By David Rainbow, Assistant Professor, Honors College, University of Houston
Hanford, a dusty decommissioned plutonium production site in eastern Washington state, is one of the most polluted places in the country. The disaster is part of the inheritance of the Cold War.
A few months ago, a 110-meter-long tunnel collapsed at the site, exposing an old rail line and eight rail cars filled with contaminated radioactive equipment. This open wound in the landscape, which was quickly covered over again, is a tiny part of an environmental and human health catastrophe that steadily unfolded there over four decades of plutonium production. Big Cold War fears justified big risks. Big, secretive, nuclear-sized risks.
Hanford and other toxic reminders of the Cold War should serve as a cautionary tale to those who have a say in mitigating geopolitical tensions today, as well as to those who promote nuclear energy as an environmentally sustainable source of electricity. The energy debate must balance the downside – not just the risk of a nuclear meltdown but also the lack of a permanent repository for the still-dangerous spent fuel rods – with the environmental benefits of a source of electricity that produces no greenhouse gases. People on both sides of the issue have a vested interest in how the current geopolitical tussling over nuclear weapons plays out.
These days, fear of other countries is big again. North Korea’s nuclear detonations and intercontinental ballistic missile launches – the most recent just days ago – are explicit threats to the U.S. For his part, President Trump has responded with threats (and mockery) of his own, promising to reign down “fire and fury” on North Korea if Kim Jong Un follows through on his threats.
On the campaign trail last year, Trump called for the U.S. to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” Recent reports (which Trump denies) that the President has called for increasing our nuclear arsenal by 10 times are in line with this campaign pledge. According to the reports, Trump wants to return to the peak nuclear production of the 1960s, the height of the Cold War. While Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons have been inconsistent, the overall picture has been clear and in line with his general chest-thumping approach to foreign policy: We will do and say what we want. None of this rhetoric is conducive to making the world safer from nuclear weapons.
The saga of Russia’s connection to Trump’s presidential campaign continues, too. Again this past week we learned more about conversations between Trump’s people and the Russians during the election. Here it’s been the left that has most often drawn upon rhetoric to characterize Russia’s meddling – or “The Plot Against America” – that harks back to the conflicts of the last century. Secret plots, missile tests, Russian spies, insinuations of treason, radioactive materials. Put these together with the deep disagreements between the U.S. and Russia over the ongoing conflicts around the globe (Syria, Ukraine, and the significant military exercises conducted along NATO’s eastern border), and we are back, it seems, to the bad old days of the Cold War.
Even if, as we all hope, the “new Cold War” never gets hot, escalating tensions can have seriously harmful effects at home. The radioactive cave-in at the Hanford site earlier this year should serve as a reminder of that.
Nuclear refinement at Hanford began as a part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, the highly secretive plan to develop a nuclear bomb.
Initially, the drive to mobilize for war justified substantial costs, among them significant damage to human and environmental health in the U.S. resulting from the nuclear program. Hanford was integral to the program: its plutonium fell on Nagasaki. But after the end of the war, the scale of production at the site increased to a fevered pitch thanks to the ensuing competition for global influence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that became the Cold War.
Our gargantuan stockpiles of nuclear arms demanded gargantuan quantities of plutonium. Forty-five years of work at Hanford – from 1943 to 1987 – yielded 20 million uranium metal plugs used to generate 110,000 tons of fuel. The process also generated 53 million gallons of radioactive waste, now stored in 177 underground tanks at the facility, and created 450 billion gallons of irradiated waste water that was discharged onto “soil disposal sites,” meaning it went into the ground. Some of the irradiated discharge simply ran back to where it had originally been taken from, the nearby Columbia River. The Office of Environmental Management at the Department of Energy is currently overseeing a cleanup project involving 11,000 people. It is expected to take several decades and cost around $100 billion.
Kate Brown’s award-winning book, “Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” is a history of the Hanford plant and its Soviet doppelgänger, a plant in the Ural Mountains called Maiak. Brown points out that over the course of a few decades, the two nuclear sites spewed two times the radiation emitted in the Chernobyl explosion. Yet few Americans at the time, even those involved in plutonium production, realized this was going on or how dangerous it was.
Naturally, the hidden nature of the project meant that information was hard to come by. As Brown shows, even the experts, managers and scientists involved directly in overseeing the production process knew little about the seriousness of the risk. Doctors studying the effects of radiation on people didn’t have access to the research related to environmental pollution. Scientists studying fish die-offs had no way of connecting their findings to the deteriorating immune systems of humans in the same areas. Most poignantly, researchers measuring the effectiveness of nuclear bombs on the enemy did not communicate with researchers measuring the threat of nuclear bombs on the workers making them. Consequences for the workers were grave. Hanford and Maiak’s hidden mega-pollution was collateral damage in the fight to win the Cold War. Russia, like the U.S., is still living with the damage, and trying to bury it, too.
Within two days of the tunnel collapse at the Hanford site this past May, workers filled the breach with 53 truckloads of dirt and narrowly avoided a radiological event. However, these eight railcars are hardly the only waste left behind in the U.S. from our cold conflict with the Soviet Union, in which our willingness to risk human and environmental health was proportionate to our fears. It’s going to be a while before it’s all cleaned up. In the meantime, hopefully our leaders will work to keep the new Cold War from getting any worse.
David Rainbow is an Assistant Professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He teaches and writes about modern Russian and Eurasian history. Prior to coming to Houston in 2015, he held postdoctoral fellowships at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, New York University, and was a writer in residence at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU. He holds an M.A. in European intellectual history from Drew University, and a Ph.D. in Russian history from New York University (2013). Before becoming a historian, he worked as an engineer aboard a merchant ship on the Pacific, a rancher in western North Dakota, and has lived in Russia and Siberia several times.