Kate Brown: Plutopia

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Kate Brown lives in Washington, D.C. and is Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Brown is a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow and author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013), which won six prizes including the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Prize for best book on the Americas. Her first book, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard 2004), won the AHA’s George Louis Beer Prize for the best book in international history. Brown’s most recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten was published in 2015 with the University of Chicago Press. She is currently writing a history of human survival and endurance among the communities circling the Pripiat Marshes.

Could you briefly describe your book?”

Plutopia is about the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium, one in eastern Washington State (Hanford), the other in the Russian Urals (Mayak). Each plutonium factory spawned exclusive, prosperous, child-centered cities for working-class plant operators who lived and were paid like their professional class managers. I argue that these ‘plutopias’ were the key to figuring out why tens of thousands of people witnessed, but said nothing, about the daily, intentional releases of hundreds of millions of curies of radiation into their surrounding landscapes. Plutopia, in short, purchased compliant and silent workers, people who willingly traded in their political and biological rights for consumer rights and financial security.

What initially drew you to your topic?

Once the Chernobyl Zone opened to tourists in 2004, I went to take a look and wrote an article about it. An editor contacted me and asked me to write a book on Chernobyl, but looking into it, I realized that Chernobyl was not, as is commonly believed, the worst nuclear disaster in history. The world’s first two plutonium plants each issued at least twice as many radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment as Chernobyl. I thought it was curious that these two plutonium disasters were so little known.

A nuclear family in Ozersk in the early fifties.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

I had the problem of having both too much archival information—in the form of tens of thousands of documents about often arcane technical details—and too little information about health effects and community surveillance. I was not able to enter the still-closed Russian nuclear city of Ozersk where the factory’s archive is located, but I could work in the city’s Communist Party archive in Chelyabinsk. What I found interesting in writing this tandem project is that bodies of knowledge about which I could find little in one city, existed in greater abundance in archives for the other city. The Communist Party authorities, for example, in Ozersk were intensely interested in the private lives of their citizens and they discussed at party meetings the connection between alcohol abuse or adultery and a worker’s fitness for plutonium production. That led me to ask questions in the American context about the connections between behavior, security clearances, and job performance among people I interviewed and to scan newspaper editorials for conversations in this vein. In short, questions inspired by the Russian documents, greatly informed my search for sources in the American context and vice versa.

What was the most difficult part of conducting interviews for a topic this sensitive? What advice do you have for scholars doing oral research, particularly those facing cultural divides in transnational topics?

I had trouble getting Russians and Americans, who for decades had signed nuclear security oaths, to trust me. Many Russians heard my American accent and left the interview. Some Americans who learned I was from “back East” and was also writing about “the Soviets,” also refused to talk to me. Those who stayed and spoke most openly were usually people who were angry and had a reason they wanted their story told. My history is biased that way and I found it necessary to describe in Plutopia the context for the interviews and a bit about my interview partners so that the reader could grasp these subjective conditions.

A parade in Richland.

A parade in Camp Hanford in the mid-forties, courtesy of the Department of Energy.

What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found while doing research?

I experienced many chilling moments while researching this book. Richland had a warehouse of frozen human organs, and while cleaning up Hanford, they had to dispose of a room full of soiled baby diapers. In Russia, I was amazed to find how Gulag prisoners, whom we long considered to be a beaten-down and docile labor force, made plutonium production unruly, unpredictable, and dangerous. But the most surprising realization I came to was how calmly and confidently researchers working for the Atomic Energy Commission carried out bad science when it came to figuring out the effects of millions of curies of radioactive isotopes in environments and human bodies.

Was it difficult integrating labor history, urban history, environmental history, and policy history into a larger transnational framework? Do you think the futures of these types of histories are in more integrated scholarship?

Yes, it was difficult to integrate labor, urban, cultural and environmental history with the history of science and medicine, and to do so in the context of two national histories. I worried initially that I was missing a lot, making major mistakes in this or that historical subfield, and that generally I was trespassing where I did not belong.

And then I stopped worrying about it. I have long believed that histories written to define or protect professional expertise manage only to distance historians from their audience, but in researching Plutopia, I was also was well aware that the compartmentalization of knowledge into discrete fields caused many of the environmental and health problems at both plants. Dividing, for example, production areas by security classification insured that workers only knew their small part of the bomb-making process and did not get a picture of the larger ecological disaster that was playing out. Spatially dividing permanent employees, who lived in plutopia, from “low level,” migrant workers, who lived outside, and then giving the dirtiest jobs to migrant workers made it look like plutonium production offered no health problems. That was a mirage, but a useful one. Separating science into discrete fields—ecology, biology, medicine, and further subdividing those fields—blocked scientists from seeing how radioactive isotopes moved through ecologies and into food chains to bombard organs and damage human health. In my history, I didn’t want to reproduce similar artificial subdivisions and miss telling the larger story of what life was like in the shadow of plutonium.

Your book mentions the ongoing legacies of Plutopia. Do you think historians and scholars should speak more directly to present political and cultural concerns?

We are always speaking to contemporary political and cultural concerns in our histories. I try to be reflective about those interests and my personal stake in them in the body (as opposed to the preface or acknowledgements) of the histories I write. In the course of writing this book, I came to know people who suffered from a host of health problems. Doctors and medical experts told them their health problems were not related to the plant, but I believed them in part because in trooping around the Russian Urals and eastern Washington I heard the same list of symptoms among downwind and downriver Russian and American farmers. Unlike plant operators, monitored on the job, the farmers did not have a written record of their exposure. They offered to me instead their damaged bodies as evidence. Increasingly, as I wrote, I aimed to give their discredited voices legitimacy. My recent book, Dispatches from Dystopia, addresses the question of how being there, in place and in the text, is an important and often overlooked feature of history writing.

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