Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
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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.
workers, there were “utter riffraff—anybody who could hold a saw.”16 From March 1943 to August 1944, the plant police apprehended 217 employees on the lam from the law and 50 draft dodgers.17 James Parker marveled that after he lied on his application, inflating his age to eighteen, he not only got a job but was assigned to work in the most restricted nuclear reactor site.18 By all accounts, Hanford Camp was an unruly frontier town. The DuPont police recorded crimes in escalating numbers: 4
funds Shtefan could request in subsequent periods for cost overruns caused by “delays.”49 Embezzling money and supplies left few resources to erect villages for evacuees, build housing for construction workers, or fix rotting barracks. When Shtefan did finally build them, he skimped. He signed off on new villages that had no bathhouses, medical clinics, kindergartens, barns, or dairies, all of which were called for in the blueprints. He put up high-priced prefab houses, built so poorly that they
few types of carcinomas and thyroid disease, based on estimates derived from Japanese survivors. Downwinders connected their sheep born without eyes to birth defects in their children, but the studies did not address genetic effects. Nor did it address other health problems that Russian scientists discussed in medical literature as chronic radiation syndrome.18 Part of the hangover of the Cold War was that Russian science was often considered suspect because of its dependence on the state. Bruce
in the spring of 1946, Beria sent Rapoport orders to secure the site by setting up a “special regime zone” that included a roadblock with a guard, searchlights, and passes.22 This order, like the ones banning dangerous prisoners, went unheeded. In the first year and a half of construction, Vladimir Beliavskii remembered, there were no formal security restrictions at the site at all. “Anyone,” he recalled, “who wanted to, could go there without trouble.”23 A train from Cheliabinsk ran daily to a
doses of radiation, but thanks to our work, the plant was not stopped.”22 Why so many spills? Kuznetsova blamed the haste and the strict regime of secrecy and fear. Security officers closely watched the young workers and kept track of the valuable gold-plated tools and final product. Young, inexperienced technicians caught violating the rules or making mistakes were transferred to the zone’s labor camps for two to five years of hard labor.23 “When we were hired to work at Maiak,” Kuznetsova