Global Ethics Forum: Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities, with Kate Brown

Global Ethics Forum: Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities, with Kate Brown


(steady upbeat music) – Welcome to Ethics Matter. I’m Stephanie Sy. Our guest today at the
Carnegie Council is Kate Brown, a professor of history at the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County, as well as the
author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic
Cities and the Great Soviet and American
Plutonium Disasters. Kate is currently
researching the long-term environmental and health impacts of the Chernobyl
disaster of 1986. Kate, welcome to the
Carnegie Council. So nice to meet you. And I think the
Chernobyl disaster is
a good place to start because a lot of people
believe that was the greatest nuclear disaster of all time. You started researching
that, and that brought you to another nuclear disaster
that nobody talks about. – That’s right. I call them the plutonium,
the great plutonium disasters because as I was
looking at Chernobyl, I realized that the
estimated amount of radiation
spilled in Chernobyl was 50 to 100 million
curies, and that’s a lot. But there are these
two other places where they made plutonium
during the Cold War, the Hanford plutonium plant
in Eastern Washington State and the Mayak plutonium plant
in the Southern Russian Urals of what had been
the Soviet Union. They each issued about the same
number, 350 million curies, almost twice or four
times Chernobyl. I thought, that’s so strange. Chernobyl is a household word. Since 2011, Fukushima has
been a household word. But nobody has really
heard of Mayak, or even Hanford,
in this country. And I wondered why
that was the case. And of course, there
is the obvious answer, which is that
Chernobyl and Fukushima were both big accidents. They were really
camera-ready events and the stories was covered by the international news media, and nightly we watched
the disasters unfold until the story, the
news cycle ended. Where with Hanford and Mayak, they were both military sites
and they were kept under lock and key for 40
years, secret places. – What time period was this? – Yeah, in 1942 they
broke ground on Hanford. In 1946 they broke ground
on the Mayak plant. – So they were producing
plutonium into the early 1980s. – That’s right, that’s right,
really up until Chernobyl. As I looked into why these
places were so unknown, the other thing I realized
is that this colossal amount of radiation spilled,
350 million curies, there were some accidents, but most of that environmental
degradation occurred as part of the
normal working order. – Of just producing plutonium,
processing plutonium? – Every day they
process plutonium. You take about a
hundred tons of uranium, and you distill it
down to a kilogram, of softball-size of plutonium. All the rest is
waste, and that waste, they have dumped it into the
rivers, up the smokestacks, into what they call reverse
wells, holes in the ground, trenches in the ground. They did with the waste,
this high-tech, toxic waste, what humans have always
done with their waste. And that really floored
me when I realized that these were
disasters by design. Part of an intentional
working order they did this. And I thought these
aren’t small bomb labs, they’re big factories, 40,000, 50,000 people
worked in these places over the four decades
they were in operation, and I could only
find one KGB agent who blew the whistle
in four decades. – I want to get into
all the health impacts, but one of the things
that’s so interesting about your book Plutopia is it’s not just about
the health impacts, it’s about the way in which
government and corporations created a community around
plutonium manufacturing that made these two Cold War, ostensibly totally
different cities on opposite sides of the Cold
War have a lot in common. and it is actually why you
call the book Plutopia, echoes of utopia,
of course, in that. – Right, yeah, that
is a word I made up, putting together
plutonium and utopia. And the reason I call it that is ’cause I was
trying to figure out why did all these people
live in these places, these working class people,
and agree to labor practices and environmental practices that sullied their
own environment and put themselves and
their families in danger. And I finally realized
that both places had very similar technologies but also very similar
social structures. Each had a secret,
closed nuclear city
attached to the plant that were exclusively reserved
for workers and management at the plutonium plant. And these are what
I call Plutopias. And they were wonderful places. People loved them. They were subsidized. – And that was by design. – That was by design. They built these places with
prisoners in the Soviet Union and migrant labor in the
United States and prisoners, and they found that the
single migrant laborers, whether they were
prisoners or soldiers or just migrant workers,
they brawled and they boozed and they murdered and
raped, and they thought, oh, my God, who is gonna build, who’s gonna produce plutonium? We can’t have a working
class that’s as volatile as the product. – So those people
built the plants but they didn’t want
them to stay working with this volatile substance because they were
volatile people. – That’s right. They found that mostly men,
mostly single migrant men, created a lot of trouble. And so what if one of them
throws a spanner in the works of a plutonium plant? – Because they were
aware of the dangers. – They were very aware. – Okay, so where did
they find the workers for the plutonium plant? – So they go, “Well, you know,
we need to have safe workers. “We need reliable,
dependent workers “who are silent and submissive,
do what the bosses say.” What better feature in
these new atomic cities than to bring in
the nuclear family? So they bring in mom, dad,
kids, no extended families. – [Stephanie] Middle
class families? – Working class. And these working
class families, imagine 1930s in the United
States, think of Steinbeck, hardscrabble places. People come in from mining
towns in New Mexico. They are thrilled to have
a job and a nice apartment or house with appliances
and amenities. – And this is given to them? – This is given to
them if you work there. – By the nuclear plant. – Right.
– Which are these owned by– – Which is paid for by
the federal government. Richland, Washington,
was a very strange place. It was the arsenal of democracy, but there wasn’t a
bit of the features of the American
democracy in that town. It was owned by the
federal government, it was run by the corporation,
there were no elections, there was no private property. DuPont and GE selected
all the businesses, and then they gave
everybody monopolies, and then, when they
started to raise prices and gouge the consumers,
they set prices. So journalists would
come in and they’d say– – What’s going on here?
– What is this? Is this fascism? Is this socialism? It was anything
but American-style
democratic capitalism. On the Soviet side, they
were looking at Los Alamos and they saw that the Manhattan
Project had made a city surrounded it with
a barbed wire fence, gave everybody a pass,
even babies had passes on their diapers and
made a controlled system. They said, “That’s a good idea. “We’ll make that.” And so they created
a closed nuclear city with gates and guards and
only allowed in workers who had passes who
worked in those plants. Then they supplied them
with wonderful schools with PhDs teaching, so the working class get
social mobility for their kids, 30% more wages than other
working class people around, as I said, great housing,
the shops in the Soviet Union were always a problem
to get supplies. They were supplied like the
top leadership in Moscow. – So they were living like
kings among the working class. And there is a line in the
introduction of your book which sort of sums up
this part, which reads, “As Plutopia matured,
residents gave up their civil and biological rights
for consumer rights.” So post-1930s, it
makes a lot of sense that they might be
willing to do that. I guess my question is
did people at the time, when they were signing up to
work at the plutonium factory, did they understand that
there were risks at that time and were they
educated about them? – Yes and no. In the records of
the management, DuPont calls this
super-poisonous
product, plutonium. They understood it
was highly toxic. If a human ingested it, it was gonna be a critical
problem for their health. In the Soviet Union, they
described this as a front, and people die at the front and we might have some
casualties here too. – So a war analogy. – That’s right. It was a militarized notion. Those ideas get
erased over time. So, in the 1930s they
had a very good sense of the kind of damage that
radiation caused to humans, genetic and other
kinds of damage. That knowledge gets
forgotten and glossed over as the Cold War
production of weapons morphs into the Cold War
production of nuclear power and radioactive isotopes
for medical uses. And more and more
there is a push to gloss over potential
health effects, to not ask questions,
not do studies. And that, I think, is something we have yet to
really address or rectify. So all throughout, the
National Cancer Institute, I went to ask the
acting director at the time during the Cold
War, why were there no studies at the U.S. National
Cancer Institute between the connection
between radiation and cancer? He said, “Well, of course we
knew there was a connection “between radiation and cancer,
but to ask that question “would be to go political.” And no scientist
wants to go political. – Wow. There is another aspect of this and I want to go back
to the health issues when we talk about your
current work with Chernobyl, but you were also
pointing out in Plutopia the socioeconomic
inequalities that were baked into this arrangement
of Plutopia, the community that sort
of had all of these gifts really from the government,
upward mobility, schooling, education,
stability, stable jobs. What was happening
in the communities around where the plutonium
was being manufactured? Did they have those benefits? – That’s a critical question. So to get a job at
either of these plants, you needed to get a
security clearance and to be not deemed
a security risk, you needed to be white and
of the majority population. So in the United States, that really translated into
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. There are some Catholics, there
are a few Jews in Richland. Until 1951, there were
no African Americans at all and no Mexican Americans. And Indians, and
that’s a population of which there were plenty
of people like that out in Eastern Washington
at the time. In Russia, it was coded as
mostly Russian, Ukrainian. The Muslim minority in that
area, Bashkirs and Tatars, also were considered a
security threat, not hired. So this is a very dangerous
business, to produce plutonium. They knew people were watching.
– And like you write. You write, radioactive
byproducts recognize
no boundaries. – Right, it went everywhere. – So even if they weren’t
allowed the security clearance and living within the
Plutopias that you write about, they would’ve
potentially been exposed to the byproducts of the
production of plutonium. – Yes, and also,
they realized that, okay, workers are getting sick, and we have these people
are looking to see if people will get
sick in these towns, so we can’t have that. So if a worker who is monitored and they had these badges,
got too much of a dose, they pulled them
off the dirty jobs. But somebody still needed
to do the dirty jobs. Who is gonna do them? So they solved that problem too. In the Soviet Union, they sent
in soldiers and prisoners, and they did the work
of digging trenches in radioactive land, of doing the plumbing
with ragingly hot pipes, of standing guard
under yellow smog that was full of
radioactive gas. In the United States, they sent
in migrant minority workers to do those jobs
and also soldiers, many of whom were also
minorities, over the years. So what you get are
these two tiers of labor, the selected residents
of Plutopia, paid better, universal health
care, safer jobs, and those who lived just
outside the boundaries, whether they were farmers
or migrant workers or prisoners or soldiers, who were getting more
of that radiation. But they were migrant, they
moved in, they moved out, and when they left,
they took with them the radioactive isotopes
they had ingested, any future health problems
and any epidemiological trace. – Going back to the comparison
of the amount of radiation that was leaked, that’s
the word you used, from these plants, what
does the soil and water look like today in those places? – Yeah, the Hanford plant
is on the Columbia River. It’s a high-volume
mountain river with lots of water rushing by. At the peak of production,
they dumped in 19,000 curies a day of radioactive waste. So that affected the
fish in the river, the people who ate
the fish in the river, who were often the
local indigenous tribes and sports fishermen. And you see, they started
to see patterns in the ’70s of cancer shadows along the
Columbia River in Oregon and down at the
mouth of the river. The crabs– – How long did it take to
start seeing those cases? – Usually, the latency
period for cancer is about a dozen years. So in the 1970s the
first study comes out. The Atomic Energy Commission
gets a rival study, sort of smears that
scientist, the public doctors. – So the Department of Energy has its own scientists that
come up with their own study. – Yes, they still do. – Studies that would support continuing nuclear
energy generation. – That tends to be the
conclusions that they draw, traditionally what I
found over four decades. The science was an
interesting science in that it didn’t ask a
lot of critical questions and they didn’t go out into
the community very much to monitor people who were
drinking radioactive milk, farming on radioactive fields, but they did do some studies
that said, “We found nothing.” And they would maybe look at
20 people and find two cases. Actually they’ve– – It’s not a very big sample. – Exactly. So those are the
kinds of studies, sort of a crackpot
science, I would call it. And they found– – You would call these
government scientists crackpot scientists? – I would. And if you look at
the science today, I think a lot of
people would agree that they weren’t really
asking the critical questions that needed to be asked. – Because they were trying
to serve a political agenda? – Well, that’s when I
asked, one source said, “Well, sure, we could’ve
done those studies, “but what if we had
found something?” – Then you have Chernobyl,
which happens in 1986. Is there a full
reckoning at that point, the degree, the sort of
photo-ready disaster, and the fact that it
was so well-publicized and that it really became sort
of the scary nuclear disaster that everyone talked about, at least until
Fukushima years later. Was there a reckoning
at that time that the health
impacts of nuclear, that the potential
environmental and health impacts really needed to be considered before continuation
of nuclear energy or nuclear weaponry development? – Yeah, a lot of panic
when that story broke. It was still during
the Cold War, so scientists in
the West were saying the Soviets aren’t
telling us everything and they are holding
back information, and their first
instinct was to inflame. The scientists in the West
said there are 2,000 dead, and the Soviets are saying
we only have two dead. And this back-and-forth
was going. And everybody, whether they
were in the Soviet Union or outside, were saying, “We need to have a long-term
epidemiological study “of the people who’ve been
impacted by this disaster “so we can finally
answer this question “about long-term chronic
doses of radiation.” You hear scientists saying it in International Atomic
Energy Association and the World Health,
and the Soviet leadership and the American
research institutes. And, you know, Stephanie, the one thing that
has never happened is that there has
never been a long-term epidemiological study of
Chernobyl health effects. – That is so surprising.
– There has been a series of small ones. The big study was going to
get funded by the UN in 1990. They held a pledge drive, but the International
Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization
did a preliminary assessment in which they said that, “We find no health effects from
Chernobyl five years later, “and we think there won’t
be any in the future “other than perhaps a
few thyroid cancers.” – What’s so worrying
about that, Kate, is that you think of the
World Health Organization as being this apolitical,
independent organization. You think of the IAEA, which
for those that don’t know, is the nuclear watchdog agency,
they oversee inspections, for example, in Iran to
verify the Iran deal, things like that, that these
are independent agencies with integrity. And yet you’re saying
that they said, “We don’t need to look long
term at these consequences.” Why is that? – That’s exactly what they said. Well, I don’t mean to
besmirch the agencies. They’re responsible agencies, and the International
Atomic Energy Agency does try to keep the world
from blowing itself up and to keep both nuclear power and nuclear weapons
installations safe, but they were also, Chernobyl
was extremely threatening. Immediately, protestors
throughout North
America and Europe started calling for the
shutdown of nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons programs
and the disarmament of states and of installations in Germany,
for instance, in Europe. And that threatened
the whole enterprise of peaceful production
of nuclear power and radiology,
radiation medicine. So they felt like
the biggest threat was not so much radioactive
isotopes but hysterical publics that would not be fully
armed with proper education, proper knowledge, didn’t know
how to interpret this data, and would panic. So they were constantly
trying to stem panic. So when the World
Health Organization sent in a commission, they
sent in three scientists, they spent five days going
to seven different locations, and at the end of
that period they said, “We don’t see any
health problems.” And nobody took that seriously. What can you say in five
days with three guys mostly inside of
cabs and airplanes? – Did they look at
historical records or? – They had no time. They only had five days. So then the International
Atomic Energy Agency was asked by the Soviet
leadership to do a study. They spent 18 months. They said they sent
in 200 scientists and they produced a
much longer report, about 300 pages, that
say the same thing that we didn’t find anything. – We didn’t find anything. So now, Kate Brown
comes in, historian, and I understand
you’ve been poring over tens of thousands
of documents, that you’ve been in the field. Can you talk about the process? You’re now investigating
and trying to find out what really happened, what the health and
environmental impacts of Chernobyl really were. What does that entail? – Well, the first
thing a historian does is go to the archive. And I walked into
the archive in Kiev and I asked for the
Ministry of Health records on the Chernobyl disaster,
and the archivist, who I’ve known for many
years, laughed at me and said, “You’re not going
to find anything. “That was a banned topic
during the Soviet period. “They didn’t write
anything about Chernobyl.” I said, well, why don’t I just
look at the findings anyway. In a couple of minutes,
whole document collections entitled in plain Ukrainian, The Medical Consequences of
the Chernobyl Catastrophe. And I started reading,
and I haven’t stopped. – So there is a record? – There’s a huge record, yes. Then I went on to Minsk and to
provincial cities in Ukraine and Belarus, and then
I went to Moscow. And everywhere I went, I
found a very similar story of doctors on the
ground and sanitation and hygiene experts on the
ground, reporting two things. One, people are
ingesting a great deal of radioactive isotopes
in their food products, in the water, and
in the ambient dust that was spreading everywhere. And the second thing that
the doctors are reporting, and this really sort of picks
up speed starting in 1988, is that people
have these strange, what they called a whole
bouquet of medical problems. – How far out from the site are you seeing this
type of health effect? – Well, probably about, from 30, they evacuated
30 kilometers around, from 30 to 80 kilometers
around the site. But then there are other
pockets farther out in Belarus because the clouds
went over Belarus. And what I am finding is
that Soviet Air Force pilots flew through those clouds,
seeded them so that they rained in sort of a triage scenario,
and they rained on Belarus before they got to the
bigger Russian cities. So there’s an awful lot of
contamination in Belarus, 70% of the fallout fell there. – What do you really want
people to take away from this? And what kind of
policy adjustments do you think need to occur based on what you have
seen and researched? – Well, right now,
the official tally for Chernobyl
fatalities is 44 dead. Those were clean-up
workers, emergency workers, firemen who died right after. – [Stephanie] Immediate fallout. – And then there’s these
6,000 cases of cancer. I don’t think anybody
really believes that only 44 people
died from Chernobyl. As you travel
through these areas, just one person after another
has a story to tell you, oh, my husband worked or my
son worked on the clean-up or my daughter was a
doctor who was sent in, wool workers who had to
clean radioactive wool, meat, people working
in stockyards who had to kill
radioactive animals. – Anyone exposed. – Everyone exposed. And so lots of stories of people
dying at 30, 40 years old. So it would be great to
have a more realistic tally than these 44, and it would be
wonderful if we could, even though it’s been 30 years and a lot of time has passed, to finally have that long-term
epidemiological study of the health
effects of Chernobyl. We have wonderful tools now
that we didn’t have 30 years ago to try to use the
body as an archive to see how much radiation
has been stored in the body and what kind of
damage that it’s done. – But I feel like even with
the information we know and even with the information
you have in Plutopia, a lot of people might
draw the conclusion that there’s just such
a huge potential cost to the production of
plutonium or uranium or the fuel of nuclear energy. I assume that’s the
conclusion you have drawn, that it’s not worth it. – I don’t think it’s worth it. We don’t have solutions to what to do with
radioactive waste, which is why we have
sullied environments. We don’t have very good science about the problems of
radioactive isotopes lodged in bodies and
what happens to bodies. And I think until we
can figure that out, for instance, right now,
the state of Washington had this shocking case over
the last year six years of 45 women giving birth
to anencephalic babies, that means babies
born without heads. 45 cases is just– – That’s extraordinary. – An astonishing number. The background for that is
one in a million or something. And so they did a study, the state epidemiologist
did a study and they thought, well,
maybe it’s nitrates. No, they canceled out nitrates. Maybe it’s folic acid. No, they canceled that out. Maybe it’s radiation, because
all the counties that had it, most of them were right around, the three counties
surrounding the Hanford plant. The Department of Energy
said that no radiation leaves the site. The site is bounded
by a cyclone fence. As we know, radiation
gets into the groundwater, it gets into the air, gases,
it migrates through water. – Yeah, there are no boundaries. – There are no boundaries. And it’s extremely prolific. – And they are seeing that
with Fukushima as well, right? They’re seeing things
turn up on the West Coast of the United States
that have been irradiated from Fukushima because it is
one ocean that circulates, and we all breathe the same air. – And what radioactive
isotopes do is they mimic
nutrients and minerals that plants and
animals, organisms– – Feed off.
– Need to survive. And so they migrate toward life. – Wow. – And so foods that we eat,
they go right up the food chain. If there is some
radiation in the water, that gets bio-magnified
a thousand times in the fish in the water. – Kate Brown, thank you so much. – Thank you, Stephanie. – Really fascinating. (steady upbeat music) – [Announcer] For
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Danny Hutson

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