Half-Life - Kate Brown - Plutonium’s Fatal Attraction

Plutonium’s Fatal Attraction

Kate Brown

Project ALE (Arid Land Ecology) is an intensive, long-term study being conducted on the AEC's Hanford Works reservation near Richland, Washington. c. 1972. Source: U.S. Department of Energy.

December 2022

Think of the earth. At its core is fire, an inferno around which biological life emerged. With fire in our planetary loins, no wonder humans have trouble staying away from it; that they delight in reproducing it in fiction, movies, fireworks, war games, and in technologies. Perhaps that is why, decades after radioactive toxins saturated the Earth’s surface and at a time when threatened reactors in war-torn Ukraine are at risk of blowing again, many people are still enchanted by nuclear reactors. They are burning cores, sources of other-worldly heat and energy. If you can harness plutonium, the element at the heart of the nuclear inferno, then you can magnify human power to a super-hero level. In tandem, plutonium has the power to re-map territories, produce new borders—not just between people, but between humans and the environment. By extension, plutonium spatializes power.

In 1940, Glenn Seaborg first synthesized plutonium in a cyclotron in Berkeley, California. With these initial micrograms, plutonium became the first human-produced element on the periodic table. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, which means that Seaborg’s plutonium will linger on earth for over 240,000 years. Like all good offspring, plutonium promises to outlast humans on Earth. Plutonium is also beautiful, sensual, and kaleidoscopic. It is a heavy metal that self-heats, warming a person’s hands like a small animal. In metallic form, plutonium is yellow or olive green. Shine a UV light on it, and it glows red. When it comes in contact with other radioactive isotopes plutonium sends out a dazzling blue light, a light show designed and powered by what appears to be an inert, inanimate metal. But it is not.

In 1943, the DuPont Corporation built a massive factory for the Manhattan Project to produce the world’s first industrial supplies of plutonium in the eastern reaches of Washington State. As engineers drew up plans for nuclear reactors and radio-chemical processing plants necessary for production, Dupont officials learned something alarming: “the most extreme health hazard is the product itself.”1 “It is now estimated,” DuPont executive Roger Williams wrote to the US Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the project, “that five micrograms (0.000005 grams) of the product [plutonium] entering the body through the mouth or nose will constitute a lethal dose.” A Manhattan Project medical officer wrote on the margins of this sentence: “Wrong!” With the first birthing pains of plutonium, a debate was born over the lethality and consequent liabilities inherent in nuclear industries.

Plutonium is a monumental invention, akin to harnessing fire. Upscaling the Pu chemical extraction process meant separating plutonium from about a hundred thousand curies of fission fragment radiation every single day. This was an incredibly dangerous undertaking. Plant operators worked with robotic arms and protective gear behind massive concrete walls and thick lead-glass windows in ship-sized “canyons.” They worked toward a final product that had extraordinary properties. Seaborg described element 94:

Plutonium is so unusual as to approach the unbelievable. Under some conditions it can be nearly as hard and brittle as glass; under others, as soft and plastic as lead. It will burn and crumble quickly to powder when heated in air, or slowly disintegrate when kept at room temperature. It undergoes no less than five phase transitions between room temperature and its melting point… It is unique among all of the chemical elements. And it is fiendishly toxic, even in small amounts.2

Plutonium made not only a novel weapon of war, but its special existence inspired people to use it to create new technologies, and it gave birth to an elaborate security apparatus to safeguard the “super-poisonous” product, and later, new border zones to protect regions spoiled by the spillage of plutonium and other radioactive byproducts after accidents. As workers over subsequent decades produced more and more plutonium, the new mineral transformed landscapes, science, energy production, and human society around the world. Plutonium militarized, segregated, and compartmentalized large parts of the Earth, leaving a profound shadow that reaches into the twenty-first century.

Dye tests are conducted in the Columbia River near the Atomic Energy Commission's Hanford plant (near Richland, Washington). c. 1970. Source: U.S. Department of Energy.

Plutonium Landscapes

At the Hanford Plutonium Plant in Richland, Washington, DuPont engineers initially dedicated minimal resources to the management of growing volumes of radioactive waste. They had chosen a sparsely populated site and removed several towns and a settlement of the Wanapum nation from the newly designated “federal reservation” in case of accidents and the leakage of radioactive waste. They often repeated the platitude: “diffusion is the solution.” With a good bit of distance and privacy won with an elaborate security apparatus, DuPont and Army Corps engineers set up waste facilities for non-radioactive debris according to existing, standard practices. They drilled holes, called “reverse wells,” for dumping liquid radioactive waste. They bulldozed trenches and ponds, pouring in radioactive liquid and debris. Cooling ponds attached to reactors held hot, radioactive water for short periods before flushing it into the Columbia River. Smokestacks above processing plants issued radioactive particles in gaseous form. High-level waste—terrifically radioactive—went into large, single-walled steel coffins buried underground. Engineers designed these chambers for temporary, ten-year storage with the knowledge that the waste would corrode even thick steel walls.3

DuPont leaders were nervous about these waste management procedures. The corporation had experience polluting rivers and landscapes with chemical toxins near their factories, and insisted that the Army Corp pay for environmental assays to learn what happened to the dumped radioactive waste. At Hanford in the 1940s, Dupont set up a soil study, a meteorological station, and a fish lab to monitor the health of valuable salmon migrations in the Columbia River. The studies showed that while it took large hits of external gamma rays to kill fish, much smaller ingested doses weakened and killed fish and other experimental animals. Weather studies showed that radioactive gases either traveled considerable distances in strong winds or hovered for long periods over the Columbia Basin when caught in an inversion. Researchers found, in short, that radioactive waste did not spread in a diffuse pattern, but collected in random hot spots of radioactivity. Soil scientists discovered that plants drank up radioactive isotopes readily from the soil and that aquifers became contaminated with radioactive liquids. Ichthyologists learned that fish concentrated radioactivity in their bodies at levels at least sixty times greater than the water in which they swam. Generally, researchers found that radioactive isotopes attached to living organisms readily made their way up the food chain. Despite this troubling news, even after September 1946 when General Electric took over the running of the plant, no major changes were made to waste management methods for thirty years. In the course of forty-four years, Hanford rolled out the plutonium content for 60,000 nuclear weapons.4 The environmental footprint of that military production, however, is immeasurable. Indeed, it is intrinsically shape-shifting.

Rushing to develop their own bomb and encouraged by the example of the United States, Soviet leaders followed American practices in the years following World War II. Soviet generals commanded Mayak, a site in the southern Russian Urals that became known as “Post Box 40.” Engineers at Mayak dumped radioactive waste into the atmosphere, ground, and local water sources. High-level waste was contained temporarily in underground tanks similar to those built at Hanford. Unlike the high-volume, rocky Columbia River, the nearby Techa River flowed slowly, flooding frequently and bogging down in swamps and marshes. After just two years of operation of the Mayak Plutonium Plant, its director deemed the Techa River “exceedingly polluted.”5 By 1949, when the first Soviet nuclear bomb was tested, the plant’s underground containers for high-level waste were overflowing. Rather than shutting down production while new containers were built, plant directors decided to dump the high-level waste in the turgid Techa River.6 Each day, four thousand three hundred curies of waste? flowed down the river. From 1949 to 1951, when dumping ended, plant effluent comprised a full twenty percent of the river. A total of 3.2 million curies of waste clouded the river along which 124,000 people lived.7 Radioactivity became a new contour that outlined human activity and new communities of people who shared in dangerous exposures.

Villagers used the river for drinking, bathing, cooking, and watering crops and livestock. Soviet medical personnel investigated the riverside settlements in 1951 and found most every object and body contaminated with Mayak waste. Blood samples showed internal doses of uranium fission products, including cesium-137, ruthenium-106, strontium-90, and iodine-131. Villagers complained of pains in joints and bones, digestive tract illnesses, strange allergies, weight loss, heart murmurs, and increased hypertension.8 Further tests showed that blood counts were low and immune systems weak. Soviet army soldiers carried out an incomplete evacuation of riverside villages over the next ten years. Twenty-eight thousand people, however, remained in the largest village, Muslumovo. They became subjects of a large, four-generation medical study. In subsequent years, prison laborers created a network of canals and dams to corral radioactive waste streams into Lake Karachai, now capped with crumbling cement and considered the most radioactive body of water on earth.

Radioactive waste redraws the spatial relationships between humans and environment on the ground and by air. On September 29, 1957, an underground waste storage tank exploded at the Mayak plutonium plant in the southern Urals. The explosion sent a column of radioactive dust and gas rocketing skyward a half mile. Twenty million curies of radioactive fallout spread over a territory four miles wide and thirty miles long. An estimated 7,500 to 25,000 soldiers, students, and workers cleaned up radioactive waste ejected from the tank. Witnesses described hospital beds fully occupied and the death of young recruits, but the fate of 92% of the accident clean-up crew is unknown. Following the radioactive trace, soldiers evacuated seven of the eighty-seven contaminated villages downwind from the explosion. Residents of the villages that remained were told not to eat their agricultural products or drink well water, an impossible request as there were few alternatives. In 1960, soldiers resettled twenty-three more villages. In 1958, the depopulated trace became a research station for radio-ecology.9

The 120-square mile Arid Lands Ecology Reserve on the Atomic Energy Commission's Hanford Project. c. 1972. Source: U.S. Department of Energy.


In the postwar era, the social consequences of the production and dispersal of large volumes of invisible, insensible radioactive toxins were profound, manifesting in sophisticated spatial planning and infrastructure that appropriated and exploited existing inequities. Plant managers in the US and USSR created special residential communities—“nuclear villages” in the US and “closed cities” in the USSR—to both manage and control the movement of workers and radioactive isotopes. In exchange for the risks, workers in plutonium plants were paid well and lived like their professional class bosses. As part of the bargain, they signed security oaths and agreed to surveillance of their personal and medical lives. They remained silent about accidents, spills, and intentional daily dumping of radioactive waste into the environment. Free health care and a show of monitoring employees and the nuclear towns led workers to believe they were safe. To protect full-time employees, much of the dirty work of dealing with radioactive waste and accidents fell to temporary, precarious labor in the form of prisoners, soldiers, and migrant workers, often of ethnic minorities (Muslims in the USSR, Latinos and Blacks in the USA). Segregating space by race to disaggregate “safe” places—or what I call plutopias—and sacrifice zones became a larger pattern in Soviet and American Cold War landscapes.10

Soviet and American plutonium communities surfed on a wave of federal subsidies in company towns in isolated regions where there were no other industries and few alternative sources of employment for plant workers. Leaders found it politically difficult to shut off the good life they had created for their plutopias. In Richland, Washington, when the supply of plutonium had been satiated, city leaders campaigned to keep their plants going nonetheless, resulting in an overwhelming excess.11 By the 1980s, the US had produced fifty percent more plutonium than that which was deployed in nuclear warheads.

American officials explored other uses for plutonium. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower announced a new international program, Atoms for Peace. At the time, this was largely a propaganda slogan to counter Soviet officials who frequently pointed out that the US was the only nation to use nuclear weapons to kill. In the next decade, engineers and physicists devised new, non-military uses for plutonium and its radioactive by-products. Turbines attached to reactors began to produce plutonium for (very expensive) generation of electricity. Scientific experiments tested plutonium in cancer research, as a power source for pacemakers, and even for instruments for espionage.12 It seemed there was no end to the uses of plutonium and its radioactive by-products. In the 1950s and 1960s, American radioactive isotopes were shipped abroad under the Atoms for Peace logo in great quantities, dispersing and propagating nuclear technologies across the globe. This trade was both open and clandestine.13 In the name of “peace,” US not only gave other nations the possibility to build nuclear weapons, but also to expose civilian populations as well.

One of the most critical technologies that US agencies exported were “civilian” nuclear power plants. Advocates for nuclear power have long carefully drawn boundaries between nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation. But the existence of nuclear power reactors opened the door for the production of plutonium at the core of nuclear missiles and nuclear accidents. In the late 1960s, both the US and USSR created so-called “dual-purpose reactors” that erased the already-questionable boundaries between peaceful and martial nuclear technologies. These reactors were designed to produce either electricity to power a grid or plutonium for the core of a nuclear missile. American engineers created the N-reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, while Soviet engineers designed the RBMK-1000 reactor, a standardized model that was built over a dozen times in the USSR. In contrast to the US, Soviet leaders were worried that the RBMK-1000’s plutonium-generating capabilities could be abused if their technology was shipped abroad.

In 1970 the first RBMK was activated in Leningrad. After just five years, the plant had a major accident. Operators, while shutting down the reactor, saw a flash of radioactivity as they inserted control rods into the core. The core heated up intensely. A subsequent investigation showed that part of the core had melted down, as engineers diagnosed, due to a design flaw. The investigators advised making a number of changes to the reactor design. The highly-secretive nuclear weapons agency, the cryptically titled “Ministry of Medium-Machine Construction,” did not share information about the accident with the Soviet Ministry of Energy, and did not make the recommended design changes.14

In 1986, just six years after the completion of the Leningrad investigation, operators of another RBMK reactor—no. 4 of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant—encountered the same problem. On trying to shut down the reactor, it instead heated up. A chain reaction overheated the reactor and it exploded. The blast bounced the heavy concrete roof of the reactor into the sky. Graphite blocks in the reactor core burned: a giant bonfire on a star-filled spring night in a beautiful northern Ukrainian forest.

The explosion and fire that kindled for the next several weeks sent plutonium, as well as cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131, and other radioactive isotopes into the surrounding air. Heavy elements like plutonium dropped closer to the blown reactor, but light-weight gases such as xenon and iodine traveled thousands of kilometers. Their presence was recorded in Russia, Sweden, Greece, and Turkey.15 Closer to the reactor, hot particles, tiny flakes of a particular isotope floated in the breeze and landed on crops, doormats, bedding, and on porridge just before breakfast. Cesium is harmful, and strontium is ten times more toxic than cesium, but plutonium is thousands of times more dangerous. Plutonium inhaled through the lungs or taken in with food destroys cells in tissues of the lungs, digestive tract, and bone marrow.16 These powerful, flesh and bone-damaging toxins are not visible. They brought terror to those insensibly exposed to them, yet their microscopic scale and the slow violence made them easy to deny.

Spraying radiation from a roof outside of Chornobyl in Belarus following the explosion of reactor 4 in 1986. Image courtesy of author.

It is well-documented how Soviet leaders in Moscow worked to minimize public information about the disaster, and as time passed, news about the large number of people seeking medical attention in the months and years after the accident from their exposures to Chornobyl fallout was stifled. International organizations and national nuclear regulatory agencies in the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France helped minimize the damage toll and deny, initially, a telling epidemic of pediatric leukemia and thyroid cancers among children living in contaminated areas. They did so, in part, because in the 1990s, Cold War declassifications of records showed that soldiers in the US army, children in orphanages, patients in hospitals, and just regular people living their lives had been exposed to a far greater volume of radioactivity in the production and testing of nuclear weapons during the nuclear arms race. And nuclear regulatory agencies worried that accidents like Chornobyl would shut down civilian nuclear power. The 2004 UN Chornobyl Forum report, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimated that only fifty-four people had died from the accident. In contrast, in 2016 the Ukrainian state paid compensation to 35,000 women whose spouses had died from Chornobyl-related health problems. This number only reckons with the deaths of men old enough to marry, and does not include the mortality of young people, infants, or people with undocumented exposures. This figure also only accounts for cases in Ukraine, not Russia or Belarus, where seventy percent of Chornobyl fallout landed.17

Geopolitics could not reconcile the way that nuclear contaminants did not respect borders. For most officials in the USSR and abroad, the solution was silence and suppression. To admit in the 1990s to the ongoing public health disaster in Ukraine and Belarus would mean acknowledging the damage done to populations around the globe exposed to Cold War nuclear experimentation, weapons production, nuclear testing, and future nuclear accidents. But underestimating and obscuring the effects of Chornobyl has left humans unprepared for the next disaster. In the years after 1986, commentators repeated that a tragedy like Chornobyl could never occur in a developed, industrial country. This claim was dispelled, however, in 2011, when a tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Japanese business and political leaders responded in ways eerily similar to Soviet leaders twenty-five years earlier. They grossly understated the magnitude of the disaster (a meltdown of three reactors), sent in firefighters unprotected from the high fields of radioactivity, raised the acceptable level of radiation exposure for the public twenty-fold, and dismissed a recorded increase in pediatric thyroid cancers.

In February 2022, on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces took over the Chornobyl Zone of Alienation, an exclusion zone surrounding the plant created in the weeks after the Chornobyl accident. A month later, the Russian Army occupied the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, and since then, the plant has been repeatedly under fire. At the start of the invasion, the world seemingly received an education in nuclear power. News reporting illuminated that containment vessels protecting nuclear reactors had been stress-tested for tornadoes, tsunamis, and planes landing on them, but not for something so banal and human as a conventional war. The public also came to understand that nuclear reactor complexes require a steady supply of electricity to keep running and to prevent overheating, and also that nuclear power plants hold years of highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel—chock full of plutonium, among other harmful isotopes—which are not protected by containment buildings.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has shown how vulnerable electric power grids are in times of war and, one can presume, in scenarios of extreme weather, triggered by climate change. The grounded sites of nuclear events, whether on the high plains of Eastern Washington, the birch-pine forests of the Russian Urals, the swampy stretches of Northern Ukraine, or in coastal Japan, have a global reach. The impact of the invention of plutonium, a new element on the periodic chart, reshaped landscapes, reconfigured spatial and security regimes, and remade what we understand to be human bodies, which have all incorporated radioactive isotopes. Watching the crisis in Ukraine unfold in real-time, a global audience has learned that humanity’s attraction to fire continues to be a fatal one.


Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 65.


As quoted in Stephane Groueff, Manhattan Project, Little & Brown (1967).


Brown, Plutopia, 50-7.


Maria Gallucci, “A Glass Nightmare: Cleaning Up the Cold War’s Nuclear Legacy at Hanford,” IEEE Spectrum, April 28, 2020.


V. N. Novoselov and V. S. Tolstikov, Atomnyi sled na Urale (Cheliabinsk: Rifei, 1997), 35.


Leonid Timonin, Pis’ma iz zony: Atomnyi vek v sud’bakh tol’iattintsev (Samara: Samarskoe knizhnoe izd-vo, 2006), 14.


D. Kossenko, M. Burmistrov, and R. Wilson, “Radioactive Contamination of the Techa River and Its Effects,” Technology 7 (2000): 553–75.


E. Ostroumova, M. Kossenko, L. Kresinina, and O. Vyushkova, “Late Radiation Effects in Population Exposed in the Techa Riverside Villages (Carcinogenic Effects),” paper presented at the 2nd International Symposium on Chronic Radiation Exposure, March 14–16, 2000, Cheliabinsk.


Brown, Plutopia, 231-9.


Brown, Plutopia; Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); and Matthew Farish, The Contours of America’s Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).


John M. Findlay and Bruce W. Hevly, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 137-160.


The case of the Pu-powered pacemaker, Nuclear News Wire, Jan 20, 2022, .


Jacob Darwin Hamblin, The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).


Sonja Schmid, Producing Power: The Pre-Chornobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry: 144-5.


Lars-Erik De Geer et al, A Nuclear Jet at Chornobyl Around 21:23:45 UTC on April 25, 1986, Nuclear Technology (2017).


Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chornobyl Guide to the Future (New York: Norton, 2019): 91.


Brown, Manual for Survival, 310.

Half-Life is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Art Institute of Chicago within the context of its exhibition “Static Range” by Himali Singh Soin.

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Kate Brown is a Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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