Plutonium Towns in the Cold War

Note: this is my contribution to an online roundtable on Kate Brown’s book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, 2013). The roundtable was published in H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 4:5 (2014). For the full roundtable, including Kate Brown’s response, click here.

9780199855766Few places encapsulate the concept of the Faustian bargain more than the plutonium-production facilities created in the context of war, and then cold war, in the 1940s. The government facilities at Hanford and Mayak were sources of pride, prestige, and military strength. Yet they also were places of widespread contamination, secrecy, discrimination, and government cover-ups. The fission products themselves are tied to human experimentation, birth defects, cancer, and the most expensive and unsolved waste problem in history. It’s a troubled legacy to say the least. While much of the history of these sites in the United States and Russia is already known, including their dubious distinction as two of the most contaminated places on the planet, few have attempted to understand them together—as two sides of the same coin.

By treating the sites together in her award-winning book, Plutopia, Kate Brown requires readers to take a leap of faith with her, to overlook the vast cultural and political differences between these two places, to be willing to see a common story. It is a leap worth taking, because thinking through these two sites despite their differences charts a new path to understanding how such places have existed in the past and may exist again. The book would have been sufficient had Brown merely shown parallel cases of environmental degradation or health harm. But she goes further, developing an ambitious argument about the people who lived and worked in the near vicinities of the plutonium facilities, especially the cities of Richland, Ozersk, and surrounding areas. Through archival research and her own interviews with residents, Brown shows how governments turned the plutonium towns of Richland and Ozersk into islands of relative affluence (“plutopias”), rewarding workers with the trappings of middle class life while falling short in protecting their health.

The common denominator, for Brown, is the ascendancy of consumerism in enticing and placating people whose waters and airs were contaminated, and whose bodies were violated. Brown notes that achieving and maintaining a middle class life with good schools, nice cars, and full shelves overshadowed concerns about health and environmental degradation. She shows how in Richland the US government and the corporate contractors such as DuPont and General Electric put more resources into amenities and consumption than they did into protecting people’s health. She observes a similar tradeoff in Ozersk, as the people there enjoyed far better conditions than in the rest of the Soviet Union and rarely faced the same austerity as other cities. To Brown, the ability to acquire a comfortable, middle class life trumped higher ideological goals. In the United States, freedom came to mean consumption; in the Soviet Union, the “embourgeoisement of plutopia” masked the abandonment of truly socialist goals (260). Meanwhile birth defects were on the rise, rivers were polluted, and human health suffered neglect.

Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional, but one might come away from reading Plutopia confused about who was responsible for this tragic tradeoff. On the one hand, it seems clear that governments often played down dangers, and Brown’s narrative appears to focus on manipulation and deception. On the other hand, the people who lived in such “plutopias,” often were the ones to willfully ignore dangers. Brown’s narrative appears to suggest they chose to gamble their health in exchange for material well-being. Brown points to many cases of government neglect (or worse, experimentation), suggesting something pretty sinister. Yet she also conveys in heart-wrenching detail how many of the people who lived in those places also defended their worlds. Ironically, they were the least likely to welcome inquiries about public health or environmental degradation. At Hanford, whistleblowers were treated as “moles,” and environmentalists who came to investigate were perceived as the enemy. Despite revelations of accidents, or of overexposure, the people of Richland were often extremely protective of the plutonium facility because it was the backbone of their lives. They panicked when the AEC began to shut down operations, and some rejoiced to discover that the contamination and subsequent environmental mitigation could become a cash cow of its own. I was reminded of Gretchen Heefner’s book The Missile Next Door, which tracked similar stories of communities near nuclear missile bases—populated by residents who saw themselves as freedom-loving patriots but were really just fiercely protective of their subsidized livelihoods.[1]

At other times, it seems that governments were manipulating the people, playing down dangers. Confronted with scientific challenges about harm to health and the environment, atomic energy establishments developed public relations strategies to protect existing claims, or to deride others as naïve because they were new to the game. I wondered how much of this was really about defending one’s expertise against outside interlocutors, a dynamic that certainly marks much of the AEC’s history. Brown’s discussion of how Hanford scientists played down the dangers in the Columbia River seem to bear this out. Sometimes it seems as if the confident proclamations of government officials had less to do with willful deception and more to do with compartmentalization. If officials took responsibility, they did so only for their plant, their factory, their village, their state, or their zone.

Plutopia is heavy on the stories of individuals’ experiences. It is a rewarding read for anyone wanting to understand how the nuclear age affected real people. It also is based in part on interviews, which are presented in fascinating detail. Brown jumps back and forth between conventional third-person narrative and first-person retelling of her own research experiences. There are good reasons for this style; much of Brown’s perspective comes from her personal interactions. For example, she had a hard time accepting food from the people she interviewed, which opened her eyes to how they experience outsiders. She also implicates herself as a disaster tourist, providing much-needed money to people she interviewed. Such nuances enrich the tale. It was problematic for me at times because I did not always notice the transition between the real historical people and the pseudonyms she used for some people she interviewed. So anyone using the book for teaching or research will need to take care that they are not taking in a pseudonym inadvertently.

The interviews are just one example of how Brown succeeds at taking us “beyond the zone,” to borrow a phrase from one chapter, to tell the story of people who have been ignored for decades. That focus on individual voices leads me to ask Brown to comment on how she made her narrative choices when confronted with discrepancies. She does remind readers that she is acutely aware of the problems relying on oral histories or the memories of those she interviewed. I especially liked her description of Ozersk resident Galina Petruva (a pseudonym) as “what appeared to be the classic unreliable narrator.” And yet Brown does, understandably, make choices about who to believe, and it might useful to learn about how she went about putting these perspectives into her narrative.

Brown’s handling of one particular episode made me take a step back and wonder how much her narrative style was directing my understanding of historical events. I did not understand how taking a position on the actual character of the 1957 explosion in Kyshtym helped her argument. That explosion received widespread attention in part because of the efforts of Zhores Medvedev, who wrote about it in Nuclear Disaster in the Urals. [2] Some claimed it was a fission explosion, while others insist on it being a chemical explosion. As a side note, a “mere” chemical explosion would not rob the event of its disastrous character, because it would have spread radiological poisons all over the landscape. But when reading Brown’s chapter on “The Kyshtym Belch,” she writes as if it was a nuclear explosion. Indeed she notes in her lively style that “the bartenders continued to pour mugs of beer, right through a megaton nuclear explosion.” As Brown knows, a megaton explosion would have been some fifty times the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Is this a case of stylistic license? Or does the megaton figure come from somewhere? The footnote for the passage mentions that Russian officials continue to say it was chemical, but one of her contacts argues it was nuclear. What made her choose to craft her narrative so firmly as a nuclear—or even more specifically, a megaton-sized—explosion? She further commits to the nuclear explosion by noting how the column of smoke took on “that distinct mushroom shape.” It would be useful to know who described seeing this shape. She later refers to it as “an accidental explosion the size of Hiroshima.” Some kind of acknowledgment of the uncertainty, or the range of possibilities, seems warranted. The key points of this section of the book do not depend on her taking a stand on the nature, or scale, of the explosion, so I wondered why Brown felt compelled to do it.

What I found really powerful in Brown’s discussion of the Kyshtym explosion was her treatment of those who cleaned up. They were not facility employees, but instead were soldiers and prisoners. By using such people, the nuclear facility itself did not have to own up to any casualties among its own workers (another case of compartmentalization). In this way, plant operators could claim a strong safety record for its workers while presiding over one of the worst nuclear disasters ever, with a whole region as suffering witnesses and victims. It made harm invisible not only to the public, but to subsequent generations of historians trying to assess past practices. It’s the same tactic used by the United States in not counting Navajo uranium mines as part of the nuclear fuel cycle, by the French in not counting their mines in Madagascar because they weren’t on French territory, or the US and Europeans not counting cumulative doses to seamen who handled radioactive waste drums on privately-licensed dumping operations. It was painful to watch precisely the same practice occur in the Fukushima cleanup in 2011.[3]

Because much of my own work has included the British side of the story, I found myself wondering if Brown ever considered incorporating the story of Windscale (later Sellafield) as another “Plutopia.” This is not meant as criticism—it would have been a different book, and of course longer!—but I wonder if Brown has gathered thoughts on parallels and differences on which she might elaborate briefly. After all, Britain too has a Cold War story, rooted in secrecy, and was guilty of many of the wartime exigencies that warped into postwar patterns. The UK’s Atomic Energy Authority created the Windscale facility near Seascale, in Cumbria, to make plutonium. I wonder if a similar pattern of middle-class consumerism trumping health concerns pertained there. Its history was different in many ways (instead of releasing effluent into rivers, for example, it piped much of its radioactive effluent offshore, into the Irish Sea, from whence many radionuclides would return to human bodies in the form of edible seaweed). It makes an interesting foil to the Kyshtym story, because Windscale’s most serious disaster (the Windscale fire and subsequent milk scare) occurred less than two weeks after the Soviet explosion. At that time the British, like the Americans, were still trying to figure out what had happened at Kyshtym, while trying to assess damage at home—and control public relations.

Plutopia is original in approach and completely absorbing, filled with stories of real people living in the shadow of the deadliest arsenals. At the close of the book, Brown ends with an upbeat paragraph about the courageous people she interviewed, calling them nuclear pioneers on the march, demanding biological rights. Although I appreciate this note of hope rather than despair, after reading Plutopia I came away with an entirely different impression of this history. It represents a time of callous tradeoffs based on false promises, manipulation of people’s hopes and aspirations, willful blindness, or gross abuses of trust. I wish I could say that those times are behind us, but I am not sure I believe it.

Note: this is my contribution to an online roundtable on Kate Brown’s book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, 2013). For the full roundtable, including Kate Brown’s response, click here.

[1] Gretchen Heefner, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] Zhores A. Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals (New York: Norton, 1979).

[3] Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012); Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008); Gabrielle Hecht, “Nuclear Nomads: A Look at the Subcontracted Heroes,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (9 Jan 2012), http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-nomads-look-subcontracted-heroes. Accessed Aug 21, 2014.

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