The radioactive legacy of the search for plutopia

The radioactive legacy of the search for plutopia

17:32 18 March 2013
Rob Edwards, contributor


Hanford scientists feeding radioactive food to sheep (Image: US Department of Energy)

Cold war dreams of producing nuclear bombs fuelled shocking radiation experiments by US and Soviet governments, reveals Kate Brown’s Plutopia

MAKING plutonium for nuclear bombs takes balls, but not in the way you might think. In 1965, scientists at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex in Washington state wanted to investigate the impact of radiation on fertility – and they weren’t hidebound by ethics.

In a specially fortified room in the basement of Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, volunteer prisoners were asked to lie face down on a trapezoid-shaped bed. They put their legs into stirrups, and let their testicles drop into a plastic box of water where they were zapped by X-rays.

The experiments, which lasted for a decade and involved 131 prisoners, came up with some unsurprising results. Even at the lowest dose – 0.1 gray – sperm was damaged, and at twice that dose the prisoners became sterile. They were paid $5 a month for their trouble, plus $25 per biopsy and $100 for a compulsory vasectomy at the end so they didn’t father children with mutations.

The testicle tests are just one of many disturbing details Kate Brown has unearthed from the official archives in her fascinating nuclear history. She also tells how tunnels created by muskrats undermined one of Hanford’s storage ponds, causing 60 million litres of radioactive effluent to pour into the Columbia river.


And there is the scary tale of how Hanford scientists conducted one of their riskiest experiments, later dubbed the “green run”. For 7 hours, they processed highly radioactive “green” fuel that had not been allowed to decay for as long as usual – and showered 407,000 gigabecquerels of radioactive iodine over nearby cities. The green run is said to have been an attempt to mimic what the US thought the Soviet Union was doing to boost plutonium production at its Mayak nuclear weapons plant at Ozersk, in the Urals.

It is the looking-glass links between Hanford and Mayak, and the communities that host them, that form the central theme of Brown’s book. They were two secretive citadels, dedicated to producing as much plutonium as possible to fuel the cold war arsenals of the world’s two opposing superpowers. They both conferred wealth and privilege on their elite staff, copying each other to create what Brown styles as a “plutopia”.

But the two vast, creaking, nuclear complexes also deliberately discharged huge amounts of radioactivity into the environment, cut corners and caused countless accidents and leaks. Brown estimates that during their existence they each released at least 7.4 billion gigabecquerels, four times the amount released by the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine in 1986.

The rivers that drain the two sites, the Columbia and the Techa, have both been called the most radioactive in the world, and many thousands of people who live downstream and downwind say the contamination has made them sick. These are, says Brown, “slow motion disasters” created and covered up by state machines.

Brown argues that the US and the Soviet Union both subverted science to maintain the plutopia. The most shocking example was the US Atomic Energy Commission’s takeover of seminal Japanese research into the health impacts of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was necessary, according to a senior AEC official in 1955, to ensure that “misleading and unsound reports” were “kept to a minimum”.

Brown’s account is unique, partisan and occasionally personal in that she includes some of her thoughts about interviews she conducted: for example, she recounts how she ended up becoming friends with one interviewee. But because she is open and thorough about her sources, those are strengths to be celebrated, not weaknesses to be deplored. It also means her book is engaging, honest and, in the end, entirely credible.

This article appeared in print under the headline “The hot cold war cover-up”

2 Responses to “The radioactive legacy of the search for plutopia”
  1. Definately going to read Plutopia ….. Here,s a tip of the iceberg view from Cumbria, written in 2009 …the nuclear crimes have stacked up,since then….

    • Umi Hagitani says:

      Thank you, Marianne for your comment and the link to your article.
      It has been very interesting between UK and the worldwide nuclear-military industrial complex.
      I am very fortunate to know about women’s resistance movement at Greenham before I learned too much about UK’s involvement
      and further implementing uranium mining in Mongolia right after they said they withdraw from nuclear power.
      Please let us know if anything you think we should cover.
      Umi Hagitani

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