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Our Town

Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World’s Largest Atomic Complex

by Paul Loeb
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 255 pp., $13.95

Cities and towns in the dry West always look as if they have dropped there arbitrarily. The landscape is so big, and often so barren, that human activity seems messy, aimless, marginal. Plains, mountains, endless wind, huge sky, and then—Butte, or Denver, or Casper seems wrongly placed even after one learns why it is there. Of all the dry western cities I know, none gives this impression so strongly as Richland-Kennewick-Pasco in Washington, the “Tri-Cities” that came into existence when the Hanford atomic works was built to manufacture the plutonium that went into the first atomic bombs.

The topography is at once starker and more beautiful than many places in the dry West. The Columbia River cuts between steep cliffs as it moves through central Washington, then runs through empty flatland just before the Snake River flows into it and the enlarged river makes a horseshoe turn toward the Pacific. Annual rainfall is around ten inches. The soil is largely volcanic, so that while in its “natural” state nothing grows for lack of water, irrigation makes it wonderful for growing fruits and vegetables.

There were good reasons for choosing Hanford as a site for plutonium manufacture. It is isolated, and relatively few people were displaced when the Army Corps of Engineers moved in. The Columbia provides ample water for cooling. Pasco is on a transcontinental rail line. So the Tri-Cities were built up, especially Richland, nearest Hanford and, forty years later, still almost entirely a bedroom community for Hanford workers. Its lush lawns and wide streets look proud and unreal in the midst of desert. From the edge of Richland, through Kennewick and into the older and more depressed Pasco, strips and malls dominate, everything seems franchised. Houses line the drab streets, the automobile is indispensable and none of the Chinese elms is big enough for people to hide their affections from the winds. The place strikes a visitor as both powerful and formless, affluent and banal.

If Hanford were not a nuclear plant, Tri-Cities people would still be proud—“We built all this from nothing”—and defensive—“Can’t you see how much we’ve done?” Being a nuclear plant exaggerates both the pride and the defensiveness. The people came here to make the US militarily strong and, later on, free of energy worries. This gave them a sense of purpose that workers in aluminum plants further down the Columbia River could not feel. Richland was once named an “all-American city”—it seemed close to the post-World War II ideal society of hard-working husbands and their often-pregnant wives surrounded by the latest in consumer devices. The high-school uniforms displayed a picture of a mushroom cloud, and the teams are still called the Bombers.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the defensiveness inherent in such pride became more marked with the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, a growing and increasingly regulating federal bureaucracy, a gradual disenchantment with nuclear energy as America’s lifesaver, a fear of nuclear energy as America’s doom, and, finally, a colossally mismanaged nuclear public power system. Isolated, the Tri-Cities could only see the world outside as hostile and uncomprehending. The louder those outside, the shriller those inside.

Paul Loeb’s Nuclear Culture is the first substantial news that many people in the country will get of Hanford. It is not a bad book. There is too much in it that has not earlier been competently observed for that to be true. But it is a careless book, an excellent chance muffed. One can be grateful that it is not an academic work reducing its subject to method and computer printouts, but it seems tossed together, lacking not so much in method as in responsibility to its material.

Loeb has listened carefully to the Tri-City people he talked to. An old Pasco man told him, “Richlanders are like seagulls. They’re protected by Uncle Sam, they get everything for free and they crap wherever they want.” He cites a graffiti at one of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) reactors: “I fucked the company. The company fucked WPPSS. WPPSS fucked the government. And the government fucked me.” The Tri-City Herald’s editor: “But you know a takeover is just what Russia wants. Not all the do-gooder operators get direct support. But how else do 75,000 people come to protest nuclear power and then leave their demonstration site so destroyed it takes a week to clean up the condoms and beer cans?” A quality-control worker on the WPPSS plants:

Maybe I’d be happier going back to fighting forest fires for six bucks an hour. But while I marched a lot in the sixties and still believe all the idealistic Mahatma Gandhi stuff, it kind of dries up when you land on your feet, have two kids and realize you need money for gas, weed, rent and wine. I figure the reactors will get built—or maybe endlessly delayed—whether or not I work on them and get my fair share of the bucks going round. And at least I’ll check the welds more carefully than someone who doesn’t give a shit.”

It soon becomes clear that Loeb is drawn to two kinds of people, and in connecting them he gives his book the little historical sense that it has. The first are the old-timers who can describe how wonderful it was at Hanford in the Forties and Fifties. Many of these were skillful tinkerers and inventors for whom the challenge of nuclear technology was an array of small mechanical, chemical, and electrical problems never encountered before. Many of these, also, became irritated, defensive, and worse when things began to change in the Sixties. But not all their longings are nostalgic. Here is John Rector, on windpower technology:

I’d like to get into windmills. Even the guys doing the big Boeing ones have the wrong designs, the wrong installations and the wrong locations. I went down the Columbia Gorge, took pictures and anemometer readings and found a place their figures say is worthless but I know is perfect…their million-dollar, hundred-and-fifty-foot long propellers aren’t the answer. And if you do it right, you can end up generating more than the dams.”

If Rector is not in fact right, he convinced me that he is the sort of person who could be right.

The second group Loeb warms to is younger, less settled, more worried, more like himself:

Jim talked further about how Kennewick people were “just conservative rednecks,” the Richlanders “just liberal rednecks,” and how he disliked the cone of silence which descended, “just like in the old Maxwell Smart TV show, whenever your criticisms go beyond routine gripes.” But he had great job security. He liked being around a familiar environment just as Steve did. He could always get away on the weekends.

Jim, unlike Loeb and most of the boom-town promoters, is a Tri-Cities native, but he can spot rednecks, he knows about Maxwell Smart as I’m sure John Rector does not, and he knows Hanford is a place one wants to get away from whenever possible. And in all this he echoes Loeb, or gives his worries a voice.

The world’s largest atomic complex makes Loeb edgy, and he sounds ominous notes over and over again. His book opens with Julie and Robert, who were contaminated when a container of nuclear waste caught fire. Every detection system went off, but Julie did not want to undress in front of the radiation system monitors because she weighed 190 pounds at age twenty-one; Robert, “an obnoxious young buck,” knocked the contents of the radioactive container all over the room while he was putting out the fire.

Much later Loeb describes nuclear waste containers as seen through the eyes of Steve Stalos, who discovered how impermanent the waste-control system could be, and how hush-hush and even deceitful Hanford’s officials wanted to be about the matter. Stalos went public with his objections, and quickly became persona non grata around the Tri-Cities. From the Julie and Robert story and that of Steve Stalos, one suspects that Loeb is on the lookout for people who think the world is going to end soon.

Loeb lumps together problems, disasters, and dangers almost indiscriminately, so that we will end up feeling troubled, believing ourselves to be in danger. But what is it that worries Jim, exactly? A human landscape of gas stations, car lots, and fast foods? The conservative and liberal rednecks? The silence that quickly surrounds those at Hanford who object? If so, Jim could be talking about many other industrialized and institutionalized places. The Imperial Chemical works at Newcastle upon Tyne, a Texaco rig in the Gulf of Mexico, an agribusiness in California—all have people who talk like Jim, and must have them.

Still, there must be something about Hanford’s being a nuclear plant that makes a difference. What danger, exactly, were Julie and Robert in after the container fire? What danger were those around them, or the entire plant, in? How alarmed should anyone be about a container fire that releases highly radioactive materials? If Hanford people seem irresponsible when they say you clean off radioactivity the way you clean off muddy shoes, how irresponsible are they? Is it wrong to think of the fire as just another industrial accident? Is anything here as bad as what happens to people in asbestos plants, sulphur refineries, or coal mines? Loeb is not drawn to explaining such questions.

So too with nuclear waste disposal. Clearly the first waste managers, new to the desert, underestimated some dangers when they assumed the desert was bigger than anything and just buried the stuff. Steve Stalos was right to be alarmed at finding seepage of cesium, strontium, and plutonium waste into the soil and was understandably furious with his superiors who claimed they were in control of the problem. But how extensive is the seepage? Loeb is more persistent here than with Julie and Robert, but he is content to ask us to be alarmed, either by the inadequate technology or the silencing managers, without asking what the dangers are. Is the worst possible case the poisoning of fish in the Columbia? The end of the world? Does anyone know?

The problem with Jim is not the same as the problem with Julie and Robert or with Steve Stalos, though they may be related. Nor are they the same as a host of others, like the matter of the vacillating Department of Energy, and the paradox of people who spend their lives on the government payroll and yet insist on seeing themselves as antigovernment, pioneers, individualists. Loeb quotes many complaints about the monitors, the regulators, the snoops with hard hats, clipboards, and PhDs. In a country with a GNP of over a trillion dollars, one hears such voices often, and their cries can be built into such largeness. But those who do not see the paradox can be dangerous, since there is no surer cause of paranoia than having that on which one depends coming to seem an enemy. But this is not a nuclear matter essentially.

Nor is the disaster of the Washington Public Power Supply System, news of which is just now gaining national attention. A decade ago, a consortium of governmental units, mostly Public Utility Districts, undertook to build nuclear reactors, three at Hanford, two elsewhere. The Northwest had been so long accustomed to cheap electricity, and to believing in public power, that it remained blind for years while WPPSS officials blandly hurled vast amounts of money at problems they barely began to understand. Bad engineering design, bad management, inflated labor costs, sloppy building, and immense regulatory stupidity combined to foul up the reactor projects, and no solution was found except to float more bonds. WPPSS now has soaked up half the public bond market in the country, has no reactors finished, and has recently had to go begging—its bond rating having collapsed—for more money just to close down construction on two of its five plants. When and if the whole story is told, it may be the largest industrial scandal in history. But, since the reactors are not working, WPPSS has nothing to do with radioactive materials, and and is only partly related to the work of the scientists and engineers of nuclear energy and to their tormented relations with the Department of Energy.

Finally, and perhaps most dangerous of all, is the relation of Hanford to Reagan’s military buildup. Hanford has few people left who, during or after the war, made plutonium for use in weapons. Many who went there were interested only in peacetime commercial nuclear power. But Carter’s refusal to allow the Clinch River project in Tennessee signaled a slowdown, if not a halt, to pushing ahead with nuclear technology, and Reagan has not changed that while calling for weapons that use plutonium. So N-plant at Hanford may soon be, if it is not already, back to working for the military. And now, clearly, we are talking about something like the possible end of the world.

This last was something Paul Loeb could only have glimpsed while he was writing Nuclear Culture. Nor can it be said that he wholly ignores the questions I have raised. But he is essentially an urban leftist, and the whole atmosphere of Hanford seems to have made him nervous, alien, sensing danger and needing friends. I myself get nervous just approaching the Tri-Cities, especially from the south when, after winding through the beautifully empty Horse Heaven Hills, I approach the messiness and sprawl, see the nuke plants in the distance, and feel that human beings are proving they do not belong here. So I think I can guess what Loeb feels.

Still, he has let himself go slack, became an interviewer where he needed to be a historian as well, spread his unease over his book where he needed more strictly to try to sort things out. Bigness, isolation, American wastefulness, nuclear power, human arrogance and carelessness, a terrifying militarism: to show their connections and dangers requires more than the assumption that they are all connected. Loeb’s potentially disturbing book is half-written and only sounds like the thunder one hears from a long way off.

Letters

Nuclear City September 23, 1982

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