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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 380-382

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Book Review

Critical Masses: Citizens, Nuclear Weapons Production, and Environmental Destruction in the United States and Russia

Critical Masses: Citizens, Nuclear Weapons Production, and Environmental Destruction in the United States and Russia. By Russell J. Dalton et al. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+457. $29.95.

The end of the cold war has permitted intriguing comparative studies of military technologies in Russia and the United States. In Critical Masses, a collection of authors from Russia and the United States examines citizens' responses to the environmental challenges presented by the world's two major plutonium manufacturing sites: Hanford, Washington, and Chelyabinsk, Russia. Because plutonium production involved new technology and messy operations, and because of the shield of secrecy, these enterprises produced vast quantities of liquid and solid, high-level and low-level, radioactive wastes, which the authorities then disposed of poorly. In the name of national security the extent of production and the nature of the haphazard waste-disposal practices--and their devastating impact on public health and the environment--was kept from citizens' scrutiny.

That such a book as this could be produced is remarkable in itself. Over a six-year period the authors surveyed citizens' attitudes toward radioactive waste, its impact on their lives, and how they organized to protect their health and safety. The authors asked important questions about national security, citizen mobilization, and the development of citizen expertise. In twelve chapters and appendixes that include descriptions of the survey methodology, the book covers the historical background of Hanford and [End Page 380] Chelyabinsk, the rise of the environmental movement, environmental thinking and attitudes among citizens, and government response. The background chapters draw together what we have learned about the sources of pollution in these nuclear "polygons" and about the behaviors of officials--intransigence, obfuscation, knowing disregard for public health--that led to poorly designed technologies and contamination of the local and regional environment. A single-pass reactor cooling system at Hanford released 7,000 curies of radioactivity daily, with the average exceeding 14,500 curies at its peak. In Russia, explosions and direct discharges of waste left entire regions unfit for human life. In both instances, officials approved poor waste-management practices based on incomplete information. In light of these practices, Critical Masses asks whether it is possible to do good science absent public involvement.

The centerpiece of Critical Masses is five sets of data: in-depth interviews with environmentalists in both nations; public opinion surveys; interviews with the general population and representatives of important ethnic and political groups; interviews with government and plant officials; and documents from both locales, although official documents from Chelyabinsk have been hard to come by. The authors note that this is "rare information about local and national environmental action in a post-Communist state" that was based on fieldwork conducted between June 1991 to March 1998--which is to say that much of the data derives from surveys and interviews conducted several years before this book was published. Since then there have been significant changes for the worse in Russia--the tightening of secrecy in the name of national security, the prosecution of whistle-blowers on charges of espionage, and the rejuvenation of Soviet nuclear culture within the Ministry of Atomic Energy, to name just three.

There are surprising similarities in citizens' attitudes and responses to the hazards posed by life in, near, or downwind from plutonium factories. Most residents were generally well educated and well paid, and the host-city residents were likely to be more knowledgeable about the facilities' activities and more tolerant of the risks involved. In both groups, there was no conclusive evidence that knowledge substantially affects public evaluations of environmental problems. As for differences, Americans perceived their environment to be in much better condition than the Russians did theirs. Residents of the Chelyabinsk region were more negative toward their local environment than were Russians nationally; residents in the Hanford region were more positive than were Americans as a...


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