Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union created secret cities to house the scientists working in their nuclear weapons programs. Both nations went about this in very different ways and with very different, sometimes disastrous, results.
- Highly secretive, closed cities were used during the Cold War to develop nuclear-grade plutonium and uranium.
- Oak Ridge and City 40 — two such cities — highlight the world-altering impact of nuclear weapons.
- Vacationing in the East Ural Mountains? Bring a Geiger counter.
In 1942, the U.S. Government bought 60,000 acres of land in rural Tennessee. On it, they began to build thousands of small homes, grocery stores, schools—basically the makings for a small town. It wouldn't have been all that remarkable, except for the military checkpoints places at all roads leading into the town, the billboards of a beefy Uncle Sam imploring citizens to keep quiet about their work, and the massive, sprawling facilities. Most notable was the 44-acre facility codenamed K-25. At the time, it was the largest building in the world.
Specific types of people began to move in—physicists, engineers, construction workers, medical staff, and other professionals. K-25 was the hub of their existence, and, although most did not know it, they were there to produce weapons-grade uranium.
A secret, atomic city
Women at the Oak Ridge facility operating calutrons, devices used to separate uranium isotopes from uranium ore.
Administrators settled on "Oak Ridge" as the town's name due to its rural innocuity. Over the ensuing years, Oak Ridge grew at a precipitous rate. By 1945, the town had accrued 75,000 citizens, all of whom were either employed at K-25; other, ancillary nuclear production facilities; or were family members of the employees.
The work was complicated enough that most employees had no idea what they were working on. There were rumors that they were working on some kind of synthetic rubber, but there was no way to verify this. The nuclear production facilities were unaware of the work the other facilities were doing. Within the plants themselves, everything was compartmentalized to prevent anybody from piecing things together. In an interview with New Republic, one surviving worker recalled:
"There was a time, coming home from the lab, when I couldn't talk to my wife at all. I pretty well knew what the Project was making, but I couldn't tell you. We'd sit around the dinner table and the strain was terrible. A man could bust. Then we started quarreling. Over nothing, really."
Of course, some people knew what was going on, but they had been sworn to secrecy. However, with 75,000 people working on a project of the utmost interest to the world at large, not everyone could be trusted.
The sleeper spy at Oak Ridge
Despite the many security measures taken to keep Oak Ridge and its work a secret, the project was ultimately infiltrated by the Soviet Union. George Koval, an American born to Russian immigrants, was eventually recruited by the GRU—the Soviet military intelligence agency—and joined the U.S. military with the intent of gaining access to information about chemical weapons.
Koval was talented, and the Army quickly inducted him into several technical training groups. Ultimately, he was assigned to Oak Ridge to work as "health physics officer". Essentially, his work was to monitor levels of radiation throughout the entire K-25 facility. With practically unlimited access, Koval gathered a significant amount of technical information about the construction of an atomic bomb. He, along with other spies, fed this information back through his handlers, and he is credited with drastically advancing the Soviet's nuclear developments.
The Soviet's desolate City 40
Warning sign posted on the edge of the East Ural Radioactive Tract, alternatively referred to as the East Ural Nature Reserve.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, in an isolated part of the Ural Mountains, the Soviet Union was scrambling to develop their own Oak Ridge and K-25. The first step was to build Mayak, a nuclear facility where plutonium could be refined to make a bomb. In 1946, the Soviets built a city to house the many people who would be working at the plant. In contrast with the provincial Oak Ridge, the Soviets opted for the no-frills name of "City 40." Later, however, it would be referred to as "the graveyard of the Earth."
City 40 contained 100,000 Soviet citizens, but the city itself did not appear on any maps, and the names of the citizens living and working there were erased from the Soviet census. For the first eight years of their work there, the citizens were forbidden from leaving the city or contacting the outside world in any way. As a result, little is known about the nature of life in the city. However, it is known that the people working there lived a life of relative luxury compared to the rest of the Soviet Union. They were fed well, had decent healthcare, and their children went to good schools.
All of this came at a terrible price. Because the Soviets were in a rush to catch up to the United States, the Mayak production facility was built and operated in extreme haste. The emphasis was placed on producing enough weapons-grade material to compete with the United States, rather than worker safety.
Although Koval and other spies gathered critical information for the development of atomic bombs, the information was incomplete, and the dangers of nuclear production were not fully understood. As a result, the Chelyabinsk region, in which Mayak and City 40 are located, is considered to be the most polluted place on Earth.
Workers at the Mayak plant dumped nuclear waste into a nearby river. Water from the nearby Lake Kyzyltash was used to cool the nuclear reactors, after which it was returned to the lake. Underground storage vats were built to contain nuclear waste, but these could not contain all of the radioactive material produced at the site. Instead, the excess material was dumped into the nearby Lake Karachev.
It wasn't long before something failed. Disastrously, the failure point was a cooling system in one of the storage vats for the nuclear waste. As the temperature slowly crept up, so too did the pressure. Eventually, the vat exploded with the force of 100 tons of TNT, spreading radioactive material throughout the area in an event called the Kyshtym disaster. The radioactive contamination produced by the explosion and the general pollution of the plant are estimated to be two to three times greater than that produced by the Chernobyl disaster.
The red area indicates the spread of nuclear material from the Kyshtym disaster. In the lower left section of the map, the Mayak facility is pointed out (labeled "Kerntechnische Anlage Majak").
Many cities and villages in the region unknowingly used the poisonous rivers and lakes for washing and drinking water. Villagers began to catch mysterious diseases they could not explain nor treat. Eventually, they were evacuated, but the process was slow, taking between two weeks and two years, and the evacuees were not told why they had to leave their homes and all their possessions behind.
The exact number of casualties isn't known. It is estimated that between 50 to 8,000 were killed by the Kyshtym disaster alone. In an effort to keep people out and to disguise the disaster, the Soviets ironically referred to the EURT as the East Ural Nature Reserve and required special passes for entrance to the region. Information on the disaster, City 40, and EURT was only released by the Soviet Union in 1989. Today, City 40 is called Ozyrosk, and many people still live there in relative good health. Take out a Geiger counter, though, and you'll hear plenty of chirps and crackles.
Pictures of the secretive and extremely high-powered weapon have appeared on Chinese social media.
China has put a railgun on a warship. That sentence alone might trigger the heebie-jeebies in some members of the American military. It's the first time any nation has ever put such a powerful gun on a warship. But there's more to the story than that.
The physics behind the railgun are particularly impressive. Since the specially designed "bullets" are 22lbs each and are capable of traveling about 100 miles at Mach 7 speeds (approx. 5,300mph), the bullets have to be fired with an extreme amount of energy: about 32 megajoules. That's about enough energy to propel a 1 ton object at 566mph, so, to give you a rough idea of how powerful this thing is: it's like giving something the size of a basketball the speed (and ultimately destructive power) of a 747.
While we can't do much (save for interchanging the lyrics to Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" to "China's got a gun"), we can rest somewhat assured that the railgun might not actually work. Fancy though it may be, it's not easy to get a machine this powerful to fire at a target. The American military had up until fairly recently working on railgun technology but since dropped it in favor of more short-range weaponry; it looks like China was watching pretty closely and picked up the ball where America either lost interest or lost focus.
So, should anyone be worried? Maybe. It could be a while until the railgun actually gets used, and if certain Big Thinkers are to be believed this is more-so the kind of show-off weapon that is built mostly as a deterrent and/or status symbol. And besides, it's not like we have a head of government who likes to tick off the Chinese. Oh, wait! We do. Well, we might be seeing the railgun sooner than later.
Want to tax corporations without scaring them off, outsmart a calculating kid, or get rid of the world's nuclear warheads? Think like a game theorist.
I want something from you. You want something from me. How will we act out those agendas in a strategic situation? Unravelling and understanding this scenario is how game theorists make a living. Economist Roger Myerson, who co-won the Nobel Prize for his foundational work on game theory, defines it as "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers," and while the theory was born in the field of economics, it by no means stayed there. Today, game theory can be applied to everything from biology and international relations, to interpersonal relations like friendship and parenting. Here, philosopher and game theorist Kevin Zollman applies the science of strategic thinking to three questions: how can a parent get a kid to clean their room, how can we reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the world, and most pertinently in America at this moment: how would a game theorist respond to the Trump administration's corporate tax cuts? Kevin Zollman and Paul Raeburn are the authors of
KGB-era "active measures" are still being used by Russian intelligence agencies today, according to experts.
As questions swirl about Russia’s role in the 2016 Presidential elections, the old KGB strategy of “active measures” is getting a closer look. “Active measures” were subversive techniques and policies aimed at influencing people and events in foreign countries to suit Russia’s objectives. Claims of internet-driven hacking and misinformation campaigns by Russia against the U.S. fit well within this Cold War approach.
As described by retired KGB General Oleg Kalugin in 1987, the purpose of “active measures” was “to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs. To make America more vulnerable to the anger and distrust of other peoples.”
According to former NSA analyst and security expert John Schindler, these measures are still in use today by Russia, a country led by the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
The practice of disinformation is a key example of such “measures”. It could involve stories planted in foreign outlets - essentially “fake news” that would present “an alluring amalgam of fact and fantasy—much of it unverifiable—designed to confuse readers and shift political discussions,” explains Schindler.
Other tactics that are part of what Schindler considers Russia “espionage worldview” include provocations which also work to murky the waters and disorient the enemy to such an extent that they would be defeated before even knowing what happened. Provocations could include planting agitators or even flipping activists to serve your ends.
Conspiracy which involves recruiting agents and running covert operations is another tactic mentioned by Schindler. “Kompromat” which entails using compromising materials is also time-honored KGB staple, used to recruit new spies or agents by blackmailing.
Moscow, RUSSIAN FEDERATION: This undated file picture shows Soviet policemen standing guard in front of the KGB building in Moscow, with a portrait of Vladimir Lenin on it. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace laid out the background on why Russia would want to use “active measures” before a recent hearing of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference. For starters, he and the five other testifying witnesses all agreed that Russia was behind a campaign of misinformation in 2016 whose goal was to disrupt the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016.
Rumer said that as every country’s foreign policy is shaped by its history and geography as well as politics, the dissolution of the Soviet Union left Russian national security establishment insecure. They were forced to accept the Soviet empire’s demise in 1991 and had to retreat from the world stage during the 1990s. The 90s, in fact, turned out to be a difficult decade, blamed largely on the influence of the U.S. and other foreign meddlers in Russian politics and economy.
But Russia’s policy in this millennium has been of pushing back on its boundaries, warring with Georgia, annexing Crimea and fighting an “undeclared war” in Ukraine. From the Russian standpoint, their actions are aimed at restoring the balance of power, pushing back against the expansion of NATO at its borders and correcting the injustice of what happened in 1991. It’s Russia’s comeback.
About 100 000 demonstrators march on the Kremlin in Moscow on January 20, 1991. (Photo credit: VITALY ARMAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Soviet Army tanks occupy the area near Spassky Gate (L), the entrance to the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow 19 August 1991 after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. (Photo credit should read ANATOLY SAPRONYENKO/AFP/Getty Images)
While Russia’s military has made great improvements to modernize in the past decade, it would not fare well in a direct military confrontation with Western nations. So it pushes back in other ways - namely, using what Rumer called a “toolkit” of old KGB methods, which are cost-effective and generally less risky due to the confusion they cause.
What do we know about the Russian information warfare efforts during the 2016 U.S. Election? There is a consensus among the American intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of DNC emails that were later released via Wikileaks to politically damage Hillary Clinton. An additional goal was to help elect Donald Trump, a candidate preferred by Moscow. The attacks did not just start during the Trump vs Clinton general election, but were in full swing during the primaries as well, possibly aimed at other Republican candidates whose positions were not considered Russia-friendly, including Senator Marco Rubio.
Another tactic used by the Russians appears to be the employment of an army of Twitter bots that were spreading fake news. This information was shared by former FBI agent Clint Watts in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Intelligence. He discovered that the bots were pretending to be swing-voter Republicans from the Midwest.
"So that way whenever you're trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it's much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures,” explained Watts.
Cars drive past the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB in central Moscow on December 30, 2016. (Photo credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
What’s more, Watts, who is now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and has tracked these tactics for over three years, says the Russian efforts did not stop at the election and are still continuing to try to engage with and support the President’s tweets.
"If you went online today, you could see these accounts — either bots or actual personas somewhere — that are trying to connect with the administration. They might broadcast stories and then follow up with another tweet that tries to gain the president's attention, or they'll try and answer the tweets that the president puts out,” he told NPR.
As far as who specifically is guiding these activities by the Russians, Watts says it’s a “diffuse network” with a number of hackers controlled by “different parts of Russian intelligence and propagandists — all with general guidelines about what to pursue, but doing it at different times and paces and rhythms."
Watts also testified that in 2014 Russian bots supported a petition on the White House website calling to give Alaska back to Russia, from whom Alaska was purchased 150 years ago. That set off an investigation showing how Russia used bots and paid trolls to spread its propaganda.
According to Watts, there are 5 ways in which Russian active measures are designed to topple democracy:
1. Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance
2. Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures
3. Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions
4. Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations
5. Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction
President Vladimir Putin while working as a KGB officer ca. 1990
Another line of investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee concerns the reported use of an army of internet trolls working from a Russian facility to send targeted fake news to specific regions of America.
Senator Mark Warner (D) said that their committee was investigating the information that the trolls were taking over computers called “botnets” which had the ability to generate regional news.
“It’s been reported to me, and we’ve got to find this out, whether they were able to affect specific areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, where you would not have been receiving off of whoever your vendor might have been, Trump versus Clinton, during the waning days of the election, but instead, ‘Clinton is sick’, or ‘Clinton is taking money from whoever for some source’ … fake news,” stated Warner.
What is the payoff Russia may be looking for by taking active measures during the 2016 U.S. election?
Eugene Rumer thinks the operation was a “major” and “unqualified” success for the Kremlin, causing unprecedented chaos within the U.S. and worsening its position worldwide.
"The payoff includes, but is not limited to a major political disruption in the United States, which has been distracted from many strategic pursuits; the standing of the United States and its leadership in the world have been damaged; it has become a common theme in the narrative of many leading commentators that from the pillar of stability of the international liberal order the United States has been transformed into its biggest source of instability; U.S. commitments to key allies in Europe and Asia have been questioned on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific. And last, but not least, the Kremlin has demonstrated what it can do to the world’s sole remaining global superpower,” told Rumer to the Senate Committee.
With such a wealth of goals possibly achieved, it’s no surprise, according to Rumer, that Russia will continue to employ “active measures” going forward. The question is - how does America adjust?
The United States and Russia are longtime geopolitical adversaries looking for a new way forward.
The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is either over for good or a new round is about to begin. As most things today, it all depends on whom you choose to believe. You can (and should) soberly agree that Russia hacked the American Presidential election and in some part helped elect Donald Trump, who has been consistently sympathetic to Russia himself, has had business interests there, featured Russia-friendly advisors in his campaign and potentially as part of his administration, like the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, known for his close relationship with President Putin from his days running Exxon Mobile. It just makes sense Russia would prefer this kind of candidate over the antagonistic Clinton.
Or you can say that none of that happened (even though all U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russian involvement). Trump himself said on many occasions that he’d like to see a reset of relations between U.S and Russia, but has very much denied Russian involvement in the hacks that leaked embarrassing emails from the Democratic Party to undermine the Clinton campaign at crucial moments, causing just enough momentum shift for Trump to pull it out at the last moment. His position is that admitting to some Russian interference, whether it was asked for or not, would add an air of illegitimacy to his election. Still, however damaging the leaks, they were only a part of Clinton's problems as a Presidential candidate and even Democrats must resign themselves to the fact that no matter what happened - Trump is President.
Interestingly, some thinkers like philosopher Slavoj Žižek, considered Clinton to be the Cold War candidate as she had support from many warhawks in the establishment on both sides of the aisle, and her defeat could be seen as the defeat of a Cold War mentality.
A car rides between US tanks, in October 1961, across the famous border of the American sector in Berlin, at Checkpoint Charlie crossing point, the only one in the Berlin Wall between East (Soviet sector) and West Berlin (American sector) used only by diplomats and foreigners. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Will Trump and Putin really be such good friends and find areas of common interest? In the lead up to Trump’s inauguration, Putin wrote a cordial letter to Trump, full of holiday greetings and sentiment desiring "to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation”. Provided, of course, these steps are taken in a “constructive and pragmatic manner”.
Putin did not have a good relationship with President Obama, clashing on a number of fronts, from Crimea to Syria. As spies tell us, Putin did not take to heart Obama’s admonition to “cut it out”, after Obama confronted him about the hacking all the way back in September 2016. Starting fresh with a new American President can only help. The Russian leader sees areas of common interest to be at the core of the possible cooperation.
“Serious global and regional challenges, which our countries have had to face in recent years, show that relations between Russia and the US remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security of the modern world,” said President Putin’s letter.
Trump, in turn, continued the good will:
“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct. I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
This sentiment, however, was tempered by a Trump and Putin exchange that sounded like the beginning of a new nuclear arms race. Responding to reports of Putin vowing to bolster Russia’s nuclear missile capabilities, Trump tweeted that U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
He followed this up by telling MSNBC’s Mike Brzezinski that he’s ok with a new arms race:
“Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all”.
If Trump’s comments go beyond modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to actually expanding it, this will mark the first time in decades when policy would shift away from reducing the stockpile. As reported by the New York Times, Russia and the U.S. have curbed their arsenals significantly, from a high of 30,000 warheads sported by the Americans in mid-1960, and 40,000 warheads that the Russians had in 1980, the stockpiles were brought down to about 7,000 warheads each. Surely, that’s thousands of times more than necessary to destroy our world as we know it, but it is much less than before.
It can also potentially violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the 2010 New Start Treaty, the arms control treaty with Russia, causing it to respond in kind. Under the New START Treaty, both the U.S. and Russia must deploy no more than 1,550 strategic warheads by February of 2018, a limit that'll stay until 2021, when it can be extended for 5 more years.
Putin actually sought to calm down the potential escalation, saying during his annual press conference that Russia does not want an arms race. But the exchange that already occurred between him and Trump and has left many feeling that the Cold War is heating up.
Historically, the Cold War is considered a period from just about the end of World War II, when in 1947, the Truman Doctrine was articulated seeking to halt the expanse of Soviet influence. This state of the world lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The war was “cold” because the U.S. and Soviet Union did not fight each other directly, instead engaging in all manner of geopolitical gamesmanship and fighting proxy wars like the Vietnam War or the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. presumably won the Cold War, leaving it the only superpower standing.
A selection of US newspaper headlines on President Truman's announcement that Soviet Union had conducted its first nuclear weapon test, 24th September 1949. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One point of view, however, is that for Russia the Cold War never finished. It never accepted the loss of power and territory that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and may be looking to expand its sphere of influence, ultimately forming another large political entity under its control like the proposed Eurasian Union. Some of Russia’s provocative actions do indeed seem to correlate to this line of thinking, like 2014’s annexation of Crimea, supporting separatist movements in other parts of Ukraine, investing into divisive far-right nationalist parties across Europe, as well as its possible designs on Baltic nations like Latvia. For its part, Russia explains its motivations to be merely defensive, pushing back against the expanse of NATO too close to its borders and fulfilling an obligation to free Russian-speaking people who want to rejoin the motherland.
What will the future hold? For all of Donald Trump’s positive intentions towards Russia at this point, it’s simply unpredictable what he will actually do as President. But as the world is clearly in a state of flux, it’s easy to conceive of scenarios where he will be pushed and tested by Putin’s actions.
On the other hand, must Putin be viewed through an adversarial prism, like a Cold War enemy? Barring further provocations, a new relationship should be possible, based on mutual interests and values. One way to achieve that is to clarify America’s vision for the world and what it will and will not do. It can be argued that under President Obama the line was often quite fuzzy. It was hard for America’s enemies or allies to know where the country stood and whom it would support. While Putin thrives on unpredictability, America's strength in the world has been its internal stability and the consistency with which it has projected and supported its values.
It should also be noted that President Obama appears to have underestimated Putin and continued to do so, portraying Russia as essentially a “weaker” junior-league country in his last press conference of 2016. With damaging email leaks via Russian involvement possibly tipping the scales in a close election, this attitude seems unrealistic.
As the U.S. and many of its western allies find themselves with divided countries, rocked by the rise of populist movements, geopolitical plays like the Russian meddling in the Presidential election process can be born and will likely go unchallenged. Maybe that can be a blessing, avoiding further conflict. What can be gained by actively opposing Russia in the international arena? Is the heart of American policy towards Russia still ideological, territorial, or just simply corporate? There probably is more money to be made together. Plunged into a soul-searching period, America has an opportunity to emerge with a revamped identity. A cautiously optimistic new vision towards Russia should be a part of it.
Cover photo: Cars pass by a billboard showing US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin placed by pro-Serbian movement in the town of Danilovgrad on November 16, 2016. (Photo credit: SAVO PRELEVIC/AFP/Getty Images)