mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


To the Nuclear Lighthouse

Nuclear weapons are irrational devices. They were rationalized and
accepted as a desperate measure in the face of circumstances that were
unimaginable. Now as the world evolves rapidly, I think that the vast
majority of people on the face of the earth will endorse the
proposition that such weapons have no place among us.

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— Gen. George Lee Butler,
former commander, Strategic Air Command

As an example of the environmental contradictions of twentieth century
industrial progress, the city of Leningrad is hard to beat. For
decades, Leningrad has ranked as one of the world’s great cultural
centers, boasting some of the finest art, theater, dance, and
architecture to be found anywhere. But when I reached Leningrad in
July 1991, I quickly learned that its water was absolutely unsafe to
drink, thanks to a witch’s brew of human and industrial waste that
poured constantly into the Neva River. Much of the industrial waste
was military-related; more than 70 percent of the factories in the
Leningrad area belonged to the Soviet military, according to Alexei
Yablokov, deputy chair of the Supreme Soviet’s environmental committee
and one of the nation’s leading environmentalists. The military is
like a law unto itself, Yablokov told me. It can pollute rivers and
hold underground nuclear tests and nobody is held responsible because
the rest of the government cannot discipline the military.

I arrived in Leningrad six weeks before the military-led coup against
General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that spelled the end of the Soviet
Union. Days before my arrival, the citizens had voted to restore their
city’s original name of St. Petersburg, but the margin was close: 56
percent in favor, 44 percent against. Many senior citizens had clung
to the old name in honor of loved ones who died defending Leningrad
against Hitler’s army during the ghastly nine-hundred-day siege of
World War 11, when an estimated two million Russians perished after
being reduced to eating glue and sawdust. Advocates of the name
change, on the other hand, saw the new name as a blow against the
still ruling Communist Party and a reassertion of the glories of Peter
the Great, the czar who had made his namesake city Russia’s window
onto Europe in the early 1700s.

The physical appearance of the city seemed as divided as the opinions
of its citizens. Leningrad resembled nothing so much as a classic
Rolls Royce that had deteriorated into a rusty, dented, filthy shadow
of its former self. The grandeur of Peter’s Winter Palace along the
Neva River, the magnificent holdings of its Hermitage Museum, the
stately stone buildings and canals that recalled Paris and Amsterdam
all harkened back to the prosperous St. Petersburg of old. I was lucky
enough to arrive in high summer, the season of white nights, when even
at midnight there was enough light to read a newspaper outdoors. One
night at about 11:30 I strolled down the main street, Nevsky Prospekt.
The light was soft and luminescent, bright enough to appreciate the
lines and proportions of the palatial buildings on both sides of the
street yet dark enough to obscure the gaping holes, crumbling facades,
and lack of paint that marred their elegance. For one enchanted
evening, I felt I had been transported back to prerevolutionary St.
Petersburg.

Yet the shabbiness and hard times of present-day life were
inescapable. I was met at the train station by Vlad, a Russian
photographer I had known in San Francisco who would be serving as my
interpreter here. His friend Alex had access to a rundown, old jalopy
(the windows no longer rolled down, the seats had lost their springs),
and as we drove across town the city itself seemed in no better shape
than the car. Buildings were caked with so many years of dust it was
hard to tell what their original colors might have been. The streets
were pocked with huge potholes and lined on either side by weeds and
waist-high grass. Vlad took me to his parents’ place, where I would be
taking over his old room for a few nights.

His parents were factory workers who lived in a nine-story apartment
building in the north of the city. The downstairs entrance was a
plywood door that opened into an unlit vestibule that smelled
powerfully of mildew and urine. The elevator was suffused with the
same odor, but Vlad apparently no longer noticed it. During the very
slow ascent of the elevator, it suddenly stopped with such a crash I
was sure it had broken and left us stranded. But again, Vlad, Alex,
and their friend Leonid were nonchalant. Vlad simply heaved open the
elevator and we stepped into another dark, dank hallway, down which
lay the door to the apartment.

Inside was cozier, thanks to a couple lovely old pieces of furniture
and the great warmth of Vlad’s folks, especially his father, who
informed me with impassioned hand gestures that under no circumstances
was I to drink water from the tap. This I knew already — water
pollution was the main environmental story I planned to investigate in
Leningrad. Nevertheless, when he filled a glass from the tap, it was
sobering to see the water’s greasy texture and smell its metallic
scent. Vlad’s father emphasized that I should drink only from the
green pitcher in the icebox, which contained water that had been
boiled for ten minutes. He added that the building had been completely
without water from five until nine o’clock that evening and, worse,
that there would be no hot water at all until September 1, two months
away. Also, the phone was out again. Welcome to Soviet Union, Vlad
said to me with a smirk. Is interesting country.

On our way downtown the next morning, Leonid and I stopped into a
neighborhood food store. Dust coated the front door and windows so
thickly one could not see through them. Inside, most shelves were
empty; the only product available in any quantity was bread. In one
corner were half a dozen five-kilogram bags of potatoes, one of which
Leonid purchased. That afternoon, while walking the city, we passed
through a private vegetable market with ample, fine-looking produce,
but prices were five times the normal rate and Leonid was too proud to
let me buy him anything. A few blocks later, we found ourselves on a
street where peddlers stretched on for an entire block. Mostly
desperate pensioners, they had on offer a pathetic range of items:
pencils, an old hallway mirror, some empty bottles, a pair of very
worn lady’s shoes. Capitalism had only begun to arrive in Russia, and
already the bottom was falling out for the lower classes.

I spent a week in Leningrad interviewing environmentalists, city
council members, engineers, scientists, high party officials, and
average citizens about the state of Leningrad’s water and its larger
ecological situation. Everyone knew that the city’s water was unsafe;
the media had widely reported it. But except for the boss of the local
Pepsi Cola bottling plant, who told me he regularly took colas home
for his family, most people drank the water anyway. What else can I
do? asked Dimitri, a twenty-year-old student of English with curly
dark hair and a bright, ambitious intelligence. It’s the only water
we have. I try to boil it first, but that’s not always possible. And
even boiling the water eliminated only bacteria, not industrial
toxins.

Leningrad drew its water from the Neva River, which was fed by Lake
Ladoga, approximately fifty miles to the north. Ladoga was the largest
lake in Europe. In olden days its purity was so renowned that sea
captains would insist on stowing Ladoga water aboard before long
journeys. Now, however, the lake was ringed with scores of paper mills
and other factories that discharged vast amounts of heavy metals,
acids, and chlorine. The Neva was further polluted while passing
through Leningrad by the city’s approximately two thousand factories,
only 10 percent of which treated their waste before discharge. Human
waste from the hundreds of thousands of households in Leningrad also
poured into the Neva, generally without benefit of prior treatment.
Drinking water was treated before being distributed to homes and
offices, but with limited effect. The Neva still contained
concentrations of olgino (a stomach bacteria) that were ten thousand
times higher than the legal limit, according to a study by the city
council.

Compounding all these problems, a massive dam was being built across
the Gulf of Finland twelve kilometers from downtown Leningrad,
supposedly to protect the city from floods but also to provide a ring
road for auto traffic. A colossal boondoggle of centralized planning
that originated during the Brezhnev era, the dam would interfere with
the Neva’s traditional self-cleaning method of exchanging water with
the gulf. Environmentalists pointed out that the dam would act like a
cork in a bottle, stopping up the Neva with its pollutants and
rendering the gulf a fetid swamp.

Despite its poisonous water and highly contaminated air, Leningrad did
not rank among the ten most polluted cities in the Soviet Union.
Competition for that honor was stiff in a country where two-thirds of
the drinking water did not meet health standards, air pollution in
over one hundred cities exceeded legal limits by a factor of ten, a
chemically saturated river somewhere in the country burst into flames
once a month, and 20 percent of the population (about forty million
people) lived in areas that scientists had labeled zones of ecological
conflict, crisis, or catastrophe.

After a week in Leningrad I took the train to Moscow, where I stayed
with a friend of Vlad’s named Kiril. A twenty-five-year-old former
prison inmate who thought nothing of beating up his downstairs
neighbor to get him off their shared telephone line, Kiril happened to
be the grandson of the man who served as Josef Stalin’s ambassador to
the United States immediately after World War II. One day, when I
tried to present Kiril with the U.S. $20 he said he needed to pay for
a license to marry his live-in girlfriend, his pride was so wounded
that he angrily turned on me: Take back the money, Mark, or you will
become my enemy! Still, he generally liked me, and he even agreed to
let me use the English typewriter he had inherited from his
grandfather, an ancient Royal manual whose y and z keys were
transposed but otherwise functioned well enough. Typing up my notes
one morning while Kiril and a buddy were out muscling in on a land
deal, I wondered about the messages that had been typed on this
machine decades before by the ambassador, an official who must have
been privy to some of the most sensitive aspects of U.S.-Soviet
relations at the dawn of the Cold War. If only typewriters could talk!

Part of the reason Kiril treated me decently, I realized, was that I
represented a possible entree to the United States, a country he
yearned to visit. He was ashamed of the Soviet Union, a place he
ridiculed as backyards, ugly, and poor. Alas, this was not an entirely
unfair characterization. This was my first visit to the USSR, and I
was frankly astonished. Combine the appalling environmental
degradation with a stagnant economy, poor living standards, and the
shoddy technology everywhere on display, and it was difficult to
regard the Soviet Union as much of a superpower. Throughout my five
weeks of travel there, I often found myself thinking, This is the
place we were supposed to be so afraid of during the Cold War?

Yet Americans had legitimate reason to fear the Soviet Union during
the Cold War, for Soviet leaders, like American leaders, had their
hands on the most deadly technology of the twentieth century. If the
automobile was the most economically important technology of the
century, nuclear fission was the most important technology, period,
because it raised the question of whether there would be any human
life beyond this century. Unlocking the atom’s secrets was arguably
the single most fateful step Homo sapiens sapiens had taken in their
two-million-year pursuit of technological mastery over the natural
world. By discovering how to produce nuclear reactions, humans were
exploiting the very forces that generated sunshine and made life on
earth possible in the first place. These were powers that earlier
humans had ascribed to gods, a point not lost on the atomic bomb’s
chief designer, physicist Robert Oppenheimer. At the moment the first
test bomb (or gadget, as its creators called it) exploded above the
New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, a line of Hindu scripture flashed
through Oppenheimer’s mind: I am become Death, the shatterer of
worlds.

Within a month, Oppenheimer’s creation had incinerated two Japanese
cities and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. But Hiroshima
and Nagasaki were by no means the only cities devastated by the
technology that, in Einstein’s famous phrase, changed everything
except our way of thinking. As I was soon to see, on the western edge
of Siberia was another city that carried the scars of its nuclear
past — a city called Chelyabinsk.

The express train from Moscow took thirty-six hours to plod across the
featureless Russian plain to Chelyabinsk, a dusty industrial city with
a million inhabitants. I awoke a few hours before arrival, when the
train finally began lumbering up the shallow inclines of the southern
Ural Mountains. Green, stony hillsides dotted with graceful white
birch trees broke the visual monotony for the first time since Moscow,
but the relief was temporary. Chelyabinsk lay just over the rise, at
the edge of the vast steppes that stretched on to the Pacific.

Fifty miles north of the city was an industrial complex whose Cold War
code name was Mayak. Translated, Mayak means lighthouse an ironic
name, considering the place had not existed on Soviet maps for more
than forty years. (Chelyabinsk itself was still officially closed to
outsiders when I got there in July 1991. Covering almost eighty square
miles, the Mayak complex had recently been called the most polluted
spot on earth by a team of visiting foreign scientists, a judgment
Mayak officials did not dispute. Built by forced labor shortly after
World War 11, Mayak had been the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear
weapons production facility from 1946 until November 1990, when the
last of its five plutonium reactors was shut down. Mayak was, in
short, the heart of the Soviet nuclear production apparatus.

As such, Mayak was the site of perhaps the biggest nuclear catastrophe
in history after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. There had been
three nuclear disasters at Mayak whose damages were comparable to, and
probably worse than, the reactor meltdown in 1986 that made Chernobyl
a household name around the world. The difference with the Mayak
disasters was that they never became media events. On the contrary,
they were kept secret — not only from the outside world but from the
Russian people, including hundreds of thousands of local residents who
were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. In a striking case of
Cold War duplicity and doublethink, the news from Mayak was suppressed
by both the KGB and the CIA, each of which apparently feared an
informed populace as much as it feared the enemy arsenal. (The CIA
learned about the accidents in the course of normal intelligence
gathering but declined to publicize them. Thus, when I reached
Chelyabinsk in 1991, the three Mayak nuclear disasters still remained
largely unknown to all but a handful of international nuclear policy
experts.

Astonishingly enough, the first Mayak disaster was not an accident at
all but the result of deliberate policy. From 1949, when the Mayak
complex produced the Soviet Union’s first nuclear weapon, until 1956,
Mayak officials poured their nuclear waste directly into the nearby
Techa River. Tens of thousands of people living downstream received
average doses of radiation four times greater than those subsequently
received at Chernobyl. For the twenty-eight thousand people most
acutely exposed, average individual doses were fifty-seven times
greater than at Chernobyl. Nevertheless, only seventy-five hundred
people were ever evacuated from their homes, and people were not
forbidden to use the river water until 1953, four years after the
contamination began.

The second, and most terrible, Mayak disaster took place on September
29, 1957, when a nuclear waste dump exploded, spewing seventy to
eighty metric tons of waste into the sky. The waste facility had been
constructed in 1953 as an alternative to more river dumping. When its
cooling system malfunctioned, the waste began to dry out and heat up,
eventually reaching the unearthly temperature of 350 degrees Celsius.
The resulting explosion was equivalent to seventy to one hundred tons
of TNT — enough to blast a thick concrete lid off the tanks and hurl it
twenty-five meters away. The total amount of ejected radioactivity
measured twenty million curies — ten times more than had already been
dumped in the Techa River. Ninety percent of the radioactivity fell
immediately back to earth, but the remaining two million curies formed
a plume half a mile high that spread across the Chelyabinsk region,
severely contaminating air, water, and soil. All the pine trees in a
twenty-square-kilometer area died over the next eighteen months.
Approximately 272,000 people were exposed to average doses of 0.7 rems
of radiation, the same amount that 750,000 Chernobyl victims would
experience in 1986.

The third Mayak disaster occurred in 1967, and again nuclear waste was
the culprit. In 1951, after Mayak officials realized they could no
longer dump waste in the Techa River but before they built the storage
facility that would explode in 1957, they began pouring waste into
Lake Karachay, a natural lake within the Mayak complex; since Karachay
had no outlets, this measure, it was assumed, would keep the waste
from contaminating the regional water system. However, in 1967, a
cyclone swept across the drought-exposed shores of Lake Karachay and
whirled its deadly silt high into the air and across the surrounding
landscape. Five million curies of radioactivity ,were dispersed over
fifteen thousand square miles; nearly half a million people were
affected.

My guide in Chelyabinsk was Natalia Miranova, a tenacious, red-haired
woman in her forties who had fought to win medical treatment and
protection from further danger for her neighbors; her efforts had
recently won her election as the people’s deputy to the regional
Supreme Soviet. I had met Natalia at an academic conference in the
United States a few months before; now, she had kindly come to meet
Vlad and me at the Chelyabinsk train station. Joining her was Valodya
Ishkvatov, whose crinkly eyes and flat, honey-colored face reminded me
that I was now on the Asian side of the Soviet Union. Valodya served
as our driver over the coming days, and like many other locals, he had
been personally affected by the Mayak disasters.

When the Mayak waste dump exploded in 1957, Valodya was a boy of
eight, living along the Techa River with his parents and three
brothers and sisters. His father worked at a large orchard next to the
river where pears and apples were grown. Valodya’s family was not
evacuated until a year after the explosion, and even after evacuation
his father kept working in the orchard; every day, he walked the five
miles from the nearby village where the family had been forced to take
shelter in a farmer’s barn. The orchard was kept in production, and
its fruit sold throughout the Soviet Union, until 1964, when the
government ordered the trees to be burned.

Valodya, who now looked perhaps fifteen years older than his actual
age of forty-one, said that all six members of his family were among
the sixty-six thousand victims of the Mayak disasters upon whom the
government had kept health records. But he had no confidence in those
records. Many times that number of people had actually been
irradiated, he pointed out, and he added that his own family’s case
illustrated how the official records substantially underestimated the
number of victims.

Neither I nor my older brother and sister were willing to undergo the
spinal operation that is used to test for radiation sickness, he told
me through Vlad. When it’s done improperly, you never walk again, and
none of us trusted the local doctors enough. So in our records each of
us is listed as not having radiation sickness, even though each of us
has had all kinds of symptoms. I myself had to have a growth [the size
of a golf ball removed from my neck a couple of years ago. His mother
and baby brother suffered still worse fortune. The brother was cursed
at birth with an overlarge head and shrunken chest, and since then he
had been plagued ceaselessly, by severe migraines and arthritis. The
mother died at sixty after suffering for years from a variety of
ailments associated with radiation sickness, including a weakened
heart, high blood pressure, and fatigue.

The complete death toll of the Mayak nuclear disasters will never be
known, and bookkeeping errors are but the most banal reason why. More
far-reaching and despicable was the outright deceit practiced by
Soviet authorities. Until 1989, Chelyabinsk health officials were
prohibited from even acknowledging the existence of radiation
sickness, much less admitting that it had been killing local people
for forty years. Instead, they had to diagnose patients as suffering
from ABC disease, a code name handed down from the Ministry of Health
in Moscow that carried the grotesque translation weakened vegetative
syndrome.

It was unpleasant, but I had to conform, said Dr. Mira Kossenko when
I asked how she felt about lying to her patients for so many years. A
slim, serious woman who now headed the clinical department at the
Institute of Biophysics in Chelyabinsk, Kossenko added, When they
asked me what was wrong with them, I simply told them there was
something wrong with their blood. It was a complex moral situation. We
did our best to treat the people who came to us. But talking about
radiation sickness was considered to be revealing a state secret, and
I would have served seven years in prison.

Instead, other innocents were conscripted. On my first day in
Chelyabinsk, Natalia took me to the local children’s hospital. Nearly
all of the approximately thirty children on the leukemia ward were
bald, thanks to the radiation therapy that, in a perverse twist, was
now being applied in a last-gasp attempt to save their stricken
bodies. The kids ranged in age from fifteen down to one. At night,
their mothers slept beside them on cots. When a dozen of the mothers
gathered in the playroom late in the afternoon to speak with me, the
mother of one sad-faced, heavyset girl could not stop sobbing. Her
daughter, who looked about ten, reached over and stroked her mother’s
arm to comfort her. This unleashed a deep, aching wail from the mother
that drove her from the room. The mother’s peers looked on with
sympathy, dread, and a couple forced, painful smiles. They knew what
the children did not: the doctors expected 75 percent of these
children to be dead within five years, and some of them much sooner
than that.

Not all these children’s cancers were necessarily the result of atomic
contamination, of course. But the doctors had concluded that some, and
perhaps many, were. A study that Mikhail Gorbachev had ordered of the
ecological situation in Chelyabinsk (which I will refer to as the
Gorbachev report) concluded the same. Nevertheless, for three years in
a row Moscow had told the doctors that there were no funds to buy even
such basic medical equipment as blood cell separators, which would cut
the leukemia ward’s death rate significantly.

The problem is that all the assistance goes to Chernobyl, Dr. Leva
Zhukovsky told me. Our mothers understand better than anyone the pain
of the mothers in Chernobyl whose children have leukemia. We only want
the public to know that our children are dying, too.

Soviet authorities tried to cover up the Chernobyl accident as well.
Just as in Chelyabinsk, doctors were ordered not to diagnose Chernobyl
patients as suffering from radiation exposure; the total amount of
radiation Chernobyl unleashed was also considered classified. The
deception began during the very first moments of the accident, when
engineers who reported that reactor number four had suffered a
catastrophic meltdown were ignored by the Chernobyl plant’s director,
who went on to assure Moscow that the situation was under control.
(The engineers who investigated the blue-hot remains of the reactor
were rewarded for their honesty with lethal doses of radiation that
killed them within ten weeks.) The blast had released fifty tons of
radioactivity into the sky. Although the fallout drifted across
western Europe and eventually was detected as far away as Point Reves,
California, the bulk of it contaminated fifty thousand square miles of
prime farmland in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Five million people
were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, but only 135,000 were
evacuated from a so-called exclusion zone that extended in a
thirty-kilometer radius from the plant. Food grown in the irradiated
areas continued to be consumed as well.

In Moscow, some top officials apparently wanted to stonewall the
outside world, but that was impossible. Radiation monitors in Sweden
and elsewhere had registered alarming readings after the blast, and
foreign governments were demanding answers. Gorbachev, who had
announced his policy of glasnost only three months earlier, now had to
live up to it; sixteen days after the accident, he went on television
to admit that a misfortune has… befallen us at Chernobyl. But even
Gorbachev’s remarks grossly understated the crisis; he was relying on
reports from officials at the site and throughout the Soviet system
who were continuing to censor information. Andre Pralnikov, a
journalist I met in Moscow who had infiltrated the Chernobyl site days
after the accident, told me that cleanup specialists told him that
there were at least three Hiroshimas worth of radioactivity inside
the ruined plant. That estimate turned out to be much too low;
Chernobyl actually released about two hundred times as much radiation
as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Pralnikov did not include such
information in the reports he smuggled out of Chernobyl, however,
because it would have been no use. My editor [at Izvestia] would have
taken it out, because he would have known that, if he didn’t, the
official censor above him would have.

Although they could not entirely suppress the truth about Chernobyl,
Soviet authorities did succeed in sowing long-lasting confusion about
the accident’s true scope and consequences. They had help, especially
from the pronuclear International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the
United Nations. The IAEA’s report on Chernobyl, published in 1991,
declared that the accident had not caused any physical health problems
for the local population, only psychological ones. Critics pointed out
that the IAEA had reached this astonishing conclusion on the basis of
information provided almost entirely by the Soviet government; among
its most egregious errors, the agency had simply ignored the two
groups of people exposed to the largest doses of radiation — the tens of
thousands of people who had lived within the plant’s thirty-kilometer
exclusion zone and the eight hundred thousand so-called liquidators
who cleaned up after the accident.

Nevertheless, the same argument — the danger of radiation is all in
people’s heads — resurfaced five years later on the front page of the
New York Times in a story by reporter Michael Specter titled 10 Years
Later, Through Fear, Chernobyl Still Kills in Belarus. One had to
wonder whether Specter and his editors read their own newspaper. After
all, the Times had recently published two stories reporting that the
World Health Organization, after a more independent and rigorous
investigation than the IAEA’s, had reached very different conclusions
about Chernobyl’s effects. The WHO found that thyroid cancers among
children in Belarus had become 285 times more common in the years
after the accident. Illnesses of all kinds had increased 30 percent,
and 375,000 people remained displaced or homeless. Nor was it clear
how much additional suffering lay ahead, for no one was bothering to
monitor the health of the eight hundred thousand workers and soldiers
who, as liquidators, had endured the most concentrated exposures to
radiation. Moreover, many kinds of cancer, such as leukemia, can take
years to manifest; the very high incidence of thyroid cancer (a rapid
metastasizer) suggested that the ultimate number of deadly cancers
could likewise be very high. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of
biophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, estimated that
Chernobyl would eventually cause between 50,000 and 250,000 cancer
deaths in the former Soviet Union, plus an equal number in the rest of
the world.

So it was no wonder that the world paid a lot of attention to
Chernobyl. By contrast, while Chelyabinsk had also suffered
grievously, its travails were too little known to attract much
international concern, a fact that exasperated some of its defenders.
Please do not compare Chelyabinsk with Chernobyl, because
[Chelyabinsk] is a much different and far worse problem, pleaded
Alexander Penyagin, the people’s deputy who represented the
Chelyabinsk region in the national Supreme Soviet in Moscow, where he
showed me a draft of the Gorbachev report. Because of glasnost,
nobody could sweep Chernobyl under the rug. But the disasters at
Chelyabinsk were top secret until just two years ago [1989]. They
continued for many more years and they released far more radioactivity
than Chernobyl did.

Penyagin went on to assert that the Mayak disasters were one hundred
times worse than Chernobyl, hyperbole that seemed beside the point.
There was quite enough suffering to go around in both Chelyabinsk and
Chernobyl without having to pit one against the other. According to
the Gorbachev report, Chelyabinsk was the cancer capital of the entire
Soviet Union — no small achievement, given the dreadful state of
Russia’s environment and public health. Again, the Mayak disasters
were not the only reason. Chelyabinsk was also a major agricultural
area with extensive chemical use, as well as an industrial nerve
center with a long military history. The region had produced weapons
for Russian leaders since the time of the czars, and it played an
especially critical role during World War II. In 1941, after the
Germans overran the Soviet Union’s western border, the Soviets
transferred their entire metallurgy industry — factory by factory,
machine by machine — from Ukraine to the relative safety (behind the
Urals) of Chelyabinsk. But the factories had not been improved upon
since, and the environmental consequences were devastating.

Since Chelyabinsk factories had no air purification filters, they had
released some 391,000 tons of pollutants in 1990, giving Chelyabinsk
some of the most polluted air in the Soviet Union. Drinking water also
contained very high levels of pollution, the Gorbachev report stated
— five to twenty times as much iron and forty to sixty times as much
copper as it should have. It is hard to be healthy under such
conditions, and the people in Chelyabinsk were not. You could see it
in their faces — drawn, pasty, permanently fatigued — and you could
track it in the health statistics. Both morbidity and mortality rates
jumped during the 1980s. Growth in diseases of the blood circulation
system increased 31 percent. Bronchial asthma increased by 43 percent;
congenital anomalies, by 23 percent; and gastrointestinal tract
illnesses, by 35 percent.

Even the bland bureaucratic language of the Gorbachev report could not
wholly mask the severity of the crisis in Chelyabinsk: An extremely
unfavorable ecological situation has developed, which is made worse by
the lack of proper medical services. An especially critical situation
exists in the zones of ecological tension (extraordinary phrase!)
where about 80 percent of the population reside.

I toured one of these zones of ecological tension on my second day in
Chelyabinsk. We headed out early in Natalia’s creaking, rust-holed
Lada, Valodya at the wheel. Leaving the city behind, we passed
spacious green cow pastures, golden cornfields swaying in the breeze,
and countless stands of the shining white birch trees that dominate
the Ural landscape. Once we turned off the main highway, we had to
share the road with horse-drawn hay carts and slow down to avoid geese
crossing our path. After about an hour, we pulled up to the
seven-thousand-hectare Neva state farm, which produced meat, milk,
potatoes, and feed corn. We were greeted by Nikolai Chvelev, a squat,
energetic man with a farmer’s ruddy complexion and an eyewitness’s
memories of what it felt like to live along the Techa River in the
1950s.

Nikolai Chvelev was now the top man at the Neva farm, but in 1954 he
was a twenty-one-year-old soldier who had fallen in love with a local
girl while stationed in Chelyabinsk. He told me he and his fellow
recruits were brought to the Techa one day in 1954 and told not to
swim in it. But because they were not told why the river was off
limits, and because there did not look to be anything wrong with the
water, they sometimes disobeyed these orders, especially on hot summer
days. Local people also continued using river water for drinking and
cooking. Not until the second disaster, the waste dump explosion in
1957, did people begin to suspect that something was seriously wrong.

A lot of rumors circulated, but people were afraid to ask too many
questions. At the time, you could get thrown in jail for that,
Chvelev recalled. My brother-in-law worked for the police, and he
told me privately what little he knew: that some kind of accident had
happened at the complex. Only then did we stop swimming in the river.
For two weeks after the explosion, the water in the river was black,
but after that it became clear again. The dairy where my wife worked
was kept in operation until 1959. She and her coworkers didn’t know
what radiation meant, and they weren’t told anything by the
authorities, so they saw no reason to stop producing milk, except on
the days when the water was black.

After a hearty lunch of beef, noodles, and vodka (!) in the Neva
communal dining hall, Chvelev and I hopped in his truck and headed for
a far corner of the farm, where the Techa flowed past. It was a
glorious summer afternoon, breezy and warm, and as we bounced across
sun-splashed fields brimming with pink and white wildflowers, all
notions of ecological disaster seemed impossibly remote.
Radioactivity, after all, cannot be seen, felt, smelled, tasted, or
heard; although I knew better, it seemed inconceivable that something
so deadly could be lurking amid so much natural beauty.

Pulling to a halt a quarter mile from the river, Chvelev estimated
that we were about eighteen miles downstream from the site where
nuclear waste was originally dumped in the Techa. At the truck, the
dosimeter Natalia Miranova had brought registered approximately 25
micro-rontgens, close to the normal background level of 20
micro-rontgens. I hiked ahead with Vlad to scout photo opportunities
while Natalia changed her shoes for the walk to the river. A couple of
minutes later, I heard her behind me calling out numbers from the
dosimeter. As Vlad translated them, they rose steadily the closer
Natalia got to the water: 61, 64, 67, 64, 73. By the time she stood
a few feet from water’s edge, the dosimeter read 98. She reached down
and placed it at the very edge of the water and again we watched the
readings climb — first to 120, then 140, 160, and finally to a peak
of 221.

That day, ten times the normal background radiation level seemed very
high tome. But the next day I traveled farther downstream, to the
village of Muslyumova, and suddenly a reading of 221 seemed tame
indeed.

Muslyumova lay twenty-two miles downstream from the Mayak complex as
the crow flies, fifty miles as the fish swims. On our way there,
Valodya pulled the car to a stop about half a mile short of the
village, next to a pasture where cows were lazily munching grass in
the sun and white geese were splashing in and out of the river. At
water’s edge, the dosimeter read 445 — twenty times the normal
background level.

The road into Muslyumova was little more than a dirt path. We stopped
on a bluff and looked across the Techa, one hundred feet below, to
rows of low, wide houses on the other side of the river. A barbed wire
fence, its rusted strands disintegrated into a tangled mess, was
strung along the edge of the bluff, a pathetic remnant of the official
effort to dissuade residents from going near the river. Peering
through the fence, I saw a boy of nine or ten wading into the river
from the far bank, fishing rod in hand.

Natalia and I walked down to the water’s edge. Here along the river’s
flood plain, nearly all the dosimeter readings were very high-500s and
600s. Natalia held the device over a piece of dried cow dung. The
meter shot up to 850, a reflection of the fact that radioactivity
becomes more concentrated as it passes through the food chain.

We returned to the top of the bluff, where I was surrounded by a group
of about twenty local residents, mainly women whose small children
darted behind their mothers’ skirts to’ stare at the man with the
notebook who was, they said, the first journalist ever to visit their
village. A young woman of about twenty-five emerged as the group’s
spokesperson. She delivered spirited answers in a calm but
authoritative voice and even spoke a little English; it was no
surprise to learn she was one of the village schoolteachers. She
claimed that the people of Muslyumova were told how dangerous the
river was only a year and a half ago and that this warning came not
from local authorities, who continued to insist that the villagers
could safely remain where they were, but from local environmentalists
and a team of visiting foreign scientists. I inquired about the
children’s health.

They often have a hard time holding their pencils, she replied.
They tire very easily and complain of pain in their joints. During
the spring and autumn, every fourth or fifth child suffers from
chronic nosebleeds. Almost all of them have low red blood cell
counts.

A man behind me broke in to say that the village had voted recently in
favor of evacuation, but the government had refused to help. Tests
last spring, he added, had shown that half the local livestock had
leukemia, since they still drank from the river. The teacher explained
that a well had been dug two years ago to supply the villagers with
drinking water, but it did not provide enough for the livestock as
well.

What makes you think the well water is any safer than the river? I
asked.

She shrugged. We don’t really know. The local sanitary station checks
the water, and they tell us it’s normal, but they never give us the
actual readings, so we don’t have much faith in them. Still, we must
hope that it is a little safer. What other choice do we have?

As deadly as the Techa River was, it did not pose the greatest
immediate environmental danger in Chelyabinsk. There was a place
inside the Mayak complex where an adult male could die from radiation
in less time than it takes to read a morning newspaper. If he stood on
the shore of Lake Karachay, next to the pipe that had poured hundreds
of millions of gallons of nuclear waste into the lake since 1953, he
would encounter a radiation exposure rate [of] 600 rontgens per hour,
sufficient to provide a lethal dose within an hour, according to
Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense
Council in Washington, D.C. Cochran had been part of the team of
foreign scientists invited to the Mayak complex in 1989, and it was he
who wrote that it was the most polluted spot on earth. Now, in 1991,
Lake Karachay remained in perilous condition; indeed, a repeat of the
1967 accident, or worse, could happen at any minute.

Since 1951, Lake Karachay had accumulated an awesome 120 million
curies worth of radioactivity and absorbed nearly one hundred times
more strontium 90 and cesium 137 than was released at Chernobyl.
Moreover, although Mayak officials had assumed that waste dumped in
the lake would be isolated from the regional water system, this had
not proven to be the case. Dr. Cochran’s team documented that 93
percent of the radioactivity in the lake had filtered down into the
soil beneath, and 60 percent of it had reached the underlying water
table. From there, it had already migrated half a mile away from the
lake.

The danger was not only that Lake Karachay’s radioactivity would
infect the water table through groundwater migration; there was also a
danger that the lake would be struck by another natural disaster like
the cyclone that caused the 1967 incident. Despite years of decay, the
radioactivity remaining in Lake Karachay amounted to seven Chernobyls’
worth of strontium 90 and cesium 137. Thus, another cyclone could
bring nightmarish results. And the risk was real. Driving back to town
one afternoon, Natalia and I came upon an entire grove of flattened
birch trees, their splintered trunks a stark testament to the power of
local windstorms. In addition, running beneath the Mayak complex were
a number of geological fault lines, which could flush irradiated water
across hundreds of miles via underground channels during an
earthquake.

I wanted to see Lake Karachay for myself, but the Mayak authorities
refused to allow me inside the complex. Back in Moscow, Alexander
Penyagin, the people’s deputy for Chelyabinsk, had secured a promise
during a long-distance phone conversation with the Mayak director,
Mikhail Fitisov, that I would be able to visit the site. That promise
evaporated, however, when Fitisov refused to return my calls in
Chelyabinsk.

Instead, I had to be satisfied with an interview with Eugene Ryzkhov,
who had worked at Mayak for thirty-five years, mainly as an engineer,
before joining the public’ affairs department a few years ago.

Ryzkhov lived up to the stereotype of press flaks the world over:
unctuous smile, slippery claims, unswerving devotion to the official
line. He blamed the shutdown of Mayak’s five production reactors on
the political fallout of the Chernobyl accident, denied that residents
of the

Techa River area ran a significantly higher risk of getting cancer,
and ridiculed as crazy the suggestion that contaminated villages
like Muslyumova be evacuated. At the end of our interview, I asked him
whether, back in the 1950s and 1960s, he and his Mayak colleagues had
ever tried to warn the public of the terrible dangers he and I had
spent the last two hours discussing.

No, he said. We were raised not to do that. We worked at a secret
military enterprise. Besides, I was only a rank-and-file engineer.

Do you regret not having warned people?

I think my colleagues and I have our regrets that we were unable to
prevent the disasters. But life has taught us a great lesson. And for
the last twenty years, the overall radiation level here hasn’t gotten
worse, it’s gotten better.

But do you regret the deception?

It wasn’t deception. We obeyed the rules of the system in which we
lived …. It was impossible to do otherwise without being a
dissident. My work in containing the problems was objectively useful
to people. I did my duty. I have nothing to regret.

The doctors at the Institute for Biophysics in Chelyabinsk were more
troubled by their participation in the Mayak cover-up. Perhaps seeking
to exorcise their guilt, Mira Kossenko and her colleagues Marina
Degteva and N. A. Petushova had authored a study that is now regarded
as one of the definitive analyses of the health effects of the Mayak
nuclear disasters. After guiding me through the intricacies of their
research, Kossenko and Degteva took me on a tour of their hospital,
where patients were housed four to a room on plain single beds. There
were none of the tubes, monitors, and other apparatuses that clutter
Western hospital rooms, and my escorts were clearly embarrassed to
show me lab equipment that, even to my untrained eyes, looked
remarkably out of date. Dr. Kossenko explained that the hospital had
always been underfunded. When this [hospital was built [in 19571, the
authorities were reluctant to set up a large facility because they
thought local people might draw conclusions about what kind of complex
Mayak really was. And of course this was a military secret …. I’m
only able to talk about this now because the regime of secrecy was
lifted two years ago.

‘The recitation of this history led me to suggest to the two doctors
that, until 1989, their institute had engaged in rampant medical
deception of the very people it was supposed to be healing. I worried
for a moment that my bluntness had insulted them. Dr. Degteva shifted
some papers on her desk, then lifted her gaze and looked me in the
eye. Da, she murmured gloomily, before adding, in English, just
like Hanford.

Located in a remote area of Washington State, in the northwest corner
of the United States, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was constructed
during World War 11 to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. And Dr.
Degteva was right. The parallels between what happened in Chelyabinsk
over the years and what happened at Hanford are nothing short of
eerie.

In Hanford, too, the immediate postwar climate fostered a mentality in
which production took precedence over safety. And so, in 1945, Hanford
officials released 340,000 curies worth of radioactive gases into the
atmosphere, without warning the local populace, apparently because it
was the simplest way to get rid of the waste. Later, Hanford officials
also elected to pour nuclear waste directly into the nearest waterway.
As a result, the mighty Columbia became the most polluted river in the
United States. Soil was also contaminated. According to the Brookings
Institution study, Atomic Audit, between 1946 and 1966, in excess of
120 million gallons of liquid wastes were intentionally discharged
from the Hanford tanks directly to the ground. [Emphasis in
original.]

Nor were Hanford officials any more forthcoming about the risks of
their secret actions than their counterparts at Mayak were. The 1945
venting of gases was not made public until 1986, when
environmentalists near Hanford forced the release of nineteen thousand
pages of official documents. By then, the Hanford complex had also
discharged approximately eight trillion liters of low-level liquid
radioactive waste directly into the soil, making the complex arguably
the most polluted site in the United States.

The Hanford experience was not an aberration. The U.S. government
knowingly understated the health and ecological risks of nuclear
weapons production throughout the Cold War. In the 1950s, the
government assured the public that nuclear testing in the Pacific
posed no more health dangers than a chest X ray. The crew of a
Japanese fishing boat found out differently when they encountered a
radioactive cloud from one of the tests and immediately fell ill; one
crew member died before reaching home port two weeks later. Residents
of Utah and Nevada were likewise told not to worry if their Geiger
counters went crazy during a detonation at the Nevada test site,
advice that led many people to go outside and watch the blast and
receive dangerously high doses of radiation. When ranchers sued after
their sheep began dropping dead, the Atomic Energy Commission went so
far as to lie to a judge and pressure witnesses not to testify in the
case.

The government also used citizens as guinea pigs to test the effects
of nuclear weapons. In an episode that U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel
O’Leary, in 1993, likened to the Nazi experiments of World War 11,
approximately 250 experiments were conducted in the United States
between 1944 and 1973 on an estimated one hundred thousand
individuals, including hospital patients who were injected with
plutonium and pregnant women who were given radioactive pills.
Thousands of American soldiers were ordered to march through the
mushroom clouds of atomic test blasts. Not until 1988 did the U.S.
Congress grant these atomic veterans compensation for the resulting
health damages. In 1990, compensation was also offered to those who
had lived downwind from the Nevada test site, as well as to uranium
miners, who toiled in what analysts called probably the deadliest
part of nuclear weapons production.

In short, the U.S. and Soviet experiences with atomic energy during
the Cold War were often more alike than not. Secrecy and cutting
corners in one country were used to justify secrecy and cutting
corners in the other. Each nuclear establishment acted like a state
within a state whose officials sometimes seemed to have more in common
with their adversaries than with their fellow countrymen and women.
The two nuclear establishments even used the same vocabularies, as
when U.S. military planners recommended creating reeducation
programs to correct the thinking of American citizens worried about
nuclear fallout.

The starkest example of this shared mind-set was the cloak of secrecy
the CIA and KGB draped over the second Mayak disaster, the 1957 waste
dump explosion. For twenty years, the two intelligence agencies
declined to inform the rest of the world about an accident of
cataclysmic scope and consequence, even though this meant, for the
CIA, foregoing the chance to score points in its propaganda campaign
against the Red Menace.

Secrecy and sacrificing innocents are part of most wars, but they took
on new meaning during the Cold War because of the unique nature of
nuclear technology. During World War II. a lapse in security might
have endangered a given infantry unit or tactical maneuver. But during
the Cold War, any such lapse could endanger the entire country, for
the arms race led both superpowers to accumulate enough firepower to
destroy each other many times over. As Soviet premier Nikita
Khrushchev remarked in 1962, any additional weapons would only make
the rubble bounce. Because the range and speed of nuclear weapons
made defending against them impossible, each side based its security
on a stated willingness to answer any attack with a crushing
counterblow — the doctrine of mutual assured destruction that was
as terrifying as its MAD acronym suggested. The two countries, and the
larger world, were constantly poised minutes from doomsday. Further
complicating matters, Great Britain (in 1952, France (in 1960, and
China (in 1964 also exploded nuclear weapons, followed in the 1970s by
India, Israel, and South Africa. The nuclear genie was out of the
bottle.

Robert Oppenheimer compared the taming of the atom to man’s fall from
grace in the Garden of Eden. The creators of the bomb had known sin,
wrote Oppenheimer, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
Acquiring such unprecedented power was cause for celebration in other
quarters, though. When the defeat of Hitler erased the original
rationale for developing nuclear weapons, Einstein urged that the
Manhattan Project be halted; the White House ignored him. Although
officials in the Japanese government had signaled a readiness to
surrender, the American military insisted on using the bomb not just
once, in Hiroshima, as a sort of demonstration blow, but twice,
needlessly leveling Nagasaki and killing additional tens of thousands
of civilians. After the war, some of the scientists who had helped
develop the bomb urged that it be placed under international control,
but they too were dismissed by Washington officials who saw a nuclear
monopoly as a means of projecting American power around the world.
President Harry Truman, the man who decided to drop both the Hiroshima
and Nagasaki bombs, apparently assumed the U.S. nuclear monopoly would
last for ever. Meanwhile, commercial interests looked forward to
exploiting atomic energy to produce electricity they premised would he
too cheap to meter.

Talk about playing the sorcerer’s apprentice! Few of the early nuclear
champions realized how little then actually knew about this
technology, which, after all, had been developed very rapidly under
wartime conditions. Their ignorance proved costly; the old rule of
thumb about the commensurate costs and benefits of a revolutionary new
technology was soon validated once again. Nuclear fission represented
the greatest power humans had ever tapped, but the associated costs
and challenges were no less monumental. The embrace of atomic energy
not only threatened the end of human civilization, it condemned
humanity to environmental and health injuries that would take decades
if not centuries to heal, and it saddled us with waste disposal
responsibilities that for all intents and purposes will last forever.

The damages at the Hanford and Mayak facilities only begin to tell
the story. There are hundreds of sites around the world where aspects
of nuclear weapons production have been undertaken, from uranium
mining to plutonium reprocessing to weapons testing to waste storage.
At virtually all these sites, the soil and water have been polluted
and human health compromised, often severely. The most reliable and
comprehensive account of the damage is found in Nuclear Wastelands, a
handbook compiled under the auspices of International Physicians for
the Prevention of Nuclear War, whose work was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize in 1985. A kind of secret low-intensity radioactive warfare has
been waged against unsuspecting populations, the book argues.
Destruction before detonation is the hallmark of nuclear weapons
production.

The precise number of casualties attributable to nuclear weapons
production is impossible to determine, not least because the official
secrecy, deception, and disregard of individuals’ welfare practiced at
Mayak and Hanford has long been the norm at nuclear facilities the
world over. Even in the United States, whose laws give citizens
considerable freedom to uncover official wrongdoing, much remains
unknown. For example, only in 1997 did government health officials
announce that nuclear blasts at the Nevada test site near Las Vegas in
the 1950s had caused between ten thousand and seventy-five thousand
thyroid cancers, mainly among children. Many of these cancers might
have been avoided had the military located its test site on the
Atlantic coast, where prevailing winds would have swept the fallout
over the ocean. But the Nevada site was chosen because it was more
convenient and secret — the military already owned it.

The United States and the other nuclear states conducted approximately
nineteen hundred nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1990, an
average of one test per week. The 518 tests that were conducted in the
atmosphere are calculated to cause 2.4 million cancer deaths worldwide
beginning in 1949. (Nearly half a million of those deaths would occur
before the year 2000.) The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 reduced the
damage by moving tests underground (a precaution France and China
ignored until 1974 and 1980, respectively). But even underground tests
posed enormous hazards. After all, nuclear test sites amounted to
unlicensed nuclear waste dumps, and poor ones at that, since their
ability to contain radioactivity had been compromised by the force of
the blasts themselves.

One nuclear disaster zone is found at the top of the Kola Peninsula in
northwestern Russia, near the border with Norway and Finland. The
harbors of Kola were home to the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet during
the Cold War and now contain enough radioactive materials to rival
Chelyabinsk. For decades, Soviet authorities treated the sea
surrounding Kola as a waste dump, casting used submarine reactors,
spent fuel, and other nuclear debris into one of the world’s richest
fishing areas. By 1991, when the dumping stopped, the waters contained
two-thirds of all the nuclear waste ever dumped into the world’s
oceans. Seventy nuclear submarines on Kola still await
decommissioning, each containing large amounts of enriched uranium.
Thousands of spent fuel rods in corroded containers likewise continue
to leak radioactive pollution into the sea.

But at least no nuclear warheads were compromised at the Kola
Peninsula (as far as we know). In 1986, a Soviet submarine sank off
the coast of Bermuda while carrying sixteen nuclear missiles and
thirty-four warheads. Those warheads are still sitting on the bottom
of the ocean, as are approximately fifty more warheads from other
Soviet accidents all over the world’s oceans, said William Arkin, a
nuclear weapons expert with The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in
a 1997 interview. Noting that what happened in the Soviet Union before
1986 is still a deeply buried state secret Arkin added that there
are undoubtedly scores more of such accidents that we don’t know
about. Since the United States Department of Defense acknowledges that
there were thirty-two nuclear-weapons-related accidents in the United
States alone prior to 1980 (accidents being a technical term, rather
than the thousands of incidents that have occurred), one can only
imagine how many accidents the Russians have experienced.

Future accidents, either in Russia or the United States, can by no
means be ruled out. An internal report by the U.S. Energy Department’s
nuclear safety director warned in 1993 that there was a high
likelihood of disaster at U.S. nuclear weapons plants because of
deteriorating equipment, poor management, and worker sabotage.
Government experts first admitted in 1985 that tanks containing
fifty-seven million gallons of nuclear waste at the Hanford complex
were not only leaking but could well explode, just as Mayak’s waste
tank had in 1957. In Hanford’s case, the danger arose from an
accumulation of hydrogen gas in the tanks. Officials have since begun
bleeding hydrogen from the tanks on a regular basis, which they
claim reduces the likelihood of explosion to low. Outside experts
are less sanguine. There continues to be some risk of explosions—the
Department of Energy says it’s low, but the truth is, we don’t know
enough to quantify it—both at Hanford and at the Savannah River
nuclear production facility in South Carolina, especially now that
Savannah River has begun reprocessing again, said Arjun Makhijani,
president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and
one of the editors of the Nuclear Wastelands study. Meanwhile, the
storage tanks at Hanford have continued to leak, with radioactive
material contaminating an acquifer of ground water 230 feet below the
complex.

Cleaning up the environmental mess left behind by nuclear weapons
production will be a long, difficult, extremely expensive job. In the
United States alone, the Department of Energy expects the job to take
another seventy-five years and cost $200 billion. A study by Stephen
I. Schwartz of the Brookings Institution estimates the cost at $365.1
billion. Because the crisis is so much more dire in the former Soviet
Union — more ecosystems were more severely polluted there — the job
will cost much more and take far longer to complete there. It is hard
to quantify how much the Soviet cleanup will cost, Makhijani said,
partly because nobody has a good idea about what to do there. How do
you dispose of the one hundred million curies of radioactivity in Lake
Karachay There are no good answers.

As the episodes recounted in this chapter show, nuclear waste has been
an Achilles’ heel since the earliest days of nuclear production. It
was always considered tomorrow’s problem, something to deal with after
more urgent tasks-producing a bomb, catching up in the arms race,
introducing nuclear-generated electricity had been achieved. Finding a
solution to the waste disposal problem is complicated by the fact that
many radionuclides — most important, plutonium — are not only
extremely toxic but have half-lives of thousands of years; thus, they
must be isolated from ecosystems and human contact for a period of
time equal to the known length of human civilization. And the amount
of waste that must be managed is huge and growing. To date, humans
have produced some seventy thousand nuclear weapons. The consequent
waste products include an estimated four hundred thousand metric tons
of depleted uranium, three billion curies of high-level
plutonium-related waste, and one hundred to two hundred million metric
tons of uranium mill refuse. Ironically, these figures will increase
as post-Cold War disarmament proceeds and more and more nuclear
weapons are dismantled. Of course, civilian power reactors also
produce nuclear waste. In fact, 95 percent of the waste now in
existence (if measured by radioactivity rather than mere volume came
from commercial nuclear power stations.

Devising an acceptable method of waste storage has been a major
logistical problem for both the civilian and military wings of the
nuclear industry. In the United States, the government finally
approved an underground repository for military waste in 1998. Despite
opposition from environmentalists, the Energy Department plans to bury
some five million cubic feet of radioactive debris 2,150 feet below
the desert near Carlsbad, New Mexico, in a complex called the Waste
Isolation Pilot Project. But no such remedy is in sight for the waste
generated by nuclear power stations. As a result, some electric
utility companies may have to shut down their nuclear reactors earlier
than expected because they are running out of room to store the waste
they produce. For years, the civilian industry has been pushing the
federal government simply to declare victory over the problem and open
a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility. The industry has pinned
its hopes on a government project to build a storage facility deep
within Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Unfortunately, it turns out that
Yucca Mountain sits above thirty-two active geological faults.
Government scientists have also discovered that rainwater leaks from
the top of the mountain into its core, raising the danger that any
nuclear waste stored there would eventually reach the larger
ecosystem. Such uncertainties have delayed the opening of a permanent
disposal facility, originally scheduled for 1998, until well into the
twenty-first century.

Ten-thousand-year time spans may humble those impressed by the
fragility of human institutions and the limits of our vision, but
nuclear industry officials are undaunted; they have long been
confident that they can isolate their waste products from the
environment for as long as necessary. After the accident at the Three
Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, I interviewed
scores of these men for my book Nuclear Inc.: The Men and Money Behind
Nuclear Energy
. Even then, the lack of a solution to the waste problem
was threatening the industry’s prospects, and I frequently asked its
leaders how they planned to overcome the obstacle. John West, vice
president of reactor manufacturer Combustion Engineering’s nuclear
division, told me that the real trouble was not that there was no
solution to nuclear waste but that there were too many solutions and
the dithering federal government, as usual, could not make up its mind
which one was the best.

I have a vulgar analogy, West confided. It’s kind of like you have
a blond, a brunette, and a redhead, real glamorous gals all lined up
for action, and you can’t decide which one you’d like to go to bed
with. They’re all good.

And if the industry’s certainty about nuclear waste storage turned out
to be wrong, so what? To me, it’s the craziest thing, another top
executive told me, referring to the many governors, legislators, and
average citizens who had declared their states off limits to nuclear
dumping in the late 1970s. Neither they nor their descendants are
going to be there at the time when anything could conceivably go
wrong. If you do a halfway decent job of disposing of nuclear waste,
it’s at least a few hundred years before anything could go wrong, and
they won’t even be there then.

And the nuclear industry wonders why people don’t trust it.

Yet, there is cause for hope. This book would have struck a decidedly
gloomier tone were it not for the remarkable breakthroughs in nuclear
weapons negotiations that have occurred in recent years — not just
the cutbacks agreed to by the United States and the former Soviet
Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s but also the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty signed by 158 countries in 1996. Since nuclear weapons
cannot be reliably deployed without first testing them, an effective
test ban would block new weapons development and a return to the arms
race. There is even talk of abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, a
cause being championed by some of the very men who used to have their
fingers on the nuclear trigger, including Gen. Charles A. Horner,
leader of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which protects
the United States and Canada from nuclear attack. The nuclear weapon
is obsolete, said Horner in 1994. I want to get rid of them all.

Nuclear war is the ultimate environmental danger, the single greatest
threat to continued habitation of the planet, and for decades it
looked like humanity was heading for it as surely as a heat-seeking
missile locked on to its target. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was
the most serious flashpoint, but there were at least eleven other
occasions when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons,
including during the Vietnam war in 1969 and 1972 and the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. (How many times the Soviets and other
nuclear states made similar threats is not publicly known. And the
superpowers were not the only loose cannons. In May 1990, war nearly
broke out between India and Pakistan during a quarrel over a disputed
border region. U.S. officials monitoring the conflict termed it an
even more dangerous episode than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The risk of global nuclear war seemed especially great in the early
1980s. Both superpowers were feverishly expanding arsenals that
already bulged with overkill capacity. In the United States, Reagan
administration officials spoke openly about fighting and winning a
nuclear war. With enough shovels to dig their bomb shelters,
Americans would survive a nuclear war, one official declared in a
remark that horrified the vaunted Reagan public relations apparatus.
Reagan himself said he could imagine a nuclear war being limited to
Europe. He also joked about bombing Russia and demonstrated a
frightening ignorance of basic nuclear facts. In 1982, he told a press
conference that nuclear missiles launched from submarines were not
that dangerous because they could always be recalled after launch.
Belligerent rhetoric emanated from the

Soviets as well, and among strategists on both sides brinksmanship was
the order of the day. When the Soviets insisted on deploying SS-20
missiles, the United States and its NAT() allies contended that this
justified their own deployment of new cruise and Pershing missiles. It
was bad enough that both superpowers’ arsenals boasted ever larger
numbers of ever more powerful weapons. But the more worrisome trend
was the sharp decline in battlefield reaction time. Cruise and
Pershing missiles could strike targets within six minutes of launch.
That left opposing military commanders precious little time to decide
whether what they saw on radar screens was a genuine attack that had
to be countered or a mere computer error to be ignored.

With the hair trigger stretched so taut and U.S.-Soviet relations so
embittered, the outbreak of nuclear war, whether by accident or
design, was a real and present danger. Political activists capitalized
on popular fear to catalyze massive public opposition to the arms
race. Millions of people marched through the streets of Western
European capitals in the spring and summer of 1981 to demand a
nuclear-free Europe. In June 1982, nearly a million demonstrators
filled New York’s Central Park as part of a national movement to
freeze the arms race.

But there was no substantive shift in official policies until Mikhail
Gorbachev became Soviet general secretary in March 1985 and began
making one unilateral concession after another. That July, he
announced an eighteen-month moratorium on Soviet nuclear weapons
testing, which he later extended three times. In January 1986, the
Soviet leader announced a plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons
entirely by 2000. The Reagan administration repeatedly rejected
Gorbachev’s initiatives, calling them nothing but propaganda. Yet
Reagan had spoken in general terms of his wish to eliminate nuclear
weapons, a desire Gorbachev seized upon during their talks in
Reykjavik in 1986. Gorbachev revived his proposal for nuclear
disarmament in Reykjavik, but Reagan rejected it, since it would have
prohibited development of Reagan’s beloved Strategic Defense
Initiative — space weapons.

No such foot-dragging was possible when Gorbachev, however, later
accepted the Americans’ long-standing call for the withdrawal of all
Euromissiles from Europe. The result was the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. The treaty obliged the Soviets
to eliminate far more weapons than the Americans would, but Gorbachev
accepted the imbalance, explaining that parity had no meaning in an
age of massive overkill. Indeed, insisting on strict numerical balance
between the superpowers’ arsenals only blocked progress toward
disarmament. This was revolutionary new thinking, and it ended up
transforming the world.

If the INF Treaty marked humanity’s first step back from the nuclear
abyss, the second came in 1991, when the two superpowers signed the
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START. By then, the fall of the
Berlin Wall, Gorbachev’s calm acceptance of the end of the Warsaw Pact
military alliance, and his demobilization of hundreds of thousands of
Soviet ground troops had proven to all but the most intransigent Cold
Warriors that a fundamentally new era had begun. START was lauded as
the first nuclear treaty that would actually reduce arsenals rather
than manage their continued growth. There was less to START than met
the eye, however. During the nine years it had taken to negotiate the
treaty, the superpowers’ arsenals had grown by about the same number
of weapons as START would eliminate. START thus turned out to be a
classic case of running to stand still; it merely maintained the
nuclear status quo.

The momentum of the arms race was not decisively reversed until the
START 11 Treaty was signed in 1993. Under the terms of START 11, each
nation had to reduce long-range nuclear warheads to approximately
thirty-five hundred-about one-third as many as each had had in the
late 1980s—by 2003. For the first time in more than four decades, the
United States and the former Soviet Union would be dismantling more
nuclear weapons than they were building.

To reverse the drill for death known as the nuclear arms race was a
genuinely historic achievement, a stirring victory for humanity and
its future. There were many lessons in the victory, but perhaps the
most basic was never to give up hope. At certain moments in history,
despite the darkest of outlooks, conditions can change enormously,’
and all but overnight—a heartening reminder as one ponders how to
defuse the more gradual environmental crises that cloud humans’
future.

No sooner had the nuclear hair trigger relaxed, however, than a bland
complacency overcame many citizens and policymakers. Few seemed to
appreciate how close they had come to catastrophe, how lucky humanity
had been to dodge the nuclear bullet, or how much further

they still had to go to secure a truly safe world. After all, what if
Gorbachev had not come to power and launched his unilateral
initiatives’. Amid the self-congratulations and relief that followed
the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and the era it had defined were
regarded as a sort of bad dream, best forgotten amid the cheer and
possibility of the new morning.

Some of the men who labored inside the nuclear system knew better.
George Lee Butler, a retired U.S. Air Force general who directed the
Strategic Air Command from 1992 to 1994, warned that humanity was in
danger of lurching backward into the dark world we so narrowly
escaped without thermonuclear holocaust. Butler was one of sixty top
military officials from around the world who released a statement in
December 1996 urging a redoubled commitment to nuclear disarmament and
abolition. The statement received virtually no coverage by the
mainstream news media, at least in the United Statesa symptom of the
very complacency the former warriors were trying to puncture.

The generals may not have known it at the time, but the world had come
distressingly close to an accidental nuclear war just two years
earlier, long after the end of the Cold War had supposedly turned
Americans and Russians into trusting friends. On January 25, 1995, the
Russian military confused a scientific research rocket launched from
the Norwegian Arctic island of Ando/ya for a NATO missile, even though
Russia had been warned in advance of the launch. Calling the episode
the most serious in the history of nuclear weapons, Peter Pry, a
former CIA officer, revealed that the Russian military made all the
preparations for starting a nuclear war except making the decision to
launch. President Yeltsin went so far as to consult the secret codes
used to order a nuclear strike before the situation was clarified.

No major change in the U.S.-Russian nuclear equation has occurred—not
in war-planning, not in daily alert practices, not in strategic arms
control, and maybe not even in core attitudes, nuclear weapons expert
Bruce Blair said in The Gift of Time, a study of the prospects for
nuclear abolition written by Jonathan Schell. Schell, whose 1982 book
on the dangers of the nuclear arms race, The Fate of the Earth. had
sparked great public debate and anti-nuclear activism, argued in The
Gift of Time
(1998) that nuclear abolition was an idea whose time had
come, not least because the current nuclear situation remained so
dangerous. No issue that could justify even the smallest of
conventional wars divides the two former super-enemies, wrote Schell,
yet each nation’s nuclear arsenal is still poised on a hair trigger
to blow the other to kingdom come several times over, and no plan that
would fundamentally alter this state of affairs is even on the drawing
boards.

The size of the remaining arsenals makes accidental war a grave
hazard. Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed in principle in 1997
that a START III treaty would reduce long-range missiles to no more
than twenty-five hundred apiece by 2007, but there was a big catch.
START III could not be negotiated until the Russian parliament
ratified START II, which was no sure thing. Even before NATO’s
decision in 1997 to expand eastward into Poland, Hungary, and the
Czech Republic, a move despised by Russians of virtually all political
stripes, ratification of START II had been blocked by communist and
nationalist deputies who resented what they saw as America’s
high-handed ways in the aftermath of the Cold War. But the Americans
had little room to criticize Russian foot-dragging; the U.S. Senate
had not gotten around to ratifying START 11 until 1996. And even under
START II, both Russia and the United States would still wield more
than enough firepower to obliterate human civilization.

The political and economic turbulence in Russia gave rise to perhaps
the most harrowing nuclear hazard of the post-Cold War world: the
so-called loose nukes problem. How to keep nuclear weapons and
materials from falling into the wrong hands had been a concern since
the dawn of the nuclear age. Now, with so many weapons being
dismantled at the very time state authority was crumbling in the
former Soviet Union, vast amounts of warheads and weapons-grade
material were suddenly becoming vulnerable to theft or diversion onto
the black market.

It takes about fifteen pounds of plutonium to make a
Hiroshima-strength bomb. There were four hundred thousand pounds of
plutonium lying around in the former Soviet Union in 1991, plus 2.4
million pounds of enriched uranium. Often this material was poorly
guarded. In 1996, U.S. government investigators were able to wander
into the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow without even showing
identification. There, they discovered a cache of nuclear materials
guarded by a single unarmed policeman. In a land where organized crime
now made a mockery of the rule of law, such laxness courted disaster.
In June 1997, U.S. agents posing as drug traffickers arrested two
Lithuanian smugglers in Miami who promised to sell them surface-to-air
missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, and the smugglers proved they
could deliver on the deal. In his 1996 book, Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy,
Harvard professor Graham Allison documented six cases in which stolen
nuclear materials were smuggled out of Russia before foreign security
forces intercepted them. How many smugglers have gone undetected is,
of course, not known.

Imagine the horror if the terrorists behind the Oklahoma City bombing
of 1995 (or the recurring bombings in the Middle East, Northern
Ireland, and other global hot spots) had relied on nuclear rather than
conventional explosives. Professor Allison is convinced such a tragedy
is only a matter of time, and he is not alone. Theodore Taylor, a
former nuclear weapons designer at the U.S. Los Alamos National
Laboratory, told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1995 that
the proper setting of its minutes-to-nuclear-midnight clock depended
on what definition of doomsday one used. If doomsday meant a nuclear
World War III, Taylor was optimistic enough to choose 11:30 P.M. If,
however, doomsday meant the time remaining before nuclear terrorists
kill more than 100,000 people, I would set it at two minutes to
midnight.

The collapse of the Russian economy magnifies the peril, for it is not
just theft of nuclear materials by outsiders that poses a danger; an
inside job, by workers impoverished and disgruntled after months
without wages, would have the same effect. In the years since the
dissolution of the Soviet Union, more and more of its people have been
reduced to penury and desperation. The shock transition to capitalism
implemented by President Yeltsin at the insistence of the
International Monetary Fund and Western governments has caused
industrial production to fall nearly 50 percent, while driving a
quarter of the population below the official poverty line. A large
twentieth-century middle class is being transformed into
nineteenth-century subsistence farmers, who must grow on tiny garden
plots [the food] they need to survive but can no longer afford to
buy, reported Russian specialists Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen
F. Cohen in August 1997.

Some Russians responded to their situation with sardonic humor: We
know now that everything the Party, told us about communism was false.
And everything they told us about capitalism was true. Others, less
resilient perhaps, succumbed to drink, despair, and suicide. Which
returns us to Chelyabinsk. In October 1996, Vladimir Nechai, the
director of the Chelyabinsk-70 research laboratory, killed himself
after leaving behind a note expressing shame at the government’s
failure to pay the salaries of his staff. The world could scarcely ask
for a more penetrating wake-up call on the vulnerability of nuclear
materials in Russia. Nechai’s suicide made news in the West for a day
or two, then dropped from sight.

Humanity has made extraordinary progress against the threat of nuclear
destruction in recent years. The reversal of the U.S.-Soviet arms race
so unexpected for so many years-is the most encouraging political
development of our time. But there is still a long way to go before we
are out of the nuclear woods.

The greatest immediate danger arises from the hair-trigger status of
the approximately ten thousand nuclear warheads that remain in each of
the American and Russian arsenals. To lower the risk of accidental
war, Russia and the United States could revamp their nuclear doctrines
by taking their forces off launch on warning alert status and by
making no first strike pledges. They could also shrink their
arsenals to as close to zero as possible, and redouble efforts to
prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other nations.
Although the United States has begun to work with Russia to improve
security at some Russian nuclear facilities, insufficient funding has
delayed completion of the project until 2006 at the earliest. In a
world increasingly fractured by violent ethnic and religious disputes
and by state and individual terrorism, the availability of large
amounts of nuclear-weapons-making material is a recipe for
catastrophe. Numerous attempts to steal plutonium and sell nuclear
weapons on the black market have already been made; they need succeed
only once.

Above all, Russia and the United States must make clear by both word
and deed their commitment to the eventual abolition of nuclear
weapons. This applies especially to the United States, the world’s
sole remaining superpower. Unfortunately, American policymakers show
few signs of embracing this goal. Although President Clinton has
signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Congress has yet to ratify
it. More disturbing, the Department of Energy has continued to conduct
so-called sub-critical nuclear tests, which the department claims
are allowed under the test ban treaty because the resulting nuclear
reactions are contained short of full explosion. Numerous other
countries and independent experts dispute that claim. They point out
that sub-critical tests enable a nation to continue designing new
nuclear weapons-precisely what the test ban treaty is intended to
prevent. If that is not the American goal, they ask, why is the United
States planning to spend $45 billion over the next ten years on its
Stockpile Stewardship Program, assembling a vast collection of lasers,
supercomputers, and other equipment designed to develop nuclear
weapons?

India in particular has accused the United States of hypocrisy for
urging nuclear have-not nations to remain that way while the United
States refuses to agree to a specific timetable for nuclear
disarmament. This was India’s rationale for not signing the test ban
treaty, and it was trotted out again in May 1998, when India carried
out five underground nuclear weapons tests, including one test of a
thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb. Within days, India’s neighbor and
rival Pakistan responded with three nuclear tests of its own, raising
tensions in Asia to a frightening pitch. The United States and other
nuclear weapons states responded with economic sanctions and calls for
India and Pakistan to foreswear further weapons development. But such
pressures seemed doomed to ineffectuality as long as the nuclear
weapons states insisted on maintaining their own arsenals. The Indian
and Pakistani tests changed the world; no longer could the traditional
weapons states decide among themselves who else could join the nuclear
club. From now on, it seemed the only way to limit the club’s
membership was to close it down altogether.

The nuclear era of human history is only beginning. If traveling in
Africa teaches one to look to the deep past before gauging our
species’s environmental prospects, traveling to Chelyabinsk shows that
imagining the distant future the world our offspring may one day
inherit-is no less important. The Cold War may be over, but the
plutonium it left behind, and the knowledge of how to use it, will
last forever. Nearly 80 percent of the 2.4 million cancer deaths
expected to result from atmospheric nuclear testing will occur after
the year 2000. Vast swaths of land, including the areas around the
Chernobyl and Mayak nuclear complexes, will be uninhabitable for
centuries. An enormous quantity of nuclear waste will remain so
radioactive it must be insulated from human contact for millennia.
Contrary to the assurances of nuclear power executives, humans have
yet to discover whether this can be accomplished. Meanwhile, existing
stocks of plutonium remain susceptible to weapons diversion, yet both
civilian and military plutonium production continues.

The nuclear danger will persist and intensify until the so-called
plutonium economy of nuclear weapons and power production is
dismantled, according to Arjun Makhijani. We do not need to spend
lots of money on this task, Makhijani told me. It’s a matter of
billions of dollars a year, compared to the $4 trillion we have
already spent to build nuclear weapons. Four steps are needed: detach
nuclear warheads from their delivery systems to minimize the risk of
accidental nuclear war; vitrify [encase in glass or ceramic] all
existing plutonium to make it less usable in weapons; convert all
highly enriched uranium into low-grade uranium, for the same reason;
and stop producing plutonium, everywhere.

The last step may be the most controversial, for it has important
economic implications. It means not only closing weapons production
plants but also prohibiting plutonium use in civilian power reactors;
such a move would limit the role of nuclear energy as a major energy
source in the twenty-first century. France closed its Super-Phoenix
plutonium breeder reactor, which accounted for 50 percent of the
world’s breeder capacity, in 1998. Japan, another great champion of
civilian plutonium use, is rethinking its program after serious
accidents at the Monju breeder plant in 1995 and the Tokai
reprocessing facility in 1997. Nevertheless, the global nuclear
industry has not given up its dream of a plutonium-fueled future, and
it still has plenty of political muscle, as its post-Chernobyl
behavior demonstrates.

It seems incredible, but there are fifteen nuclear power reactors
still in operation in the former Soviet bloc that are at least as
dangerous as the reactor that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986. The
plants lack not only emergency core cooling systems, which can head
off a reactor meltdown, but containment vessels, which, in the event
of a meltdown, are supposed to keep any fallout from reaching the
atmosphere. These and many other inadequacies led the United States
and other Western nations to press for these reactors to be shut down;
in 1990, economic aid was pledged toward that end. But Russia refused to shut
the plants, claiming that their electricity was irreplaceable. The West
relented to Russia’s insistence, which apparently stemmed more from the
ambitions for the Russian nuclear program than any shortages of electricity.
The unsafe plants could, in fact, be closed without disrupting local
economies, according to William Chandler of the U.S. Department of Energy:
Demand for electricity in Russia has fallen since 1990 by twice as much as
all the electricity that Russia’s unsafe nuclear reactors now produce, he
said in 1997.

But instead of pressing to close the unsafe plants, Western
governments are underwriting training programs and other marginal
efforts to upgrade their safety, as much as that is possible without
adding emergency cooling systems and containment vessels, a technical
and financial impossibility. The winners under this deal are the
Russian nuclear ministry, along with Westinghouse, Mitsubishi,
Electricite de France, and the other nuclear companies gobbling up the
Western subsidies. The losers big surprise are the people who live
near these plants, which, as Chernobyl demonstrated, means people
throughout the European continent.

Did Chernobyl teach us nothing? Even in the aftermath of the worst
nuclear power accident in history, commercial pressures are allowed to
mock public safety. Meanwhile, Chelyabinsk is offered but a pittance
to clean up its mess and forestall the accident-in-waiting at Lake
Karachay. In effect, it is being written off, by both the West and the
Russian government, as a sacrifice zone, a place too polluted to ever
be salvaged.

Some people in Chelyabinsk suspected all along that this would be
their fate. I remember saying good-bye to Valodya, the Tartar who had
cheerfully driven Natalia Miranova and me around Chelyabinsk. Valodya
had been fascinated by the idea of my global journey — to travel
around the world as one’s job seemed incredible to him. Hands clasped,
we were saying our farewells when Valodya asked earnestly whether I
would ever return to Chelyabinsk. I tried to deflect the question,
noting that I had many other countries I had to visit first. Yes, he
persisted, but if you could come back, would you want to? I didn’t
want to lie, but I couldn’t tell the truth. I looked at the ground in
silence. Sensing my embarrassment, Valodya clapped me on the shoulder
and said, It’s okay, Mark. We know not to expect things in
Chelyabinsk. But you are always welcome here.

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One Response to “To the Nuclear Lighthouse”

  • Zac says:

    A fabulous essay, I learned about the Mayak facility just recently whilst researching the Fukushima disaster and the cause and effects of the Chernobyl fiasco. The sum total of misery is impossible to account, yet the world nuclear organisation enumerates below just 48 fatalities;

    Summary of severe* accidents in energy chains for electricity 1969-2000

    OECD Non-OECD
    Energy chain Fatalities Fatalities/TWy Fatalities Fatalities/TWy
    Coal 2259 157 18,000 597
    Natural gas 1043 85 1000 111
    Hydro 14 3 30,000 10,285
    Nuclear 0 0 31 48

    Data from Paul Scherrer Institut, in OECD 2010. * severe = more than 5 fatalities


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