Two little-known Russian and American cities, the places where the nuclear superpowers began their bomb race more than a half-century ago, were separately catapulted into the news last weekend by a coincidence of unrelated events.
One suddenly became ground zero for a celestial occurrence. The other was victimized by subterranean happenstance. Together they are A Tale of Two Nuclear Cities, a Cold War tragedy that serves as a reminder of the unintended consequences that can make Americans and Russians 21st-century victims of the nuclear mistakes of a long-past era.
In Chelyabinsk, Siberia, a speeding meteor produced a shock wave that shattered windows and injured more than 1,000 people Friday. Experts (who are more into info than irony) announced that the blast was equivalent to the energy produced by more than 20 atomic bombs of the size the United States dropped on Hiroshima.
In Hanford, Wash., officials revealed that an old underground storage tank holding radioactive liquid has been leaking at the Hanford nuclear reservation, America's most contaminated nuclear site. Authorities estimate that between 150 to 300 gallons have leaked into the surrounding land and groundwater. Officials are concerned about similar deterioration of some of the other underground tanks that also store waste from nuclear reactors.
Beginning in the mid-1940s, Chelyabinsk and Hanford were the sites of highly secretive nuclear-weapons plants that were the first engines of the nuclear-arms race. The facilities ended up polluting surrounding land and water with massive amounts of radioactive contamination. Local residents of these bucolic settings were unaware of the dangers their governments introduced -- even as nuclear radiation contaminated their bodies, their rivers, their lands and brought genetic disability and early death.
In 2003, I wrote about these nuclear sites and their victims for a book (Avoiding Armageddon). There was, for example, Milya Kobirova, who was a child in the 1940s, living with her family in the village of Muslyumovo, on the banks of the Techa River, an hour's drive downriver from Chelyabinsk. She said her mother had a government job -- sampling the river water -- and she was happy to help. They put the water into containers and stored it beneath her bed.
Kobirova said her family and friends died early of cancer and related causes. "My mother and father died, and then two of my brothers passed away," she said a decade ago. "No one is left." She recalled that 10 villages were moved by the government to more distant locales, but 28 villages were left in place. Only after the Soviet Union collapsed did she and other residents learn that scientists at the Mayak plant in Chelyabinsk had been monitoring local residents to assess the effects of radiation on humans.
Today, Russia has closed its aged bomb-making plants, but it still stores plutonium at Mayak. There have been no reports of damage to that facility, nor of damage to the nearby chemical-weapons facility at Shchuchye.
Half a world away, folks who grew up in picturesque Hanford -- on the Columbia River, which is famous for its salmon -- told similar stories of parents who worked at the nuclear plant and died in their 40s. Now, Hanford residents and officials headed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee are demanding action.
"I am alarmed about this on many levels," Inslee told reporters Friday. "This raises concerns, not only about the existing leak ... but also concerning the integrity of the other single-shell tanks of this age."
The leakage problem at Hanford involves 149 older metal tanks that consist of just a single shell. Many date back to the 1940s; they were not designed to be in service this long. Hanford also has 28 newer tanks that have double shells and are not believed to be leaking; but they are reportedly almost full. Inslee said the state was assured years ago that problems such as leakage from older tanks had been dealt with. He added that the prospect of federal spending cuts would increase the risks at Hanford.
Today, it is tragic testimony to the superpowers' shared nuclear folly that neither ever attacked the other with any of the thousands of nuclear bombs each rushed to produce at the Chelyabinsk and Hanford facilities. But the products of those facilities wound up inflicting death, disease and disfigurement upon many of their own citizens.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)