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.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 416 pages
  • 155 x 231 x 25mm | 567g
  • United States
  • English
  • Reprint
  • Illustrations, black and white
  • 0190233109
  • 9780190233105
  • 83,447

Review quote

Winner of the Ellis W. Hawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians
Winner of the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association
Winner of the George Perkins Marsh Prize of the American Society for Environmental History
Winner of the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize of the Association for Slavic Studies, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Winner of the Heldt Prize in the category of Best Book in Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian Studies from the Association of Women in Slavic Studies
Winner of the Robert G. Athearn Prize of the Western History Association

"Turning up a surprising amount of hitherto hidden material and talkative survivors, Brown writes a vivid, often hair-raising history of the great plutonium factories and the privileged cities built around them... Readers will squirm to learn of the high radiation levels workers routinely experienced and the casualness with which wastes poured into the local air, land and rivers... An angry but fascinating account of negligence, incompetence and injustice justified (as it still is) in the name of national security." --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"An unflinching and chilling account." --Seattle Times

"Harrowing... Meticulously researched... Plutopia has important messages for those managing today's nuclear facilities, arguing for caution and transparency." --Nature

"The book tells two intertwined stories. One is an appalling narrative of environmental disasters... The second narrative is about the towns, the townspeople, and the creation of a spatially segmented landscape that enabled those disasters... This is admirable comparative history." --Carl Abbott, Environmental History

"Fascinating." -- Dissent

"One of the Cold War's more striking perversities never made it to public view. ... Brown is a good writer, and she describes with precision the construction of the two sites (a difficult process in the U.S. case, an unbelievably horrid one in the Russian case), the hazardous occupations undertaken by their inhabitants, and the consciously contrived bubbles of socioeconomic inequality both places became." --Foreign Affairs

"Brown's account is unique, partisan and occasionally personal in that she includes some of her thoughts about interviews she conducted... But because she is open and thorough about her sources, those are strengths to be celebrated, not weaknesses to be deplored. It also means her book is engaging, honest and, in the end, entirely credible." --New Scientist

"An amazing book... Brown found many parallels between Richland and Ozersk that disrupt the conservative Cold War dichotomy between the 'free world' and the totalitarian one. Her research included not only uncovering previously secret documents in both countries but also tracking down and interviewing old-time residents of Ozersk and Richland. Her picture of the treatment of plutonium workers on both sides of the Iron Curtain is enough to make you gnash your teeth or cry." --Jon Wiener, American Historical Review

"Arresting, engagingly narrated... Kate Brown skillfully mixes Cold War policy assessment and associated political intrigue with sociological study of the lives of those who lived and worked in those places... Plutopia is history told through the voice of drama and investigative reporting." --Stephen E. Roulac, New York Journal of Books

"Plutopia is reporting and research at its best, both revealing a hidden history and impacting the important discussions about nuclear power that should be happening today." --Glenn Dallas, San Francisco Book Review

"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." --H-Soyuz

"Kate Brown has written a provocative and original study of two cities -- one American, one Soviet -- at the center of their countries' nuclear weapons complexes. The striking parallels she finds between them help us -- impel us -- to see the Cold War in a new light. Plutopia will be much discussed. It is a fascinating and important book." --David Holloway, author of Stalin and the Bomb

"Kate Brown has produced a novel and arresting account of the consequences of Cold War Nuclear policies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Interweaving documentary research in government archives, reviews and revisions of the public record, and a host of personal interviews with the citizens -- perpetrators, victims, and witnesses -- Brown's Plutopia makes a lasting contribution to the continuing chronicle of the human and environmental disasters of the atomic age." --Peter Bacon Hales, author of Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project

"It may be the best piece of research and writing in the nuclear history field in the last 25 years - perhaps the best ever... Extremely impressive." -- Rodney Carlisle, Prof. Emeritus, Rutgers University, author of Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age
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About Professor of History Kate Brown

Kate Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland, winner of the American Historical Association's George Louis Beer Prize. A 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, her work has also appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, American Historical Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Harper's Magazine Online.
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Rating details

616 ratings
4.17 out of 5 stars
5 39% (241)
4 43% (266)
3 14% (88)
2 3% (17)
1 1% (4)
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