Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Twin Atomic Cities: New Book Compares Richland, Wash. To Ozersk, Russia

In southeast Washington, and in southern Russia there are two atomic cities a world apart but with surprising similarities.

The new book “Plutopia” studies the cities of Richland, Wash. and Ozersk, Russia. Both places made plutonium for nuclear bombs. And both sprung up from desolate places during WWII and the Cold War.

Kate Brown says people who lived in Richland and Ozersk during the plutonium production days remember both towns as delightful places to live.

“Strangely enough. Despite the fact that they are at the bull’s-eye of the Cold War in so many ways," says Brown. "They are vulnerable of attack from the enemy abroad, they are vulnerable to big explosions and they are vulnerable to sort of daily doses of low-levels of radiation.”

Brown says, sure, both the Russians and the Americans were dealing with some of the most toxic stuff on earth. But the governments made sure that most who came to work had secure jobs, there was plenty to eat and there were good schools for children. Stable, nuclear families -- in more ways than one.

Brown says, many of those laborers turned out to be women. At jobs at Hanford and in Russia many of them worked in some of the most hazardous places.

“One woman here Marge DeGooyer, told me about how when she applied for a job here at Hanford, she was asked, ‘Do you like to cook or to sew?’ And she thought well I don’t really like to do either, but I guess I’d rather cook.’ And they said, 'good OK we will put you in the processing plant because there is a lot of measuring you know little quantities 8 ounces of this and 2 ounces of that.' And it was considered that women were good at that, good at following directions to the T.”

Brown says the urgency of war and limited resources also meant both the Americans and Russians disposed of waste harming the environment -- legacies that affected multiple generations in surrounding communities. Americans disposed of liquid and solid radioactive waste in pits in the desert sand, filled underground tanks with millions of gallons of radioactive waste, and sent more downstream in the Columbia River. In the late 1940s, the Russians filled their own underground tanks, sent thousands of curries of highly-radioactive waste downstream and sickening riverside communities.

“They didn’t tell any of the 28,000 people living downstream who didn’t have wells," Brown says. "They drank from those rivers, cooked with it, watered their livestock, watered their crops and ate the fish.”

Much of that waste both in Russia and near Richland has yet to be cleaned up. Brown says some in Russia, call themselves the “White Mice,” because they believe the government used them as some sort of experiment. And in the American Northwest downwinders and atomic workers also suffered from poisoning from Hanford.

Brown says ultimately, these two spots are linked both in their foundations, fates and their legacies.

“They used to say in Ozersk, the Richland equivalent, if you drilled a hole through the ground, you’d end up in Richland. That’s sort of how I imagined these two cities revolving around each other on one axis. The Soviets knew, they had a pretty good approximation of what was going on at Hanford. They knew if the Americans are cutting corners on waste then we do too, we have to keep up.”

On the Web:

"Plutopia" by Kate Brown - Oxford University Press 

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.