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.