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Plutonium’s toxic legacy

24 Mar 2014

How do you release two Chernobyls’ worth of radioactivity into the environment with hardly a whisper of complaint for more than 40 years? In this podcast, Kate Brown – author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters – lifts the lid on one of history’s hidden catastrophes

The cities of Richland and Ozersk were on opposing sides during the Cold War, but they have a lot in common. Richland, in eastern Washington state, was built as a “company town” for the Hanford nuclear reactor, America’s main plutonium-production facility. Ozersk, in the southern Ural Mountains, is its Russian counterpart – a “closed city” where, even today, most residents are connected in some way to the nearby Maiak plutonium plant.

Because these plants were vital to the US and Soviet nuclear-weapons programmes, workers at Hanford and Maiak got paid extremely well, and they and their families enjoyed a wide range of benefits. But as Kate Brown reveals in her book Plutopia, these privileges came at a terrible cost. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the Hanford and Maiak reactors each released at least 200 million curies of radioactivity into the environment – twice as much as caused by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The areas nearby are now some of the most polluted places on Earth.

In this podcast, you will hear Brown – an historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County – talking to Physics World reviews editor Margaret Harris about her research on these two “atomic cities” and what she hopes physicists will learn from their stories.

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