Turning up a surprising amount of hitherto hidden material and talkative survivors, Brown (History/Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County; A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland, 2005) writes a vivid, often hair-raising history of the great plutonium factories and the privileged cities built around them.
During the Manhattan Project, the United States commandeered land in eastern Washington, around Hanford, in 1943 to build immense facilities and an isolated, government-run bedroom community for employees. Although a crash program with unlimited finances, technical problems and labor shortages delayed the opening. Once operation began, already rudimentary safety precautions were relaxed to speed up plutonium production. Readers will squirm to learn of the high radiation levels workers routinely experienced and the casualness with which wastes poured into the local air, land and rivers. Hanford remains by far the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S., but Ozarks, in Russia, was worse. Convinced of an imminent American attack, the Soviet Union launched its own crash program in 1945. Despite working from stolen American plans, sloppy construction by slave laborers and Soviet technical backwardness produced a leaky, perpetually malfunctioning facility. Workers sickened and died of acute radiation poisoning; far more lived shorter, diseased lives. Over a huge area, waste in the air and local rivers killed farm animals, contaminated crops and poisoned civilians. The Soviet government responded by providing workers with increased consumer goods and housing; by the 1960s, Ozarks was an island of prosperity in an impoverished nation.
An angry but fascinating account of negligence, incompetence and injustice justified (as it still is) in the name of national security.