Originally Published in Science for Democratic Action, Volume 13, Number 1, March 2005

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is justly famous for inaugurating demokratizatsiya and glasnost in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. His steadfast support for non-violence gave the people of Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union a chance for open discourse about government, trust, democracy, and freedom. President Gorbachev, in partnership with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, gave hope to people everywhere that the world may get rid of nuclear weapons.

But this essay is about what Mikhail Gorbachev is less known for. His actions also created conditions for a special demokratizatsiya and glasnost on nuclear weapons related questions in the United States. In turn, this caused a closure of most of the large U.S. nuclear weapons facilities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to raising the hopes of people in his own country, Gorbachev’s work also lifted a fear from the hearts and minds of the people of the United States, and enabled them to look at their own nuclear weapons establishment with fresh eyes.

Gorbachev’s reach

It started with the trip that Gorbachev made to Britain in December 1984, before he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.He was immediately recognized as a prospective leader of the Soviet Union. With his wife, Raisa, Mr. Gorbachev charmed Prime Minister Thatcher, known in British politics as the “Iron Lady.” She said that he was a man with whom she “could do business.”

After Gorbachev became General Secretary, he talked about reducing nuclear dangers and eliminating the threat of nuclear war. He abandoned the language of confrontation and replaced it with cooperation. If Margaret Thatcher could do business with him, President Reagan could too.

Gorbachev’s U.K. trip opened the door for the people of the United States to do business with their own government in a manner that no one anticipated. Instead of keeping their eyes fixed on the Soviet Union out of fear, more and more people began to look more closely at the nuclear contamination in their neighborhoods. Some courageous ones had done that before, as indeed, they had in the Soviet Union. But the nuclear weapons establishment had generally been able to silence them, get lawsuits thrown out of court, and cover its own actions in rhetoric of national security and propaganda about the Soviet threat.

Starting at about the time of Gorbachev’s visit to Britain and for the rest of the 1980s, the numbers of people in the United States with questions about water and air pollution, radioactive waste, and nuclear safety risks due to aging nuclear weapons plants grew rapidly. In times past, public concerns would have quickly died out. But this time, local and national media, law enforcement officials, elected legislators, congressional committees, and even the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) paid more attention to environmental matters relating to nuclear weapons production than they ever had.

Certainly, it was unthinkable during the Cold War that the FBI might become involved in raiding a nuclear weapons plant to look for evidence of environmental crimes.2 It may have been denounced as a communist plot within the U.S. government. For example, in 1954, when the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, became heavily contaminated with fallout for the U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini, the then-Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission falsely said that it was a Red spy boat inside the prohibited test area.3

But this time, because of Gorbachev’s refusal to use violence to suppress the hopes of the people in Eastern Europe, the zerozero Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty for intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and the warm relationship between Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan, the result was dramatically different. By the time the Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov said in 1987, upon the signing of the INF treaty, “I do think the winter of mistrust is over,” much more than the fear of the Soviet Union had lifted. The people were routinely discovering that their own government had—under cover of secrecy, with the aid of bad science, and in the frigid public fright of the Cold War—done them and their children a great deal of harm.

An Ohio story

Consider a nuclear weapons factory in southwestern Ohio, about 17 miles west of Cincinnati. It produced half a million tons of uranium metal mainly for use in U.S. plutonium reactors at Hanford and South Carolina. In December 1984 Lisa Crawford, who lives near the plant, heard that some wells in the area were contaminated with uranium. Until then, she and most others like her did not even know they were living near a nuclear weapons plant. It was called the Feed Materials Production Center and had a water tower painted in a red and white checkerboard pattern that resembled the logo of Purina, the famous pet food company. With cows grazing near it, many people thought it was a pet food plant. Others thought it produced paint because it was run by a subsidiary of National Lead Industries, which was a wellknown paint-maker at the time. But few knew it was a nuclear weapons plant. It is commonly known as the Fernald plant.

In January 1985 there was uproar in this quiet part of Ohio, known for its conservative, anti-communist views. People wanted to know whose wells were contaminated. Tom Luken, the area’s representative in the U.S. Congress at the time, held a meeting there. Hundreds came. Lisa found out that her well was one of polluted ones. She had a young son. She made food with water from the well, and filled her backyard pool with it. She was very upset.

As usual, the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment said the water was quite safe and there was no need to worry. But, unlike the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, when most people trusted such assurances, Lisa and her neighbors did not. She was afraid her child might get cancer. (Thankfully, he is well). She did three things. First, she and her husband decided they were not going to have more children, a difficult and tragic way to make such a decision. Second, she got bottled water. Third, at the end of January 1985 she filed a tort lawsuit against the corporation that ran the Fernald plant for the government on behalf of her family and 14,000 other people who lived in the area. They claimed that the company, National Lead of Ohio, had been negligent and endangered their health and damaged their property. The U.S. government defended the lawsuit and paid all the expenses.

There had been previous lawsuits regarding nuclear weapons issues. In fact, General Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project during World War II, was afraid of them as early as April 1945.4 For example, in the 1950s, shepherds had filed a lawsuit against the government claiming that thousands of sheep had died because of fallout. But representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission falsely told the court that it was not fallout. The case was dismissed. The judge found out in 1980 and wrote that the government had been “deceptive” and “deceitful” in its presentation of the evidence in the case.5 He reversed his decision and made one in favor of the shepherd. But the U.S. government appealed and prevailed.

Lisa’s lawsuit succeeded where others had failed. Between 1985 and 1989 there was an enormous amount of local and national publicity about the Fernald plant. Lisa became a well-known figure in Ohio and other parts of the country. As part of the lawsuit, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research was retained to do an expert assessment of radioactivity releases from the plant. In 1989, Bernd Franke and I published the first independent assessment of radioactivity releases from a nuclear weapons plant. We concluded that the nuclear weapons establishment had done poor science, entered fraudulent data into official records, been negligent in operating the plant, and violated its own rules regarding radiation safety. We also concluded that the official estimates of uranium releases from the plant were much higher than what the government and its contractors had told the public. We estimated that releases of uranium had probably been more than 300,000 kilograms since the 1950s, compared to the government’s estimates in 1987 of 135,000 kilograms, revised in 1989 to 179,000 kilograms.6

In April 2004 I asked Lisa whether Gorbachev’s becoming General Secretary and then President of the Soviet Union played a role in her thinking. She said it was not a direct influence. But she said it affected how she viewed the U.S. government’s criticism of the Soviet government. She specifically mentioned the Chernobyl accident. She said that she thought then that “the United States is horrified that the Soviets did not tell us for three days but they [the U.S. government] did not tell us [about Fernald] for thirty years.” It no longer worked for the U.S. government to point a finger at problems over there in the Soviet Union. It did not divert Lisa’s attention from the problem she was focused on—finding out about the pollution in her own neighborhood.7

The government settled the lawsuit in June 1989 for $78 million. The money is mainly being used for providing medical monitoring to people. But there was another happy result. In July 1989, production at the Fernald plant was stopped forever. The combination of the Cold War winding down and the lawsuit and the scandals around radioactive pollution of air and water worked together to accomplish important progress in disarmament. The Fernald plant has been dismantled and the factory buildings have been torn down.

Tank explosion risks

June 1989 was an historic month in other ways as well. In that month the Soviet government admitted that a high-level waste tank had exploded in 1957 at Chelyabinsk-65 by filing a report about the accident with the International Atomic Energy Agency. I believe this was in response to a question about the accident that Dr. Bernard Lown had raised in a meeting in April 1989 with then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Schevernadze. That, too, had big implications for people working the United States. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had known about the accident since 1959. But, unlike so many other things, it took no propaganda advantage of it. Instead, it kept the matter secret, until its papers were revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the nongovernmental organization Public Citizen in 1977. (A dissident Soviet scientist, Zhores Medvedev, had written about the accident in the West in 1976.)8

I suspect that the Atomic Energy Commission did not want to admit that there was also a risk of tank explosion in the United States due to hydrogen build up because the official U.S. position continued to be that things were safe even after the CIA documents became public. But when the Soviet Union officially admitted in 1989 that there had been an explosion, one result was deeper NGO and Congressional investigations into the problems in the United States. The Department of Energy established its own panel on the high-level waste tanks at the Hanford site and steps were taken to reduce explosions risks. Concern about these risks helped ensure permanent closure of the last operating plutonium separation plant at Hanford in the early 1990s.

FBI raid on Rocky Flats

Perhaps the most dramatic event of June 1989 in this regard was the FBI raid on the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, a large scale factory for producing plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. Such a raid would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. But by 1989, there was daily publicity about safety issues in the nuclear weapons complex. There had been a Congressional investigation of human radiation experiments done by the U.S. government.More Congressional hearings were focused on health and safety. Before the mid-1980s, such hearings were mainly routine exercises to give more money for nuclear weapons establishment. The scandals multiplied.

In this atmosphere, federal officials in the Department of Justice based in Colorado heard that illegal burning of plutonium-containing waste may be taking place at Rocky Flats. FBI headquarters in Washington took notice and ordered the raid. The Department of Justice convened a grand jury to investigate whether the corporation that ran the plant had committed environmental crimes. Production at the Rocky Flats plant was stopped.Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore went to Denver and admitted that the plant had been operated as if the nuclear establishment was above the law.

In the late 1950s, the Rocky Flats Plant was producing about 10 plutonium pits every day. When production was stopped in 1989, the U.S. government fully intended to re-open it after fixing the safety and environmental problems. But Rocky Flats never re-opened. It will never again produce nuclear weapons. It has been dismantled, though the plutonium will remain for generations in the form of residual contamination.

By 1989, the public feeling had grown strong that since the United States was arriving at agreements to reduce nuclear weapons, why should the people’s health be put at risk to operate unsafe nuclear weapons plants? The historic events that were occurring in Eastern Europe that are so well celebrated in history books found an echo in Colorado and elsewhere. The global importance of these local events is becoming clearer today than it was then.

Uncelebrated victories

The list of local events and concerns about health and environment that added up to an immense accomplishment for the elimination of nuclear weapons is long. All U.S. plutonium and tritium production reactors were closed in the same period. The large plutonium separation plant at Hanford in Washington State was shut. The plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb was made at Hanford. Many smaller facilities were also closed. When the United States stepped down so many large nuclear weapons plants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it fully intended to resume production. Sometimes plants were shut from one day to the next, with material still in the production lines.

The Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing that President Gorbachev initiated reverberated in the United States. The nuclear weapons establishment argued against making the moratorium into a U.S. law, but failed. (They did get the so-called stockpile stewardship program for nuclear weapons and a great deal of money for it as a consolation prize, however.) The moratorium was enacted into law and played a role in the achievement of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Of course, there have been severe reverses since the mid-1990s on many fronts including nuclear weapons. The U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT. The U.S. nuclear weapons establishment has created a new nuclear weapons doctrine that actually names target states, including Russia. It wants to build usable nuclear weapons called “robust nuclear earth penetrators” and mini-nukes.9 Money for design of nuclear weapons as well as maintaining a huge U.S. arsenal is flowing at levels higher than the average of the Cold War.

But amidst this gloom there are accomplishments from the 1980s and 1990s that endure. Specifically, the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment does not have the capacity to mass manufacture nuclear bombs because Rocky Flats was the only large-scale plutonium pit manufacturing facility in the United States. Its production buildings have been torn down. The Department of Energy has proposed building a new large-scale factory for manufacturing plutonium pits, but it will take a decade or more to build. That gives peace and environmental advocates some time to organize a struggle to prevent it from being built.

Unlike during the Cold War, it is now much more difficult for the nuclear weapons establishment to get the money for such a factory. Many Congresspersons recognize it is a dangerous proliferation provocation. Local concerns are also crucial. While some want the money and jobs that a new factory would bring, many more are opposed than would have been imaginable during the Cold War, even though we are in a period that resembles it in many ways. But this time the government cannot pretend that such a plant will pose no risks. It is required to publish risk estimates, which indicate that, over the life of the plant with a capacity of 450 plutonium pits per year, nine workers would die from their work.10 The nuclear weapons establishment has asked people not to worry because it is only a statistical estimate. But the public is skeptical. The idea that a little plutonium won’t hurt you finds few takers.

The gains on nuclear testing are also likely to endure. The nuclear weapons establishment would like to resume testing. But this would be very difficult. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, a huge scandal emerged regarding the poisoning of much of the U.S. milk supply with iodine-131. At first, in the 1980s, it was about iodine- 131 emissions from the plutonium separations plants at Hanford. But the issue grew from there. In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released a study showing that iodine-131 releases from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing at Nevada had been 130 million curies, more than 15 times greater than the releases from the Chernobyl accident. The high fallout areas were spread out all over the country from Idaho and Montana to Kansas and Iowa to New York and Vermont. In the course of pursuing the Cold War, the nuclear weapons establishment poisoned much of the U.S. milk supply and did nothing to protect it. At the same time, declassified documents revealed that the government had provided secret data to Kodak and other photographic film companies so that they could take measures to protect film from becoming fogged as a result of fallout.

Today, as the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment prepares to test again, the National Academy of Sciences is looking into whether people should be compensated due to the milk contamination and if so how many. A conservative senator, Bob Bennett, Republican from Utah, is playing a role in slowing down the rush for testing.According to his website he has proposed legislation that“will prevent the resumption of nuclear testing without approval by the Congress, extensive environmental and safety analysis, and open public involvement.”11 If this law is passed, it will be difficult or impossible for the United States to resume testing unless some other country does it first.

Enduring accomplishments

In October 1989, President Gorbachev told the world,“the Soviet Union has no moral or political right to interfere in the affairs of its East European neighbors. They have the right to decide their own fate.” This opened up the arena for the people of the United States to decide the fate of U.S. nuclear weapons plants. The tradition of vigorous citizen participation in the United States re-awakened with Gorbachev’s determination not to repeat the ghastly violence of the past. The combination has produced a result in reducing the nuclear weapons menace that has not been celebrated, but whose fruits we continue to enjoy.

The world is undeniably going through a difficult time; war and violence are a constant theme. But the accomplishments of mothers and fathers concerned about their children and water and milk that resulted in a shut down of production at so many nuclear weapons plants and a moratorium on nuclear testing endure. They provide us with breathing room to secure the gains of those times for posterity and to continue to push for the complete elimination of all nuclear arsenals and weapons plants.

  1. Some of the research for this article was done as part of a book grant to Arjun Makhijani made by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The working title is Science of Death, Science of Life: An Enquiry into the Contrasts between Weapons Science and Health and Environmental Science in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex.
  2. See Wes McKinley and Caron Balkany, Esq., The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed. New York: Apex Press, 2004.
  3. Leo Strauss, as cited in Barton C. Hacker, Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing 1947–74. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994. pp. 150 –151.
  4. Barton C. Hacker, The Dragon’s Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project 1942–1946. Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 1987, p. 85.
  5. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Radioactive Heaven and Earth: The health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons testing in, on, and above the earth. New York: Apex Press, 1991, Chapter 4.
  6. For more information on Fernald releases, see Science for Democratic Action vol. 5 no. 3 (October 1996). For information about flawed nuclear worker dose records, see Science for Democratic Action vol. 6 no. 2 (November 1997).
  7. Arjun Makhijani, Science of Death, Science of Life manuscript, Lisa Crawford interview.
  8. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Plutonium: Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age. Cambridge, MA: IPPNW Press, 1992.
  9. See “The ‘Usable’ Nuke Strikes Back,” in Science for Democratic Action vol. 11, no. 4 (September 2003).
  10. See “Back to the Bad Old Days,” in Science for Democratic Action vol. 11, no. 4 (September 2003).
  11. Press release of U.S. Senator Bob Bennett, “Bennett Bill Halts Nuclear Testing Without Congressional Approval, Public Input,” September 7, 2004, online at http://bennett.senate.gov/press/record. cfm?id=225115.