Of all the stops on the nuclear weapons assembly line, plutonium is the dirtiest. Each kilogram of final product generates hundreds of thousand of gallons of radioactive waste.
— Kate Brown, "Plutopia"
Just three days after Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb attack in history, an American B-29 dropped a second nuclear device on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, incinerating a large area of the city and evenutally killing an estimated 80,000 people.
If there is such a thing, the bombing of Nagasaki was a tragedy of errors. The original target of the second atomic bomb was the arms manufacturing city of Kokura, but bad weather and mechanical failure saved Kokura and, rather than dropping the $2 billion bomb into the ocean, the B-29 “Bockscar” flew onto and destroyed its secondary target, Nagasaki. That bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was the first plutonium weapon in history, made from material produced at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.
Richland in Washington and, later, Ozersk, Russia, were the first two cities established to support plutonium production, to power the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals at the nearby nuclear plants at Hanford and at Maiak.
In her groundbreaking new book on these two cities, "Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters" (Oxford), historian Professor Kate Brown traces the parallel history of these cities based on her extensive study of official documents, other archival materials and dozens of interviews with affected citizens in both the United States and Russia. "Plutopia" tells the story of the plutonium plants and the experience of plant workers and citizens in the immediate area of the plants.
To produce the volatile and extremely dangerous plutonium and contain information about the process, both the Soviet and US governments created what Brown labels “Plutopias” — highly subsidized, limited-access atomic cities with privileged and content nuclear families that were provided generous salaries, first-rate education and health care, and many other amenities of modern life. But, as Professor Brown describes, many workers and others in the vicinity of the plants did not reap the benefits of these havens but were exposed to the plants’ hazards. These transitory workers worked many of the most dangerous jobs and helped keep the myth of safe nuclear production alive.
Richland promised to deliver the American dream and became part of the largest national welfare program in American history, and Ozersk seemed a realization of a Soviet socialist utopia, but both cities concealed “slow motion disasters” that still threaten the environments where the plants are located.
According to Professor Brown, the plants at Hanford and Maiak in four decades both released more than 200 curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment — twice the amount expelled in the Chernobyl disaster in each instance. And, as Brown has stressed, a cup of the high-level radioactive waste stored at plutonium plants could kill everyone in a large ballroom — a frightening prospect as current tests reveal leaks of double-walled nuclear waste tanks into the soil of Hanford.
Most of the toxic releases over the years at Hanford and Maiak were part of normal operating procedure. In other words, most of the releases were intentional. Accidents occurred and plant management covered up knowledge of them as the pollution continued unabated. As threats from this pollution to health and the environment persist, Brown contends, the government and its contractors keep knowledge of the dangers from the public.
Brown spoke at Town Hall and the University of Washington in Seattle in late spring on her provocative new book.
She is an associate professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She also wrote "A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland" (Harvard 2004), which won several prizes including the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for the Best Book in International European History, and she has published articles in many periodicals. She earned her doctorate in history at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is currently at work on a collection of essays called Being There, which explores place and the construction of space as a springboard for histories of communities and territories that have been silenced or destroyed.
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