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  • Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown
  • Rodney Carlisle (bio)
Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. By Kate Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 416. $27.95.

This work presents the histories of both the Soviet and the American plutonium-producing facilities and the communities built around them: Hanford, Washington, and Ozersk, in the southern Urals. The author evokes many parallels between the two, most growing out of such shared 1940s and ’50s values as militarism, racism, sexism, and an oblivious disregard of long-term environmental and health impacts of radiation. Many of the parallel developments, such as the attempt to build a “classless” community in which both manual workers and professionals lived in a managed society, derived from the imperatives of constructing and operating plutonium production reactors rapidly to fuel the nuclear arms race.

Both the American and Soviet facilities were hurriedly built under the pressure of World War II and the cold war, producing some expected similarities. For example, the military and civilian executives running both operations showed very little concern with the long-term disastrous health effects of radiation exposure to replaceable reactor workers, and only slightly more concern with the health threats to professionals. And the regions near Hanford and Ozersk were soon heavily polluted with radioactive waste; both plants were operated haphazardly and with hardly any regard for long-term environmental impact on the surrounding countryside. In both cases, there were a few technical and scientific personnel who pointed out the hazards. The author recognizes that it is ahistorical to wish that the managers and officers of the 1940s and ’50s should have applied twenty-first-century values of gender sensitivity and environmental awareness to their work. However, the appalling record of cover-ups, harassment of whistleblowers, and human tragedy from radiation poisoning in later decades reveals that the imperatives of profit and production continued to override good sense well into recent years, in both “plutopias.”

The author’s research included not only the vast records of the Manhattan Project and successor agencies, but a close review of Soviet publications and documents. She tracked down and interviewed veterans and survivors of both facilities, lending a recurrent personal flavor to a story whose focus is the institutional and social history of a technological development.

Among the many fresh insights and observations in this work is a profound understanding of how and why DuPont and later General Electric managers designed and built the community of Richland, Washington, as a company town (with none of the trappings of self-government) that established working-class families in individual homes with the appearance of a [End Page 269] middle-class suburb. That “classless” community, centered around “nuclear” families (in both senses of the word), she suggests, served as a model for the mass-produced Levittowns and other suburbs of the postwar decades. In the Soviet Union, after first struggling with prisoner and Gulag workers and near-prison camp conditions, Ozersk eventually reflected some of the features of Richland.

Despite American preconceptions of the Soviet Union and of the Gulag in particular as highly regulated, police-controlled societies, the author demonstrates that the construction and operation of the facility at Ozersk was disorganized, highly insecure, primitive in methods, and wasteful of resources and manpower. The overloaded and ill-managed Soviet Gulag was on the verge of collapse in the late 1940s and 1950s, retarding the construction of the reactor and processing facilities by years. In the American case, the author attributes the failure of DuPont to meet construction deadlines at Hanford during World War II to refusal to employ available African-American and Mexican-American labor. While American workers in Richland seemed content to allow corporate direction of the community, in the Khrushchev era, workers in Ozersk began to exercise a measure of self-government to provide social services lost by the disappearance of the extended family and its replacement by the nuclear family.

The work goes far beyond this reviewer’s own historical study, Supplying the Nuclear Arsenal (1996), with its focus on nuclear special-interest politics, and Michel Gerber...


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pp. 269-270
Launched on MUSE
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