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Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disastersby Kate Brown
Synopses & Reviews
Modern utopia and nuclear wastelands come together in this history of the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium-Richland, Washington and Ozersk, Russia. Like two points on an axis, Richland and Ozersk spun around each other for four decades of Cold War in fear and rivalry. While building the massive plutonium factories, American and Soviet industrial leaders were appalled at the unruly, boozing, brawling workers constructing the plants. Independently, American and Soviet leaders realized plutonium workers could not be as volatile as the product they made.
In response, leaders in both the US and USSR created plutopia-communities of nuclear families living in highly-subsidized atomic cities. In these cities, white, working class plant operators were paid and lived like middle classes. Minority workers, soldiers and prisoners, who were banned from plutopia, resided nearby in temporary staging grounds. Brown argues that by creating zones of unrivalled privilege for white plant operators, leaders of the plutonium cities forged the first citizens who willingly gave up their civil rights, political freedoms and, as they handed in their urine samples each week, rights to their bodies. In exchange they won high-risk, atomic affluence in safe, 'classless' micro-societies. Plutopia was successful because in its zoned-off isolation it appeared to deliver the promises of the American dream and Soviet communism.
The exclusive communities created loyal, dependent workers who agreed not to speak of the massive plutonium disasters occurring at their plants. Medical researchers and environmental monitors colluded in keeping the silence. They buried the news of each plant's colossal dumping during the Cold War of over 200 million curies of radioactive waste into the surrounding environment. Meanwhile, farmers and indigenous communities near the plutonium plants lived off increasingly contaminated landscapes. Women endured miscarriages. In these communities, adults developed tumors and thyroid disorders. Children suffered from birth defects and childhood cancers. Many people simply felt unwell with fatigue, pain, disorders of the auto-immune and circulation system. As news broke, after the Chernobyl tragedy, of the plutonium disasters the farmers organized into the 'Downwinders' in the US and the 'White Mice' in Russia. The groups campaigned for their biological rights, insisting, in novel political campaigns, on freedom not only from want and tyranny, but from risk and contamination. In short, plutopia created not only two of the world's most radioactive territories, but also political movements confronting emergent public health epidemics, the full effects of which have yet to be tallied.
While many transnational histories of the nuclear arms race have been written, Kate Brown provides the first definitive account of the great plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union.
In Plutopia, Brown draws on official records and dozens of interviews to tell the extraordinary stories of Richland, Washington and Ozersk, Russia-the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium. To contain secrets, American and Soviet leaders created plutopias--communities of nuclear families living in highly-subsidized, limited-access atomic cities. Fully employed and medically monitored, the residents of Richland and Ozersk enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while nearby, migrants, prisoners, and soldiers were banned from plutopia--they lived in temporary "staging grounds" and often performed the most dangerous work at the plant. Brown shows that the plants' segregation of permanent and temporary workers and of nuclear and non-nuclear zones created a bubble of immunity, where dumps and accidents were glossed over and plant managers freely embezzled and polluted. In four decades, the Hanford plant near Richland and the Maiak plant near Ozersk each issued at least 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment--equaling four Chernobyls--laying waste to hundreds of square miles and contaminating rivers, fields, forests, and food supplies. Because of the decades of secrecy, downwind and downriver neighbors of the plutonium plants had difficulty proving what they suspected, that the rash of illnesses, cancers, and birth defects in their communities were caused by the plants' radioactive emissions. Plutopia was successful because in its zoned-off isolation it appeared to deliver the promises of the American dream and Soviet communism; in reality, it concealed disasters that remain highly unstable and threatening today.
An untold and profoundly important piece of Cold War history, Plutopia invites readers to consider the nuclear footprint left by the arms race and the enormous price of paying for it.
About the Author
Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Table of Contents
Part I: Incarcerated Space
Part II: The Soviet Atom at Work
Part III: The Plutonium Disasters
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