Kate Brown’s Plutopia is the tale of two atomic cities — twin siblings of the Cold War, created for the purpose of harvesting the plutonium that fueled the post-war nuclear arms race.
The top-secret reactors at the Pentagon’s Hanford plutonium plant lead to the creation of Richland, a planned city built in the wind-scraped wastelands of Washington State. The residents – all white and privileged – lived in a perfectly landscaped consumers’ paradise complete with federally subsidized housing and free medical care. Russia’s plutopia was called Ozersk. It was built in the Urals, near the plutonium mills of Maiak, and it was so secret it didn’t appear on official maps.
Both cities existed to serve a common mission – to promote the creation of nuclear bombs. Both offered unwitting residents the promise of prosperity and security while depriving them of basic freedoms and placing them at great risk. Both left a legacy of radioactive contamination that continues to haunt both countries (and will stalk generations to come).
Between them, Hanford and Maiak were intentionally (and accidentally) responsible for releasing 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes – the equivalent of four Chernobyl disasters — over thousands of square miles of downwind land, rivers, forests, wildlife, livestock, farms and families.
With astounding persistence and initiative, Kate Brown devoted several years to exhuming the hidden records that trace the secret history of these two populations – and the forces that conspired to create them. Brown’s investigations took her from dusty government archives in the US to clandestine meetings with survivors in Russia.
Brown’s discoveries reveal how US and Soviet leaders both came to adopt the same model – the construction of “middleclass” plutopias occupied by thousands of citizens blindly engaged in building doomsday devices that could kill millions. Instead of putting nuclear farming in the hands of soldiers, Washington and Moscow relied instead on communities of highly paid nuclear families living in posh, government subsidized, atomic cities.
At the same time Capitalism and Communism provided its “chosen” with the benefits of generous salaries, free medical care, entertainment and a plethora of consumer goods, they maintained parallel communities of migrant workers, prisoners, soldiers and racial minorities who were confined in nearby “staging grounds” and required to perform the most dangerous work. These workers were disposable. They received no medical care. When they became sickened by radiation exposure, soldiers were discharged and prisoners were released.
Plutopia is filled with depictions of Atomic Age working conditions that are absolutely Dickensian. The persistent issues of human corruption and racial discrimination percolate through the histories of both of these “model cities.” While Brown’s disturbing revelations tell us a lot about the buried history of nuclear technology, this “new history” of the Atomic Age also tells us much about the faults of state power and human nature. Plutopia provides a somber accounting of the dangers we have inherited from the past and it sends a chilling warning about the horrors that may still await us.
Kate Brown is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, American Historical Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Harper’s Magazine Online.
Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a Project Censored award-winning investigative journalist, and cofounder of Environmentalists Against War.
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