On this sunny May afternoon, Paul Loeb spoke not of the technical reasons for the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in the peaceful farmlands of the Soviet Ukraine, but of what he believes ultimately caused it--human fallibility and complacency.
Loeb has never been to Chernobyl, but he has spent much time at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the southeast corner of the state of Washington, a federal nuclear facility that, ironically, houses a nuclear first-cousin to the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl reactor.
From three years of researching and writing, Loeb produced his first book, “Nuclear Culture,” a profile of life at Hanford, the largest nuclear facility in the world, through its officials, its workers and their families, from its inception in 1944 to present day.
He contends there must be certain parallels between the people of Chernobyl and Hanford--an attitude he refers to as “atomic banality"--as well as the known physical parallels between their nuclear plants.
Avoiding ‘Bad’ Thoughts
Perhaps the Ukrainians who staffed the Chernobyl facility and lived in nearby Pripyat had developed their own version of Hanford’s “company town,” he muses.
Maybe they thought more of what they were having for dinner than possible nuclear contamination, or worse, an accident in their plant. Or maybe their wives refused to “talk about bad things” and incidents at the plant because they were afraid their husbands would lose their jobs, just as the women of Hanford did.
And did the Soviet workers, like some of those at Hanford whom Loeb interviewed, eventually become so complacent that they sidestepped the facility’s guidelines and safety rules, taking shortcuts here and there?
“It all has to do with human fallibility and complacency,” Loeb, 33, said during an interview at his mother’s home in Los Angeles. “We’re hearing much about the technical side of the Kiev disaster, but little about the chain of human errors that inevitably contributed to allowing it to happen. . . . We should take a mirror and look at it. This is the lesson.”
Loeb’s “lesson” in “Nuclear Culture” begins with the early workers who lived in Hanford’s “company town,” and told Loeb they “could just as easily have been working in a coal plant.”
That was 1944, and the Hanford workers were a proud group of dedicated and skilled craftsmen, as Loeb describes them. It was wartime and they were there to do a special job for their government and keep quiet about it.
If they knew that they were producing the plutonium for the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, they didn’t admit it--to themselves or anybody else.
“The roots of what one could call atomic banality go back to the reservation’s earliest days,” said Loeb, who lives in Seattle.
From there, a certain “nuclear culture” evolved, according to Loeb, and residents of today’s Tri-City towns--Richland, Pasco and Kennewick--where Hanford employees now live, are a product of those “innocent” years.
But everything centered--and still does, Loeb said--around the nuclear facility.
Richland streets bear names like Proton, Argon and Nuclear Lane.
Businesses are called Atomic Body Shop, Atomic Foods, Atomic Lanes, a bowling alley, and Atomic TV, and nuclear symbols “decorate banks and delivery trucks and the ads of a collection agency which brags ‘we don’t use atomic bombs but our blast is equally effective.’ ”
Teams Called the Bombers
Richland teen-agers go to a high school where the emblem is a mushroom cloud and the athletic teams are called the Bombers.
And two young nuclear plant workers who were contaminated from a container fire received T-shirts at the office Christmas party that read: I’M HOT STUFF.
After interviewing about 200 plant officials, workers and families at the Hanford Reservation in 1979 and ’80, Loeb was ready to write. He changed the names of most of the workers and their families “because they live in small towns there and there would probably be repercussions.”
The Soviets, Loeb said, probably didn’t have the years invested in their “nuclear town” that Hanford families do, because some of Hanford’s earliest workers arrived in 1943 when it was a construction camp. They lived in trailers and barracks.
Before the U.S. government decided to build atomic bombs there, Hanford, too, had been an agricultural area, where farmers tended to orchards and vineyards. But the land was appropriated under the War Powers Act in February, 1943, and farmers were forced to relocate.
“Like the Japanese forced to relocate to Manzanar, they had no time to argue or resist,” Loeb said.
Today, Hanford is the largest nuclear facility in the world, covering 570 square miles. It is owned by the Department of Energy and operated by United Nuclear Industries Inc. Hanford has a total work force of about 14,000 people and is located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle, and 120 miles east of Mount St. Helens volcano.
The Hanford reactor similar to the Chernobyl one is called the “N” reactor, which, like Chernobyl, is not covered by a containment structure--the concrete dome--to limit the release of radioactivity in case of a nuclear accident.
Hanford’s “N” reactor does have something called a “confinement structure,” which is supposed to allow no pressure buildup. It is not known if the Chernobyl reactor has such a structure.
There are four other U.S. government-owned reactors without containment domes located at the Savannah River complex in South Carolina. Another similar reactor, this one operated commercially, is in Fort St. Vrain, Colo.
Water Cooling System
Also like the Chernobyl plant, Hanford’s “N” uses a water cooling system and graphite to moderate nuclear reaction inside the core. It is the graphite that scientists say ignited, causing the severe fire at the Soviet plant, estimated to have reached heat of 5,000 degrees.
The Hanford reactor is the only one in the U.S. that has a dual role--it manufactures plutonium for nuclear weapons as well as generating electricity.
All Soviet reactors, like Hanford, are dual purpose, according to Kathleen Tucker, executive director of the Health and Energy Institute in Washington, a public interest organization.
The Hanford “N” reactor became operational in December of 1963, almost 20 years before the Chernobyl reactor went on line. The Soviet reactor that experienced the explosion and meltdown last week is the fourth and newest reactor at Chernobyl, activated in 1983.
“I am very disturbed by the way in which the Soviet accident is being framed,” said Loeb, a former editor of “Liberation” magazine in New York and free-lance writer for many magazines and newspapers across the country.
“The lesson from our government officials seems to be ‘this is the difference between a closed and open society,’ ” Loeb said. “ ‘They cover up. We do not. They treat this cavalierly. We do not. From the evidence, you cannot trust them’ . . . It’s back to ‘we’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys.’ But it’s an incorrect lesson.
“Of course it’s unconscionable that they didn’t tell the populations immediately being affected (by the radioactive fallout),” he said. “They deserve to know what’s going on. A catastrophic accident did occur, but governments or bureaucracies seem to cover them up. Talking about cover-ups, look at our own nuclear lesson, Three Mile Island. The NRC (Nuclear Regulation Commission) hesitated and hedged and scientists are still arguing about what long-term effects there might be for people there.”
Similarly, workers at Hanford had told him about “things that for years had been covered up,” Loeb said.
“There was a 1954 gas release that deposited radioactive material for 400 miles, leaking tanks of waste in the ‘70s that officials reclassified and said ‘this tank doesn’t exist.’ Things like that that people never heard about. Nobody knew about that 1954 thing until 1979 when some reporters from Seattle dug it up.”
Loeb said he had never heard of Hanford Nuclear Reservation until he moved to Seattle in 1979 and began to read stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about investigations of nuclear accidents and “reports of radioactive tumbleweeds rolling across the land.”
‘Lots of Problems’
Putnam published his book in 1982, “but there were lots of problems,” Loeb said. “It got what I would call a ton of praise from the national press.” There was praise from authors Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as from book reviewers from national magazines and newspapers.
But representatives of the Department of Energy did not offer accolades. Steve Leroy, director of communications for the DOE at the Hanford Reservation, said: “His characterization of people living in the Tri-Cities area is certainly erroneous. It is not a true reflection of people who live in, work in and enjoy the Tri-Cities.”
Initially only 1,300 copies of “Nuclear Culture” were distributed, only in the Northwest. “They went with it as a regional book,” Loeb said, explaining that after Putnam’s original distribution he began to hype his book up and down the West Coast, selling 3,400 more copies.
“Then two minor characters filed a lawsuit because they didn’t like what people said about them in the book,” he said--"that they were macho workers and those of their age group were only interested in sex, drugs and rock. Putnam pulled the book and the suit was in the courts for three years. There was a compromise settlement with the two workers and Putnam gave the book back to me in return for my releasing them from liability from legal claims regarding their handling of the book.”
Loeb has spent most of his time since 1982 lecturing at colleges and universities about the nuclear culture he chronicled at Hanford. He found a new publisher, New Society Publishers in Philadelphia, and “Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World’s Largest Atomic Complex” was reissued nationally in April.
When the Soviet accident occurred, Loeb was just finishing a promotional tour for his book in the Midwest.
Through all of his trials in getting his book back into print, Loeb has maintained contacts with many of those he interviewed at Hanford and has updated some of the material in the book. (He also has a new book on the peace movement in the U.S. that is due out in the fall.)
Loeb said that Hanford employees had told him recently that “there have been six fuel rod ruptures since the first of the year.” He added, “Most of the problems are caught. But what is the tolerance for failure? You try and design it in good faith against the failure and against failure of the operators and have certain guidelines.”
Last week, a Los Angeles Times story cited two recent Department of Energy reports concerning the 23-year-old “N reactor” at Hanford that recommended safety features and critical parts be upgraded.
On Monday, two separate panels of experts were appointed to review the safety of the Hanford “N” reactor, a fact which Loeb hopes will lead to some changes at the Washington facility.
“You can talk about the failing of equipment,” Loeb said. “But when you’re talking about failure, you’re talking about human error. All failings are human error. These things are built by humans, run by humans. If someone is walking down a small corridor and brushes against a switch, he might not notice until something goes wrong. That’s an accident and you’re talking about human fallibility.”
Loeb said one of his most disturbing discoveries in his research at Hanford was the changing of attitudes of the younger people, particularly those of the ‘60s generation, who now work at the nuclear plant.
“The original generation believed unquestioningly in the product,” he said. “But when I talked with the younger ones, they didn’t. They knocked it, disdained it. And they retaliated against it by making it a game.
“One guy says to the other, ‘I don’t wear a mask; why should you?,’ Loeb continued. “Others talk about doing chin ups in a hot cell. About cutting corners here and there. I am not sure you can safeguard against that human ingenuity, against that kind of an environment.”
Loeb describes the younger Hanford generation as people who are interested in the high salaries they make working in a nuclear plant, of the houses, cars and luxury items they can buy. They spend their off hours, he says, partying, drinking, using cocaine and smoking pot.
“I was in a barroom in Hanford talking and drinking with some of them and three or four people were snorting coke in public, eating (hallucinogenic) mushrooms,” said Loeb. “Then one guy complained after that that he didn’t have any pot to smoke because he’d left it in somebody’s car and the guy had left. I don’t suppose the attitude is much different in the Soviet Union, except I expect it would just be vodka.
“It is not true that every single person at Hanford under the age of 30 is high on the job or doesn’t care,” Loeb said. “But the dominant attitude among younger workers is disdain. And any environment that tends to breed that is trouble. The problem is it doesn’t take very many screw ups to blow the thing.”
Loeb said he believes that the Soviets face some of these fallibility and complacency problems among their workers in the Ukraine nuclear plant.
Ironically, a recent article from an official Ukrainian magazine, “Literaturna Ukraina,” complained about problems at the Chernobyl plant, citing low morale among its workers, weak quality control, poor organization and shortages of construction material.
In excerpts published by The Times, the writer spoke of the frustration of Chernobyl workers, of the speedup in construction of the plant which weakened discipline and overall responsibility.
‘Safer Than Driving’
“Then, in contrast, there was the Soviet Life article a couple of months ago where they were talking about happy workers at the atomic plant,” said Loeb. “There was an engineer saying that working at Chernobyl was ‘safer than driving a car.’
“Those phrases could have come out of the mouths of Hanford officials,” Loeb added. “The Soviets are doing the same things we do, and it’s terribly important to recognize that,” Loeb added. “This is a game of ultimate stakes, a nasty business. In that life and death struggle, there will be casualties. They’re saying, ‘We do the best we can, but we’re not out to kill our own people. But this is war.’ We, both the United States and the Soviet Union, are saying the same thing--the notion that ultimately says humans are expendable. We don’t desire to do it, but maybe we have to.
“The attitude and spirit and assumption that we will go ahead with these nuclear advances and that things will take care of themselves--it begs the question of ‘is this a wise path?’ There are people out there, in the grass roots, who think it isn’t.”
Loeb cited an interview he had with a Hanford worker he named Steve to protect his identity. In “Nuclear Culture,” Steve talked much about complacency, saying: “Coal miners at least realize they’re risking their lives for high pay. But people here treat the reactors just like the erector sets they used to build as kids. If they weren’t all so busy playing house, they might notice this place is not just supremely ugly, but also a lot less safe than they think.”