.

To produce the volatile and extremely dangerous plutonium and contain information about the process, both the Soviet and US governments created what Brown labels “Plutopias” — highly subsidized, limited-access atomic cities with privileged and content nuclear families that were provided generous salaries, first-rate education and health care, and many other amenities of modern life. But, as Professor Brown describes, many workers and others in the vicinity of the plants did not reap the benefits of these havens but were exposed to the plants’ hazards. These transitory workers worked many of the most dangerous jobs and helped keep the myth of safe nuclear production alive.

Richland promised to deliver the American dream and became part of the largest national welfare program in American history, and Ozersk seemed a realization of a Soviet socialist utopia, but both cities concealed “slow motion disasters” that still threaten the environments where the plants are located.

According to Professor Brown, the plants at Hanford and Maiak in four decades both released more than 200 curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment — twice the amount expelled in the Chernobyl disaster in  each instance. And, as Brown has stressed, a cup of the high-level radioactive waste stored at plutonium plants could kill everyone in a large ballroom — a frightening prospect as current tests reveal leaks of double-walled nuclear waste tanks into the soil of Hanford.

Most of the toxic releases over the years at Hanford and Maiak were part of normal operating procedure. In other words, most of the releases were intentional. Accidents occurred and plant management covered up knowledge of them as the pollution continued unabated. As threats from this pollution to health and the environment persist, Brown contends, the government and its contractors keep knowledge of the dangers from the public.           

Brown spoke at Town Hall and the University of Washington in Seattle in late spring on her provocative new book. 

She is an associate professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She also wrote "A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland" (Harvard 2004), which won several prizes including the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for the Best Book in International European History, and she has published articles in many periodicals. She earned her doctorate in history at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is currently at work on a collection of essays called Being There, which explores place and the construction of space as a springboard for histories of communities and territories that have been silenced or destroyed.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Fascinating article, and Brown's concluding point about "dependent citizens unable to break cycles of dependency" still has echoes today with communities in Washington state built up around the increasingly obsolete military outposts at Joint Base Lewis-McChord et al. It's interesting to read this history and reflect on how the political and social patterns remain the same today, with citizens still paying to maintain large communities of federal workers trained to perform tasks that are increasingly irrelevant to the challenges of the 21st century.

Jeff Hall

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

"The people in Richland were like a lot of other Americans. They were OK as long as they could secure a good future for themselves and their kids. There were OK with undemocratic, inegalitarian federal programs, and they were OK with benefiting from them and leaving behind other people who could not possibly move to their community."

The point is well taken that, in many contexts, we who are living 'well' are often placated and purposely ignore general negative consequences. Recall books like The Stepford Wives. It's also understood that the author is finding difficulty establishing 'proof' based on the fact that good data was not collected.

However, not everyone was 'ok' with it because some individuals are deep enough to understand when they are being bought at the risk to their health, their family's health and the health of their community. The evidence was becoming clearer as the years went on, and many people got sick and died. The real inherent dangers and direct experience with flaws in the process are things that the workers and retirees would be intimately familiar with.

It is very difficult to find and document, but there was a HUGE stick behind all that seeming largess -- something a bit different than the tendency to obliviousness mass media mis-educated consumerism, and more akin to the price one might pay to join the criminal underworld.

Anyone not completely placated by the Utopia koolaid, people who might persue a lawsuit or attempt to blow the whistle, were faced with an increasingly serious menu of threats. Start with the fact of being cleared, muzzled and potential prosecution for saying anything, and in the experience friend who is a child of a worker, escalating to death threats.

I have not read the book, so apologize if this point is included. I just do not see it included in this article.

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I intend to read the book but my immediate question is, aside from the immediate loss of life after the detonation, what has been the lasting effect of the bomb on Nagasaki itself? we have all probably seen pictures of a contemporary, seemingly vibrant metropolis there but that may be misleading.

kieth

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 7:22 p.m. Inappropriate

What’s so very interesting about the range of Robin Lindley's interview with Kate Brown is that the entire Hanford question raises and pinpoints attitudes that remain with us today – perhaps even more blatantly than in the 1940s: racism; the comfort of the few over the needs of the many; our inability or refusal to confront difficult social questions due to fear or because essential information is withheld by the powers that be; a sense of being overwhelmed by the scale of a problem; and, finally, the willing abdication of democratic rights in return for dubious security. Thank you, Robin, for such an in-depth and beautifully presented interview.

For those interested in an early critique of Hanford, WA written by one of Seattle's leading social and political activists, I recommend Paul Loeb's 1982 "Nuclear Culture: Living & Working in the World's Largest Atomic Complex." His book explores how individuals who manufactured weapons of atomic destruction justified their work--and by extension how all of us suppress or confront the critical issues of our time. In Loeb's words,"Nuclear Culture is about the mechanisms by which ordinary humans distance themselves from the implications of their actions."

"Vivid, sympathetic and chilling to the bone."--The Chicago Tribune

"As brilliant as it is disturbing. The dangers of banality that threaten our sanity and existence have rarely been so vividly portrayed."--Studs Terkel

Posted Mon, Aug 12, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Kieth: "Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing" (2011) by Australian documentary producer and writer Craig Collie tells the story of the Nagasaki attack with "The Forgotten Bomb" from the perspective of the Japanese. He interviewed a host of survivors and relatives in Japan, and he describes the physical destruction and medical consequences of the bombing as well as the restoration of the city. The book is available at Seattle Public Library.

Critical Thinker: Dr. Brown was very aware that many employees at Hanford feared prosecution or other repercussions if they shared information on their work and she understood their reluctance to jeopardize their livelihoods and the future of their families. The availability of information on Hanford (or unavailability) would be an excellent topic for further exploration.

Jean: Thank you for your thoughtful impressions and for mentioning Paul Loeb's activism and his insightful book "Nuclear Culture."

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