The bomb and the explosion of U.S. suburbs

How Hanford's nuclear role spawned a suburban 'plutopia' that mirrored a secret Russian city.
Crosscut archive image.

The women's barracks at Camp Hanford in 1944

How Hanford's nuclear role spawned a suburban 'plutopia' that mirrored a secret Russian city.

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.

Brown recently talked with me extensively about "Plutopia" at a café in Seattle’s University District. The following excerpts from Brown focus on the “Plutopia” of Richland.

On the term “Plutopia” to describe the cities that supported plutonium production in the U.S. and Russia, Richland and Ozersk     

I created that word to describe these two special places. Plutopia is a combination of the words plutonium and utopia.  Trying to figure out how it was that so much radioactive waste was intentionally spilled with thousands of workers witnessing it, and no one in four decades blew a whistle about it — no one in the dictatorial USSR or democratic USA. Why was that? I came to the idea that the answer existed in Plutopia. I mean by that special, limited-access cities exclusively for plutonium plant operators who were paid and lived like their middle-class bosses. The people who lived in them were “chosen,” selected for their loyalty, whiteness and political acceptability. If they questioned their superiors, they knew they could lose their place in plutopia.  Few were willing to risk that, nor did many even want to. Over time, working-class operators began to identify with their bosses and had a lot of confidence in them.

The plutonium cities were wonderful places to live and people loved them. They provided wonderful opportunities because not only was the housing very cheap and the wages very good, but the schools were good. So laborers who had hardscrabble lives as children were able to provide for their kids a better, more secure, upwardly mobile future. They could get their kids into the professional middle class with the excellent educations in these towns.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the plutopia delivered the best each society had to offer — universal employment, education and health care, security and prosperity for all. Many residents came to believe that their tiny plutopia represented their larger societies — a genuine classless democracy or socialism, and these societies, residents believed, were worth fighting for.

On the  initial wartime situation and the need to address the poor working conditions at Hanford

At first, the government wanted to build cheaply. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build barracks and dorms and apartments for the plant operators. The DuPont people said, “No. We can’t bring our good men all this way to the middle of nowhere without perks to draw them there.” They wanted houses like the guys had in Wilmington [Delaware], nice single-family houses with lawns around them and generous lots.

The Army Corps resisted, [but] DuPont built a “temporary village” of long-lasting houses in a suburban setting on spacious lots. It’s remarkable how much wartime Richland was a precursor to the postwar American suburb in terms of architectural models.

DuPont executives also argued that, to put good men in Richland, you needed to provide good salaries and good housing. But the plutonium plants were not labs, but vast factories and most employees were blue-collar workers who had struggled through the 1930s, poor and sometimes hungry. Most of these men and women weren’t expecting a posh garden suburb in an eastern city. But they were thrilled to have these houses and this new family-centered community, so Richland and Ozersk developed that way. 

Over time, there emerged a sense of entitlement. Residents made demands over and over again because, “we’re putting our lives on the line in making plutonium to defend our country,” and so they won yet more perks — continued rent subsidies, outsized school budgets, which were federally subsidized, tax breaks, and an extension of plutonium production long after the demand was satiated.

On the problems of crime among transient workers at Hanford, before the middle-class plutopia developed           

Look at wartime Camp Hanford — and the Soviets had a similar camp called Camp Construction. These were temporary camps for construction workers drafted to build the vast plutonium plants. Here were mostly single, migrant workers — way more men than women — who came from all walks of life and were thrown together in this petri dish of social malaise. In the Soviet case these were soldiers, prisoners and POWs. In the American case, they were migrant workers, prisoners and a few minority workers during the war.

The problem was that these single people would booze and brawl, have sex and leave their jobs in extremely unpredictable ways.  Eventually, plant managers realized that they couldn’t have workers who were as volatile as the product they were going to make.  They needed a whole separate labor force, which eventually was conceived as men and women safely embedded in nuclear families in these new atomic cities. If plant operators had their families, they would be stable: They would go home, rather than drink all night, and make their shifts the next morning.           

On Jim Crow segregation at Hanford and Richland

The Army Corps made this specious argument that the southerners would never live with the Negroes and the Negroes wouldn’t live with Mexicans. And there was not much evidence that most of the working-class people would have cared one way or another.  Some workers asked, “Why are there colored-only bathrooms and whites-only clubs?” People were shocked by that.

What the DuPont officials were doing was re-creating what was comfortable for them, calling it "security" or "economy’" and then projecting their racist sentiments on the working class.

On the role of private industry in the most top-secret military project of the war

The Army Corps wanted to build this plant as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and they contracted with DuPont to do it. DuPont executives promised they could build it by December 1944. Immediately, however, there were delays, mostly due to labor problems. They couldn’t keep enough workers on the job in the miserable Camp Hanford. That’s when DuPont made demands for good conditions for the permanent workers who would run the plant. 

As they got further and further behind, DuPont got in an embarrassing situation with the military's General Leslie Groves, who wanted to have an atomic bomb before the war ended. He  was far more interested in production than safety. 

At the time, they knew you needed to put irradiated uranium fuel cells in a bath for about three months to decay short-lived isotopes, especially radioactive iodine that goes to the thyroid. But Army Corps officials said, “Since you’re behind, you need to speed it up.”  So against their better judgment, Du Pont managers had to process “green” fuel that produced much more highly radioactive waste, a much dirtier product that went through the assembly line as workers were working on it.

So, the Army Corps was interested in speed and, because DuPont was behind schedule, they often had to compromise on safety.   Because DuPont was having trouble getting labor — due in large part because they were interested in white workers, and overlooked surpluses of African American and Mexican American workers, they had to make compromises also on producing and storing radioactive waste. Du Pont officials, however, did win the battles on getting better stuff for their workers and eventually [for] Richland, which they equipped quite well.

On how health and safety concerns were kept from the workers

There were a lot of ideas about radiation in the 1940s. Some researchers had published findings in the '30s that showed quite clearly that radiation, even at low doses, caused cancers and grave genetic damage. But these findings were still in the realm of opinion. There were other more hopeful views. For example, there was the notion that radiation doesn’t really hurt unless you get zapped really badly so, short of that, you can live with a “threshold dose” of radiation. And there was another idea that some radiation was very healthful — that it makes you stronger and better [and] another notion that some people exposed to  clouds of radiation became immune to it. 

And there was a lot of relativism. In the '60s, propagandists for the Atomic Energy Commission spread around a study that asserted that  coal plants represented much more danger than nuclear power plants. They had a lot of statistics that compared dangers; that say it was much more dangerous to run your family car than to work in a plutonium plant.

Those arguments were easy to make because radiation is invisible and it’s insensible. People don’t know when they’re exposed to radiation and they don’t know if symptoms they are feeling or their kids are experiencing are related to radiation. And radiation takes a number of years [to affect a person]. 

So it was easy to deny health problems from radiation, and it was hard to make the connection, unlike a dangerous chemical that you sniff and your eyes well up and you cough as fumes go into your lungs.           

On the “slow-motion disaster” at Hanford

We tend to think that every nuclear disaster is the same, but they’re not.  Each nuclear disaster is individual and issues [its] own special blend of radioactive isotopes depending upon the type of accident. In a way, each nuclear accident has its own signature, so it is hard to compare, say the health effects of the Hiroshima bomb survivors to those of Washington state downwinders.

The plutonium disasters were not big, explosive overnight affairs. They were slow motion disasters that occurred over four decades.

Racing to have a bomb before the end of the war, plant managers at Hanford from early 1945 until January 1946 produced green fuel which put tens of thousands of curies of extra radiation, especially radioactive iodine, into the environment.  Even after the U.S. dropped the two nuclear bombs and Japan had been defeated, they continued to produce this green fuel inexplicably — just because nobody had given the order not to. So all this radiation was going into the wind toward Walla Walla and Spokane. People at the plant knew it was a problem and were worried about it, but it was still happening.

In the 1950s, at the peak of production, there were about 7,000 to 14,000 curies of radioactivity a day going into the Columbia River. They got it down in the '60s but only because they were producing far less plutonium. Now keep in mind that at this time, the Atomic Energy Commission was spending more annually on Richland’s school budget than on radioactive waste management at the plant. The priority was to keep people happy, not necessarily to secure their safety.

On the recent leaks of nuclear waste at Hanford

The highly radioactive waste is still sitting in single-walled and double-walled tanks, and that’s what is leaking out now at the Hanford plant. In the mid-'50s workers first suspected the tanks were leaking.

Recent news has revealed that the leaks continue, at a possible rate of 1,000 gallons a year. Because the waste is so deadly, cleanup workers cannot go near the tanks. That has made it difficult to detect the leaks, and yet more difficult to plug up the leaks or to find long term solutions to the problem of storage of high level waste for its 24,000-year half life. They also had medium level waste and engineers in the late '40s and '50s just dug holes in the ground — trenches and reverse wells — that were filled with this medium radioactive waste. 

On the environmental impact and medical consequences of plutonium production at Hanford

I use in my book the figure of 200 million curies [of radiation released], but that’s just a guess.  We really don’t know. There’s 350 million curies of radioactive waste in those leaking tanks. They don’t know exactly how much has leaked in total in terms of curies. The tanks are producing more radioactive isotopes as we speak as isotopes in the tanks react with one another.

We know shamefully little about the environmental impact and the total amount of waste spilled into the environment and the totals still  there. In the '90s they had a term “MUF” — missing unaccounted for — which means missing plutonium. They had whole stocks of plutonium mixed with other waste that sat around. That’s very nerve wracking because, if you move a barrel of other radioactive waste or plutonium near another barrel of radioactive waste, it can create a chain reaction and go critical and blow. So you need to know where your plutonium is, and they have these MUFs all over the place and, in the '80s, they weren’t sure where to find them. 

Now a lot of radioactive soil and machinery has been located and moved to one location at the Hanford Reservation, but what to do next is a big problem. There is talk of moving the waste to a new repository in New Mexico, but communities are objecting to having the waste move through their community and so for now Hanford remains a de facto waste repository.

On the health effects of Hanford on people downwind and downstream

It’s difficult to do epidemiology, which is an extremely blunt tool to look at the past biologically. Five thousand people emerged in the 1990s to say that they had illnesses such as thyroid cancers, thyroid disease and bone cancers and leukemias that could be attributed to Hanford radiation.

Since radiation in the local environment was scarcely monitored it was very difficult to prove in court that the cause of a [particular] person’s illness was precisely Hanford radiation and nothing else.

The federal government now has spent $30 million defending corporations because that was part of the original deal when subcontractors signed on for nuclear defense work. Now that $30 million probably would have been better spent just giving it to the people who lived down wind who have had a lot of health problems.  But to do that would have meant admitting liability and opened the door to future cases.

The federal government has agreed to compensate workers who fell ill with a certain list of illnesses who could prove they received certain doses. Workers were monitored while on the job. They have a record of their contamination.

On evidence of mutations or birth defects, similar to those documented in Russia, caused by the activity at Hanford

I had a grad student research assistant in biology run a study on the census Franklin and Benton counties around Hanford. There was a real rise in infant mortality for Richland and the surrounding counties from 1950 to 1959. A lot of kids were born to the young population in Richland and in the surrounding towns, and a lot of those kids were dying in their first year. The deaths spiked in 1959 and then declined with the drop in plutonium production in the '60s. There were similar statistics in Walla Walla and Spokane from 1950 to 1959, where also the deaths returned to state averages again in the '60s.

So what could cause could have caused these infant deaths? It could be German measles or rubella. Also, the introduction of DDT into the environment in farming communities could have caused neurological damage and produced weak fetuses. But those would have been statewide occurrences. Why was it that [the infant death rate] was so high in these specific communities?           

On the significance of the creation of Plutopia Richland

I’m saying that the creation of limited access, highly segregated, largely white communities that were federally subsidized was the largest welfare program this country has ever known. Richland was one of the first in the country, but after the war with FHA loans going mostly to straight, white families. They benefited from many other subsidies as well: the National Defense highway programs that took people right to these subsidized communities in the suburbs where specials grants for schools (under the National Defense Education Act) improved suburban education.As all this occurred, the American landscape became militarized in ways that reflected Richland’s special qualities.  

These programs for domestic national defense and financial security represented the biggest redistribution of wealth ever. It left the minority urban poor in the cities in areas that became “blighted,” like the Pasco ghetto in the Tri-Cities reserved for African Americans and Mexican-Americans.

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 .

On human nature and individual rights versus security

I found that in the plutopia the safety and security of the body was exchanged for national security and financial security for individuals.  These are places were financial security was talked about in terms of risk. “We need to secure our real estate values. We need to keep these plants going.”

America produced 50 percent more plutonium than they could deploy in any of its 20,000 missiles. That is colossal overkill. Fifty of these missiles will blow up the world. As they overproduced, AEC officials knew they didn’t need all that plutonium. Why did they make it? Part of the reason they produced so much is because they had these communities of people who were entitled and screamed really loudly to their powerful senators, especially Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson, if they couldn’t continue to make plutonium. For some reason, they couldn’t think of any other way, though they tried, to find what else these people could do.

I think that is a metaphor for the larger problem of weaponry, wars and other security commodities in a cultural setting in which economies are seen as necessary to grow or they will wither and die. That notion produced whole communities, the livelihood of which became dependent on federal largesse. This was the communist model American had long feared — dependent citizens unable to break cycles of dependency. What is frightening is the extent to which this Cold War fear came home to roost.


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