Atomic cities. Radioactive disasters worse than Chernobyl

Everyone has heard of the Chernobyl accident. But hardly anyone knows about the Hanford and Mayak plutonium production plants, which polluted the environment much more heavily with radioactive waste. While the American and Soviet authorities were convincing people that it was safe, millions of people unknowingly consumed irradiated food. Thousands of them died because of it.

The Hanford Site complex was essential to the U.S. creating and dropping the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. During the Cold War, along with the Soviet Mayak, it played a decisive role in the arms race. Cost, pollution and human casualties did not matter.

“Plutonium production is the dirtiest phase of nuclear weapons development. A kilogram of enriched plutonium means hundreds of thousands of liters of radioactive waste.” – Professor Kate Brown points out in her book Plutopia. Atomic cities and unknown nuclear disasters.

The workers drawn to the military bases were getting drunk and brawling. So the Americans decided to erect towns for entire families near the plant. This is how Richland, among others, developed. People there lived at a much higher level than their compatriots, but not for free. The luxury they paid for with permanent surveillance. And something else: – A lot of veterans of the combine had cancer.

Why didn’t they warn us? – wondered one of the residents living near Richland. – They’re killing us,” his son added.

Criminals and nuclear weapons

Shortly after the U.S. joined World War II, the decision was made to launch the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias was to find a site to build the first plutonium (an artificial element heavier than uranium) factory in history. The Du-Pont Corporation became the contractor and the Army the supervisor of the project. Matthias was traveling through the nearly deserted terrain of Washington State in the northwestern corner of the country. It fell on Richland, near which was a massive hydroelectric plant.

“An abundant supply of clean water from the Columbia River, a reliable source of electricity, a high percentage of state-owned land,” – enumerates Prof. Brown’s reasons for this decision.

The authorities displaced several thousand residents. In their place, they brought in engineers, clerks, and construction workers – a total of more than 130,000 people! Due to a lack of volunteers and haste, even criminals were accepted, with only communists rejected out of hand. Richland was to be a middle-class town, and although three-quarters of the population was made up of workers, living conditions had to be high. Despite the ongoing war and the officially temporary nature of the establishment, there were arguments over whether houses should have. two or three bedrooms. Safety took a back seat – what mattered was the creation of an atomic bomb before the surrender of Germany.

Platoon in the country of radium

Oziorsk did not officially exist, so it was vain to look for it on maps – it was codenamed Chelyabinsk-40 (later Chelyabinsk-65). It was created in secret thanks to the “success” of Richland. In the first half of the 1940s, Americans and Soviets fought against the Third Reich side by side, but this did not preclude spying on each other.

In 1941, a Soviet agent handed his superiors British reports confirming the possibility of creating nuclear weapons. However, Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, feared a mistake that would cause his country to waste millions of rubles, so he did not pass the information to Joseph Stalin. Nevertheless, the dictator found out about everything anyway.

He immediately assembled a research team led by nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov. This one quickly calculated the differences between the US and the USSR: 700 scientists to 30, 10 cyclotrons [gas pedals necessary for the study of fissile elements – note. ed.] to one (and this in besieged Leningrad), thousands of tons of uranium to. 12 (for the record: one hundred tons were needed to produce plutonium). The construction of the bomb was to take 10-15 years under such conditions. But Stalin did not intend to worry about “trifles”.

Work on the Majak nuclear facility began in earnest after the war. It was built by prisoners of the camps, where not only millions of unskilled workers, but also engineers and scientists “hostile to the people” were imprisoned in equally dire conditions. The Russians, like the Americans before them, found the site for Europe’s first plutonium complex in the middle of nowhere: the Ural mountains.

They transported the materials in wagons (they also tried tanks, but they got stuck in the mud or slipped). The forced builders slept mainly in tents and huts, to make it faster and cheaper. The soldiers sent to help were treated the same as prisoners – mostly they ate rotten potatoes. So the authorities ordered the relatives of those in the camp to provide food and clothing, although in 1946 the average Soviet family bought an average of one leather shoe, a pair of socks, and a set of underwear per year.

Stalin expected to obtain nuclear weapons in two years. Meanwhile, it took 18 instead of six months just to dig a 50-meter pit for the foundations (-Why use machines when you can bring in more prisoners,‖ the managers claimed). The pioneering reactor began operation in 1948. Despite failures and leaks of radioactive materials, after six months it produced enough plutonium for the first Soviet bomb. Its explosion in late August 1949 radically raised the temperature of the Cold War.

America’s Chernobyl

Everything at hand, medical care, lawns evenly mowed, houses painted, warm donuts, security. This is how one resident recalled Richland. He belonged to a group of people proud of their contribution to the development of their homeland. The second group were people who after some time realized that it was at the expense of their health and even their lives.

However, Hanford workers shortly after the end of the war were concerned about the continued operation of the combine. “Rescue” was brought by the Soviets – by arming themselves and strengthening their position in Europe. In 1947, the US decided to expand the plant with more reactors. The pressure was so strong that the authorities forgave General Electric, the new manager, for inflating construction costs by millions of dollars, because in 1949 the USSR was already testing atomic weapons.

The town of paradise flourished, but at what price? One journalist called it a “police state.” Residents avoided criticizing the resort’s management for fear of being overheard. Familiarity helped significantly in getting a job or renting a house. The corporation decided who could trade and what they could trade, and also took a share of the profits. There was no free local press. – Is it socialism or fascism? – wondered sociologists in other states.

Even just after the war, safety issues were still neglected. As a result, an environmental disaster was created. muskrats. Burrowing near a waste tank, they caused 60 million gallons of radioactive sewage to leak into the Columbia River, a disaster that, because of the secretive nature of the plant, went unnoticed.

Other tragic failures often went unreported. This is also why, according to the official version, no one died as a result of a radiation accident during the 40 years of Hanford’s operation. Meanwhile, in 1969, one anti-nuclear activist estimated that 400,000 people (associated with Richland or nearby towns) had died prematurely from radiation sickness. The Atomic Energy Commission commissioned trusted experts to challenge his research. They did so, but against their principals, they calculated that the radioactive fallout had caused 32,000 deaths. Despite attempts at blockade, the matter was made public in the media: both in specialist journals and the daily press.

A radioactive river

Meanwhile, in the face of the success of its nuclear test and military superiority on the part of the USA, the authorities of the USSR poured more money into the development of Osiorsk. Thanks to them, local people, if they lived to see it, could retire reminiscing about carefree mushroom picking, skiing competitions, orchestra concerts, theater and cinema visits, and financed resort vacations. The salaries of the factory workers were much higher than in other parts of the country. In 1958 there was one room for every inhabitant of Uzhorsk, including children, so conditions were luxurious by the standards of the Soviet state. However, this is only a part of the truth about the post-war fate of the center.

The people employed there were not warned of the danger; in fact, they were only afraid of the KGB. That is why they pulled broken rods out of the reactor by hand, and when something spilled while carrying radioactive solutions, they wiped off the stains with a rag they had squeezed (without safety devices) so as not to waste the precious fuel. Many workers were perpetually drunk – vodka was given out “as a reward” and “for health”. On average, the residents of Oziorsk drank twice as much vodka as other Russians, spending three times as much on alcohol as on entertainment and culture. But that was not the worst of it.

The Soviets, like the Americans, poured radioactive waste into the river (though the Tiecha is barely a stream compared to the American Columbia). They wanted to hide the problem this way. Within two years, they got rid of six billion liters of sewage, which was 20% of the volume of water in the Tiecza River. As a result, the nearby village was taking the acceptable lifetime dose of radiation in. a week! And the peasants used the contaminated water for everything: drinking, washing or watering their animals. Finally, the party ordered evacuation. But it was limited to 10 of the 16 designated villages – and the resettlement took more than 10 years! Thousands are said to have died as a result of radiation, but it is difficult to give an accurate estimate, because the authorities of the time fully controlled the transmission of information and the results of research.

The end of plutopia

Part of the truth about the Hanford Site came to light in 1986 when the government declassified 10,000 pages of documents. Historian Dr. Michele Gerber, a Richland resident, first described the history of her town. Three years later, officials shut down the plutonium plant and admitted it had led to an environmental disaster. It was estimated that the cleanup would cost $100 billion and take 50 years. Thus, private corporations continue to make money thanks to federal funds – now to clean up after the radioactive element on whose dirty production they have made a fortune.

In the four decades of the Mayak plutonium plant’s operation, there have officially been only three accidents. Meanwhile, in the 1990s alone, there were dozens of accidents. In the case of one accident (in September 2000), if the reactors had reacted two minutes later, there would have been an explosion many times stronger than the one at Chernobyl. Among other factors, the plant’s budget was slashed, causing the best scientists and engineers to emigrate in search of better conditions.

Currently, Moscow is implementing a 50-year plan to dispose of the plant’s radioactive waste. But the surrounding area will be contaminated much longer.

The article is from the magazine “Świat Wiedzy Historia” 6/2019 (December-January)

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