Bombshells

Mark Hertsgaard

  • On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site by Michele Stenehjem Gerber
    Nebraska, 312 pp, £33.25, January 1993, ISBN 0 8032 2145 2
  • The Nuclear Peninsula by Françoise Zonabend, translated by J.A. Underwood
    Cambridge, 138 pp, £19.95, April 1993, ISBN 0 521 41321 4

I had just turned 22 when the connection between having sex and safely storing nuclear waste was first made clear to me. I was writing a book about the American nuclear establishment, and one day found myself sitting across a conference table from a top executive at Combustion-Engineering, a large multinational corporation that sold nuclear reactors. This was in 1979, just months before the Three Mile Island accident, but the American nuclear industry was already in trouble. Rising public opposition to nuclear energy, combined with falling demand for electricity, had destroyed the market for new plants. Neither Combustion-Engineering nor its three main American competitors – General Electric, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox – had had a new domestic order since 1974. The executive was bemoaning this tragedy when I suggested that part of the reason people were uneasy about nuclear energy was that no one had yet figured out what to do with the waste it generated. The executive, a jowly, deliberate vice-president in his fifties, quickly corrected my misapprehension. The problem was not that there was no solution to nuclear waste disposal: the problem was that there were too many good solutions and the Government, being its usual inefficient self, couldn’t make up its mind which one it liked best. Glancing over his shoulder, the executive leaned towards me across the table and confided, man to man: ‘It’s like you’ve got a blonde, a brunette and a redhead, real glamorous gals, all lined up and ready for action, and you can’t decide which one you’d like to go to bed with. They’re all good.’ Another executive asked me why environmentalists were so worried: ‘Neither they nor their descendants are going to be there at the time when anything could conceivably go wrong. If you do a halfway decent job of disposing of it, it’s at least a few hundred years before anything could go wrong, and they won’t even be there then.’

‘A halfway decent job’ is a generous was of describing how the international nuclear priesthood has handled nuclear wastes during the past fifty years. The pioneers of nuclear energy knew that the waste products of nuclear fission would remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Nevertheless, impelled by wartime urgency, they forged ahead without making a plan for cleaning up after them. ‘Chances would have to be taken that in more normal times would be considered reckless in the extreme,’ General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, later wrote. Solving the waste problem was regarded as a bothersome, secondary chore, something to be put off in favour of more exciting and prestigious endeavours. Carroll Wilson, the general manager of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), admitted in 1979:

Chemists and chemical engineers were not interested in dealing with waste ... It was not glamorous, there were no careers, it was messy. Nobody got brownie points for caring about nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Commission neglected the problem.

A similar apathy prevailed in other countries. As a result, serious accidents and near-misses have occurred at nuclear waste facilities in each of the major nuclear nations (with the possible, but doubtful, exception of China, where official secrecy keeps such information under wraps). A nuclear waste tank has exploded in the former Soviet Union, fires have broken out at reprocessing plants in Great Britain and France and vast quantities of radioactive materials have leaked into rivers and groundwater in the United States. Indeed, in 1988, the entire American nuclear weapons production complex was declared a safety and public health disaster area. Admiral James Watkins, then Secretary of Energy, estimated it would cost $130 billion to bring the complex’s production facilities, which number almost one hundred, back up to standard and to repair the damage to nearby ecosystems. Five years later, little progress has been made. An internal report prepared by the Energy Department’s nuclear safety director in April warned that ‘the likelihood of a disaster ... [was] high’ at the nation’s nuclear weapons plants.

Commercial nuclear power stations are responsible for 95 per cent of the radioactivity emanating from the world’s nuclear wastes, but the most serious disasters have taken place at nuclear weapons facilities. In 1991 I was, I think, the first Western journalist to enter the formerly closed Soviet city of Chelyabinsk, the site of three of the most terrible disasters of the nuclear age – disasters comparable to, if not worse than, the reactor meltdown that made Chernobyl a household name. The Chelyabinsk disasters, however, did not become media events. They were kept secret, not only from the outside world and Soviet people, but from hundreds of thousands of local residents who were exposed to major doses of radiation. The disasters occurred at the top-secret Mayak complex, located fifty miles north of Chelyabinsk. Covering 200 square kilometres, Mayak was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear weapons factory for over forty years. It has been called ‘the most polluted spot on earth’, a judgment not disputed by the Mayak official I interviewed in July 1991, four weeks before the anti-Gorbachev coup.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the first accident at Chelyabinsk is that it was not an accident at all. It was the result of deliberate, conscious policy. From 1949, when the complex produced its first nuclear weapon, until 1956 Mayak officials poured nuclear waste directly into the nearby Techa River. For the people who lived downstream, the result was average doses of radiation four times greater than those subsequently received at Chernobyl. For the 28,000 people most acutely exposed, average individual doses were 57 times greater than at Chernobyl.

How was such a colossal mistake possible? Mayak officials apparently believed they had no time to devise a better solution. The United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan four years earlier, and was clearly building more of them. Orders had come down from Stalin that the Soviet Union had to have its own nuclear capability. Desperate to catch the Americans in the nascent nuclear arms race but lacking am experience with this deadly new technology, Mayak officials seem to have opted for the simplest solution at hand: throw the waste in the river.

The Mayak men realised something was wrong when radioactive traces were discovered in rivers as far away as the Arctic Ocean. They responded by building a huge disposal tank, intended to serve as an alternative to dumping the waste into the river. However, on 29 September 1957, a failure of the tank’s cooling mechanism caused the waste inside to overheat to 350° Celsius, at which point it spontaneously combusted. The force of the explosion was equivalent to between five and ten tons of TNT, enough to blast the concrete lid off the tank and hurl it 25 metres. Between seventy and eighty metric tons of waste instantly gushed into the atmosphere. The total radioactivity ejected measured 20 million curies: ten times more than had earlier been dumped in the Techa and nearly half as much as would be released thirty years later at Chernobyl. Some 272,000 people were exposed to average individual doses of 0.7 rems of radiation, the same as the dose experienced by the 750,000 victims of Chernobyl. The surrounding air, water and soil were severely contaminated; all the pine trees in a 20-square-kilometre area died within the next eighteen months. The accident was kept secret for decades by the KGB and the CIA: both apparently feared a domestic population alert to the dangers of nuclear power as much as they feared the enemy arsenal.

The third Chelyabinsk nuclear catastrophe occurred at Lake Karachay, a natural lake inside the Mayak complex. The lake was pressed into service as a waste disposal site in 1951, after Mayak officials realised they could no longer dump waste in the river but before they had constructed the storage site that would explode in 1957. Since 1951, the lake has accumulated 120 million curies of radioactivity. An adult male who stands on the shore, next to the pipe that has poured hundreds of millions of gallons of nuclear waste into the lake, will receive a lethal dose of radiation within one hour. In 1967 the lake was struck by a cyclone. A drought the previous winter had shrunk it dramatically, leaving behind an intensely radioactive film on the newly exposed shore. The cyclone whirled this deadly silt high into the air and swept it across the landscape in much the same way that the 1957 waste-dump explosion had projected its plume of radioactivity. Over an area estimated at 25,000 square kilometres 436,000 people were exposed to five million curies of radioactivity, approximately the same amount that was released at Hiroshima.

Although the first Chelyabinsk disaster took place more than forty years ago, people are still falling ill and dying from it today. Exactly how many have died will probably never be known. Mayak officials admit that 937 local residents have been diagnosed with ‘chronic radiation sickness’, but the actual death toll is probably many times that. Until four years ago, local health officials were legally prohibited from acknowledging even the existence of radiation sickness, much less the fact that it has been killing people for the last forty years. Instead, they had to diagnose such patients as suffering from ABC disease, a code name handed down from the Ministry of Health in Moscow that carried the grotesque translation ‘weakened vegetative syndrome’.

It is tempting to blame such horrors on the Soviet system, but Soviet and American records on these issues are more alike than not. The American counterpart to the Mayak complex is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, and the parallels between what has happened at Chelyabinsk over the years and what has happened at Hanford are eerie.

In Hanford, too, the immediate post-war climate fostered a mentality in which production was more important than safety. In 1945, Hanford officials released 340,000 curies’ worth of radioactive gases into the atmosphere, on purpose and without warning the local populace. Later, they elected to pour liquid nuclear waste directly into the nearest river, just like then counterparts at Mayak did. As a result, the Columbia was the most polluted river in America by the Sixties. According to an analysis prepared by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, ‘between 1944 and 1955 the quantity of radioactive iodine released deliberately and secretly [at Hanford] was equivalent to Chernobyl’s accident release’ in 1986. Hanford officials were no more forthcoming about the risks of their secret actions than were their Mayak counterparts. For example, the 1945 venting of gases was not made public until 1986, when local environmentalists filed Freedom of Information lawsuits that helped force the release of nineteen thousand pages of official documents.

One would scarcely guess that Hanford had such a dark and devious history from reading On the Home Front. Michele Stenehjem Gerber’s tone is that of a perky corporate apologist in a text that reads like a cross between an investment prospectus and a college chemistry textbook: simultaneously upbeat and dull. Gerber began her research as an independent analyst, but by the time her book was nearing completion she had been hired as a staff historian for the Westinghouse Hanford Corporation (Westinghouse has been operating the Hanford facility for the Department of Energy since 1987; its corporate predecessors at Hanford include Rockwell International, General Electric and DuPont.) That the Hanford complex has contaminated local air and water with its releases of radioactive materials is a matter of historical record, and a reader determined to trudge through Gerber’s lifeless prose will eventually happen upon descriptions of these releases. But rather than dwell on past mistakes, Gerber prefers to emphasise the good that has supposedly come from Hanford, the better to prepare for its resurgent future.

Thus we are instructed that it was the nuclear weapons made at Hanford that won the Cold War. We are told that Hanford area residents do not see the gigantic amounts of nuclear waste in their backyard ‘as a handicap or a stigma. They are seen as a challenge.’ When residents finally learned in 1990 that thousands of them had received some of the highest doses of radiation ever absorbed by Americans, their emotions included ‘bewilderment and grief’, though we are assured that these unhelpful reactions only ‘temporarily resurfaced’. Most important, we are informed that ‘a renaissance is in progress’ at Hanford. ‘An extensive waste clean-up effort, pioneering innovative technologies, has begun ... The past now serves the present, and makes possible positive change. Once again, the Hanford Site leads the nation.’

In her cheerleading, Gerber even implies that it was the Hanford authorities who insisted on getting out the full truth about Hanford. The current clean-up, she argues, was facilitated by ‘the open disclosure of Hanford’s historical record’. She is referring to the official documents released in 1986, documents without which she could not have written her book. Yet she makes no mention of the Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and other forms of citizen pressure that plainly are the main reason the Government at last decided to release these documents. This is rather like writing about the Watergate scandal and applauding Richard Nixon’s forthrightness in finally handing over the White House tapes.

If the citizens of Hanford are unable to accept what really happened there it wouldn’t be unusual. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Françoise Zonabend’s The Nuclear Peninsula – a sociological investigation of the French reprocessing facility at La Hague – are the various tactics that the workers and townspeople of La Hague employ to deny that the plant puts them in any special danger. Mostly, they pretend that the plant is simply not there. Zonabend reports that ‘most often they avoid naming it and say simply “up there” (là-haut), “the thing” (la chose), or “it” (ça).’ They also adopt a kind of ‘selective blindness’. One person who lives only a few hundred metres from the plant brags: ‘You can’t see the plant from my place ... So we’re all right.’ Deep down, of course, they know better, but they are stuck. ‘When you have land here, when you’ve bought a place here, what are you supposed to do?’ asks a farmer’s wife, one of the few who admits to being afraid. ‘You stay.’ And in order to stay, you reassure yourself that there’s nothing extraordinary to worry about. Some proclaim their faith in the experts (‘I trust the scientists, myself, they know what they’re doing up there’), some shift the blame to others (‘They’re the worst polluters,’ local hunters complain of farmers who use pesticides), and some are philosophical: ‘We’ve all got to die, what does it matter whether from that or from something else?’

The La Hague facility came ‘within an ace of a major accident’ in April 1980, the plant manager admitted, when a fire in the two main transformers left the plant without electricity. The victims of such an accident would have included not just the local population but their neighbours across the English Channel and beyond. It is too late for the world to forsake the nuclear path entirely. Even if all the arsenals were dismantled and the power stations mothballed, the waste would be with us for ever. Finding a way to store it safely is a great scientific and environmental challenge. It would be nice to believe there were solutions to this fiendish problem. But for now, contrary to advertisement, the blonde, the brunette and the redhead are nowhere to be seen.