Plutopian Legacies


By Kim Foster

Dr. Kate Brown, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, gave a lecture on April 14 at Miami University, entitled “Soviet History and the Global Horizon,” which addressed the current state of Russian and post-Socialist studies and discussed the strange case of the parallel American and Soviet nuclear programs. The talk was based on her 2013 book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great  Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. The book and talk discussed the culture of the Cold War and how it contributed to the culture of secrecy that made devastating nuclear accidents commonplace in both the United States and the Soviet Union that “polluted the surrounding landscape freely, liberally, and disastrously” (3). The book follows the parallels between the plutonium production facilities in Richland, Washington and Ozersk, the Ural Mountains, in the Soviet Union, and the strange similarities they experienced.

Brown wrote her book using a combination of interviews with residents and workers at the plutonium plants in conjunction with careful analysis of government documents. The interviews added to human element to the story she told, and the government documents often backed up the sometimes hard-to-believe stories she was told. In presenting her information at the lecture, Brown spoke compellingly about the nuclear disasters, the cover-ups attempted, and the devastating human and environmental costs that plutonium production incurred. The effects of the environmental destruction reached far beyond the end of the Soviet Union, leaving Russia, widely considered the USSR’s successor state, to pick up the bill on an environmental disaster that could take generations to fix.

Brown is able to make the claim that the Soviet Union cannot be studied in isolation, as scholarship during the Cold War purported: the existence of the plutonium production factories at Ozersk, which were modeled on American plans, show societies and states in dialogue with each other. The Soviet program was heavily based upon the American facilities, leading to a striking similarity in the way in which the programs were run. The nuclear effects of the Soviet and American programs also refused to be contained: while it is only briefly mentioned, the Chernobyl disaster, which affected states outside of the Soviet Union, shows one way in which the USSR cannot be studied in a vacuum. The disasters also led to an international push for biological rights, namely, the right to live in an uncontaminated environment.

Brown raised the question of the wisdom of nuclear production, mostly on a war footing, but it also has bearing on the debate over sustainable energy. There seems to be no way to make nuclear energy “clean,” which would be subject to some degree of argument from the pro-nuclear power factions. However, her lecture raises questions about the responsibility of governments for environmental damage, the rights of those who are exposed to damaging nuclear radiation, and the question of how much risk is too much? While these questions are open to debate, Brown makes it clear that the actions undertaken by the United States and the Soviet Union cross from the acceptable to unacceptable, damaging environments and the people who live there to an unjustifiable degree.

Kim Foster is a senior history major at Miami.

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