Kate Brown is a Professor of History at UMBC who studies 21st-century conflicts. Brown tends to focus her studies on communities that are typically excluded from the larger historical narrative. She is the author of, “A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland,” the book ” Plutopia : Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters”, as well as a few academic articles.
Both books have won numerous awards for their contribution to greater understanding of significant historical events. Kate Brown’s book, “ Plutopia ” gives insight into the world’s first government communities that were created to produce plutonium and the resulting “slow-motion disasters” that they have had on its citizens and environment.
The book highlights the similarities within the two communities while also shedding light on the exchange of silence for increased standards of living that occurred within the closely monitored government establishments.
Overall, “ Plutopia ” is an insightful read which contrasts the transnational nuclear disasters at a local level making it a critical read for anybody who is interested in knowing the full ramifications of atomic weapons on society.
Plutopia s : The Worlds First Nuclear Cities
Disasters have always been a key focus in history. Historians have gone to a great extent to explain why disasters have occurred and the impact they have on societies. The creation of the atomic bomb has been substantially studied because of its ramifications and the negative implications it has had on the world.
Chernobyl itself has become a household name and the face of nuclear disaster. The event was heavily publicized and made international headlines. However, as Brown contends, the untold disasters of the world’s first “ Plutopia s” far outweighs the ramifications of Chernobyl yet is strikingly unheard of outside local populations.
Within “ Plutopia s” Brown focuses on the common theme of nuclear disasters, however, takes an in-depth look at two unknown communities; Richland, United States and Ozersk, Soviet Union. Both cities created plutonium which resulted in a slow-motion disaster creating long-lasting health complications and permanent damage to the surrounding ecosystems.
The importance of “ Plutopia s” are not discussed within today’s society, and little is known publicly about the once-secret and isolated communities. Both the Soviet Union and the United States governments’ invested significant amounts of time and money into their nuclear communities.
Brown, through her careful analysis, demonstrates why these cities were in fact so important to the nuclear arms race. The creation of nuclear cities, or “ Plutopia s,” was a key factor that would allow the continuation of the deterrence strategy for both the Soviets and the Americans.
Both Richland (Hanford Plant) and Ozersk (Maiak Plant) were created to help produce plutonium, a key element that allowed the creation of atomic bombs. It was crucial for both governments to have a continuous supply of plutonium to guarantee that nuclear weapons would be continuously manufactured to succeed in the global struggle for hegemony.
The production of plutonium did not come without human and environmental sacrifices. The process of producing plutonium was in fact extremely dangerous and resulted in the creation of high levels of radioactive waste. The result was the creation of hazardous working conditions and substantial damage to the surrounding environment.
Even with knowledge of the hazards involved while producing plutonium the American and Soviet governments placed their citizens in harm’s way and allowed production to continue which resulted in a slow-motion disaster. Within “ Plutopia ” Brown attempts to show how the cities created a slow-motion disaster and why the residents were able to turn a blind eye to the problem.
Brown argues that “ Plutopia s” were set up to reflect a middle-class society and that the promises of a middle-class lifestyle caused the workers to become loyal to their bosses. This loyalty bought workers silence on the horrors that were acutely occurring within the “ Plutopia s.”
This factor which helped define these communities is critical to understanding why so many people sat idly by as the government intentionally released radiation into the surrounding landscapes. Through using consumerism as a tool, the government was able to purchase workers and entice citizens to trade their rights for comfort and security.
Brown believes that the creation of middle-class societies provided both the Soviet Union and the United States with the perfect labor force. Initially, both communities began as military complexes where sex, booze, and brawls became associated with the workers of the plants. The cities managers became concerned with the workers and began doubting their capability of working within the hazardous conditions where many things could go wrong.
In order to guarantee a reliable workforce, both governments created middle-class societies. It was believed that the values associated with a middle-class society would replace working class habits, manners of expression, and values. As well, communities that provided citizens with otherwise unattainable living would create loyal workers who would be determined to keep their higher standard of living at any cost.
After the disasters of Urals and Chernobyl, the Soviet government continued operating the Maiak. The citizens were overwhelmingly supportive of the government’s decision because they wanted their “pretty lakeside city” to remain in existence. Both Richland and Ozersk residents were more than willing to ignore the hazards associated with plutonium production to maintain their comfy lifestyle.
Brown focuses on both Richland and Ozersk because she believed they were made in each other’s image. Richland and Ozersk, cities which came from completely different cultures, mirrored one another showing striking similarity that transcended political ideology and national culture. Both governments turned away from their political ideology creating communities outside their popular culture.
Richland would be unrecognizable to other American towns and cities. Both cities were isolated and completely controlled by the government having no free market, local government, and no private property. Richland became a “police state” where citizens were constantly under surveillance, and one wrong move could result in expulsion from the city.
American citizens gave up their political rights and freedom in exchange for consumerism. The Richland Community offered affordable housing, 30% higher wages, new appliances and federal funds for community-building programs to keep workers happy, entertained and fed. The citizens were more than willing to exchange their American values of freedom for a middle-class lifestyle.
The Soviet Union prided itself as being a communist society. In theory under communism, all citizens are equal creating a classless society. However, Ozersk provided its citizens with a superior living standard which essentially created a “middle-class” society that had access to goods and services unattainable to those living outside its walls.
The workers had no shortage of bread, alcohol, sausage, caviar and chocolate. Residents were given spacious apartments and also enjoyed modern day luxuries such as televisions, refrigerators, and radios. Brown states that the “special regime zone” allowed the Soviet citizens to live without fear of starving unlike the locals living in surrounding regions.
Overall, both governments were willing to put aside their political ideologies to guarantee the success of creating plutonium.
The urgency of creating plutonium outweighed all risk factors. Each city was set up as to provide efficient workers and completely disregarded human rights in the process. Extreme measures were put in place to keep the knowledge of risk as a closely guarded secret.
In the Hanford plant (USA) those who worked closely with radioactive solutions were most often the least trained and informed. DeGooyer, a worker in DuPont, recalls being told not to wear gloves while handling radioactive substance because it would hinder her ability to work quickly and precisely.
In Hanford, the knowledge of the risks was only known by high-ranking workers which resulted in ordinary workers being left with little protection against radioactive harm. Brown discusses Ed Bricker who worked at the Hanford Z plant.
Bicker is described as a nuisance to the plant officials because he was well aware of the unsafe working conditions. The plant elite threatened to fire Bicker if he continued with his “allegations.” Brown uses these examples and much more to demonstrate the complete disregard for human life within the plutonium plants.
The Soviet Union was also not concerned about its worker’s health and safety. However, one difference is, unlike Hanford, Miraka was not limited to class structures while exposing its citizens to harm. Every individual was expected to take their turn; soldiers, prisoners, operators, supervisors, and scientists were all exposed to high doses of radiation.The working conditions within the Soviet Union were truly appalling. Workers climbed into vents which directly exposed them to radioactive dust, while radioactive waste and equipment were carelessly dispensed or left in rooms where people worked.
Brown clearly demonstrates that keeping workers safe was not a top priority within the plutonium factories. Instead both American and the United States were willing to sacrifice its workforce to guarantee plutonium was produced quickly and efficiently.
A key focus of Brown’s book is how the production of plutonium caused enormous amounts of destruction to main water supplies which resulted in extreme health defects in the surrounding communities. Hanford and Miraka managers, despite the known hazards, “polluted the surrounding landscape freely, liberally, and disastrously.” The Hanford plant caused massive amounts of radioactive material to enter the Columbia River.
This resulted in people living in counties that bordered the Columbia River in Oregon to suffer from higher rates of cancer. In 1961, U.S Public Health Service notified Hanford that the down-streamers were being exposed to high levels of radiation which was 115 percent of the permissible limit. As well, the water had become polluted and inhospitable causing damages to animals and fish. To this day the river remains radioactive and inhabitable.
To this day the river remains radioactive and inhabitable.
The Soviet Union also had its own environmental disaster; the destruction of the Techa River. In 1949 Muzrukov had ordered the dumping of radioactive waste into the Techa River, and every plant boss followed the demands. This radioactive dumping resulted in long-lasting environmental and health defects.
Villagers surrounding the cities became increasing sick; their livestock became unhealthy, and their food began to contain high doses of radiation. Brown does acknowledge that a minuscule effort went into protecting the surrounding villages; however, the safety recommendations were not actively enforced. In fact, it took over a decade to resettle ten villages that were being constantly exposed to substantially high doses of radioactive materials.
Brown demonstrates that both the United States and the Soviet Union’s primary concern was the creation of plutonium and they were willing to do anything to make this possible.
What makes Brown book remarkable is the variety of research she has done. Brown looks at other scholarly works, scientific journals, conducts oral interviews, and examines archival material from the Soviet Union and the United States. Brown herself writes that “the written records are astounding, describing what officials knew, what they decided to hide, how much they chose to disclose and the reason they did so.”
Browns scientific evidence involving the studies of plutonium on both animals and humans clearly shows that the governments were fully aware of the negative implications they were forcing upon their citizens and environments. However, what makes her book remarkable is her oral interviews which help tell the story of what life was actually like within the walls of the isolated communities.
The personal accounts through oral interviews make ‘ Plutopia ’ relatable; however, they also create the greatest bias within her book. This is because those who discussed their experiences were those who wanted their story told because of the injustices they have suffered, while many refused to talk about the ‘Plutopias’ because of their oaths of secrecy. This results in the book containing multiple narratives of one side of the story resulting in an incomplete historical narrative of the nuclear communities.
Who Should Read ” Plutopia “?
“Plutopia” is a book for scholars, history buffs, and any individual looking to read on the Cold War to better understand the full implications of atomic weapons.
Brown writes from a local perspective on how the nuclear arms race directly affected both American and Soviet Union’s citizens. The book will open its reader’s mind because of the willingness of both governments to perpetuate slow-motion disasters to succeed in the global struggle for hegemony.
“Plutopia” discusses a dark past that resulted in the hidden devastation that has lasting implication to this day. Most importantly, the book acts as an important reminder of how governments are willing to sacrifice the few for the many.
“Plutopias” are a very important piece of history that should be discussed, never forgotten, and read by everyone to understand the true horrors and effects of the Cold War.
Brown’s book, “ Plutopia Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and The Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” creates a new narrative of the Cold War that is not overly discussed or known.
Throughout the book, Brown gives substantial insight into the world’s first government communities Richland and Ozersk, that were created for the sole purpose of plutonium production and the effects, both short and long-term, this has created for the citizens and environment.
Through archival documents, scholarly articles, and substantial oral interviews Brown can draw similarities between the two communities. She shows how both communities were willing to trade their freedom and silence for a better wage opportunity and increased access to goods and services.
Overall, “Plutopia” is an insightful read which contrasts the transnational nuclear disasters at a local level making it a critical read for anybody who is interested in knowing the full ramifications of atomic weapons on society.