By Hugh Gusterson
The Hanford complex, which dates back to 1943, produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Half the size of Rhode Island, it is often described as the most contaminated place in the United States. Until its last reactor closed in 1987, it churned out plutonium for the roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons the United States built during the Cold War. As the historian Kate Brown documents in her book Plutopia, which explores the uncanny similarities between Hanford and its Soviet counterpart Ozersk, Hanford has been a slow-motion environmental disaster since its opening, constantly excreting radioactive contaminants into the air and water. More dangerous than the tunnels are the giant tanks of liquid nuclear waste: 177 of them containing 56 million gallons of radioactive soup whose composition is only approximately known. The contents of some have to be stirred periodically to prevent the formation of hydrogen bubbles that would cause the tanks to explode. One million gallons of this witches’ brew have already leaked into the groundwater from tanks that were built to last only 20 years. The US government projects that it will cost more than $107 billion to clean up the site, with remediation finished by 2060. Few knowledgeable people put much credence in either number.
It would be nice to say that Hanford is a unique canker on the US nuclear landscape, but it is not.[…]
At Ohio’s Fernald plant, which processed uranium for the weapons complex, operators dumped radioactive waste into makeshift pits where it contaminated local groundwater, and blew uranium dust particles out of the smokestacks when the filters failed, as they did with some regularity. Similar stories could be told for the nuclear weapons facilities at Savannah River in North Carolina and Oak Ridge in Tennessee, which hushed up criticality accidents while contaminating nearby air and water.
There are three reasons these Cold War nuclear facilities turned into such environmental catastrophes. First, the Cold War American state, fixated on winning the arms race, put a premium on beating the Soviets at all costs. Producing uranium, plutonium, and weapons components was a higher priority than protecting the health of nearby residents or the workers at the plants, a disproportionate number of whom died of cancer. Ironically, since 1945, American nuclear weapons, intended to keep the country safe, have mainly killed Americans.
A second factor was state secrecy. As leading Cold War public intellectuals such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Shils argued, abuse thrives in the dark, and Cold War secrecy provided much cover of darkness to places like Hanford. For decades, government officials and the contractors that ran the plants were able to deflect civilian regulators, nosy journalists, local citizens, even congressmen, by hiding behind the skirts of national security. Officials defined vital nuclear secrets expansively, to include not just the design and deployment details of weapons, but also the secret harms inflicted on Americans through their production. Anyone who revealed the extent of contamination risked losing his clearance or being incarcerated.
Finally, we should not underestimate how novel and complex nuclear technology was in the early decades of the Cold War. Physicists, engineers, and technicians were still learning how the technology worked, how esoteric radioactive materials behaved in a range of conditions, and how toxic waste products were absorbed into the environment. As in any endeavor, you learn by making mistakes. Unfortunately, those mistakes left a legacy of contaminated Cold War production sites around the country that are beginning to look like a permanent archipelago of national sacrifice zones.
In a perverse way, radioactive contamination has gone from a shameful secret to be concealed to an asset to be milked. The cleanup campaign is becoming like the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. It takes place on the periphery of American public vision; it greatly enriches contractors; and there is always light at the end of the tunnel, but the only way we get near the light is when the tunnel collapses.