[Cross-posted from New Book in History] Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013) is a tale of two atomic cities—one in the US (Richland, Washington) and one in the Soviet Union (Ozersk, Russia)—united by their production of plutonium. Seeking the security they believed could come only from settlements of middle class, nuclear families, the governments of the US and the USSR created plutopias: highly-subsidized communities in hard-to-reach places that provided workers excellent salaries and handsome benefits, like first-class health care and great schools. But a dark bargain was struck in Plutopia.
These sites’ hermetic isolation was part of a unique social geography that divided the areas in which the plants were situated into nuclear and non-nuclear zones. Outside the healthy confines of Plutopia, plant officials freely polluted, dumping radioactive waste into local rivers and dispersing it into the air. Over a period of four decades, the Hanford and Maiak plutonium plants released an amount of radiation equivalent to four Chernobyls. This is not only a story of plutonium production and the creation of sleek “cities of the future.” It is also a history of intelligence and nuclear security; the environment and public health; and of risk distributed unevenly across lines of race, class, and gender. It is a story about people’s willingness to forgo aspects of freedom, like private property or local governance, for a state-sponsored and highly insular form of paternalism, and also about their readiness to trade some kinds of rights—civil and biological—for consumer plenty. It is also a story of how “corporate contractors … privatized … tremendous profits from nuclear weapons production while socializing the risks to health and environment.” Kate Brown’s Plutopia is the product of serious archival spadework, oral interviews, and an ethnographer’s alertness to the telling or ironic detail. It is equally rich in insight and indignation.