I’ve always had an interest in the technological arms race of the Cold War, which fits right alongside my interest in infrastructure. And, as with every other aspect of technological arms race, the nuclear technology race was ridiculous; where it differs is in the degree. Cyborg cat to spy on the other side? Ridiculous. Space race? Very cool, some actually good civilian uses, conceptually ridiculous if you didn’t grow up knowing it’s possible to put stuff in orbit.
Deliberately creating tons upon tons of one of the most toxic substances known to mankind, and in the process creating other incredibly toxic substances in amounts that render massive areas uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years? That’s not just ridiculous, that is obscene.
Plutopia focuses on that—the two cities, Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, that were built around the production of plutonium. And boy howdy, does nobody look good in this story; the similarities in mistakes made would be comic, if it wasn’t a tragedy that’s going to be screwing over our great^100-grandchildren. In addition to just about everyone involved from the time the cities were founded onward.
Two anecdotes stand out in my mind. First, in what reminds me of the Uber business model, a fun fact: the third-worst radiological disaster in human history officially listed zero casualties from the cleanup. Pause for effect. Because the USSR only tracked the health outcomes of paid employees working on the cleanup, which effectively meant they were only worrying about the people managing the people doing the cleanup work. Hey, careful handing out those orders, pal, you don’t want to get any of the radioactive waste on yourself!1
Second one, which immediately feels like fodder for HBO to do a second season of Chernobyl:
A week after the explosion, radiologists followed the cloud to the downwind villages, where they found people living normally, children playing barefoot. They measured the ground, farm tools, animals, and people. The levels of radioactivity were astonishingly high. S. F. Osotin, a monitor, remembered that a colleague went up to the children and held up his Geiger counter. He said, “I can tell with this instrument exactly how much porridge you had for breakfast.” The children happily stuck out their bellies, which ticked at forty to fifty microroentgens a second. The technicians stepped back, shocked. The kids had become radioactive sources.
Overall, this book fascinated me. And horrified me! But I grew up downstream of Hanford, and this is apparently just the world we live in now, so what else can you do? Better to be informed, I suppose. Check it out.2
- Don’t get all patriotic about this, my fellow Americans—the Hanford site did the same thing in their statistics, as well as a repeated trend of calling anything other than “died of their skin melting off” or “died of a thyroid full of radiation” a death not caused by radiation. Grew up drinking from the aquifer that the high level waste pond was seeping into, got cancer of the everything at 20? Unrelated, we assure you. ↩
- This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores. ↩