A talk drawing from the extraordinary stories of the American- and Soviet-created “plutopias” will be the focus of the annual Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture in Environmental History on Monday, Oct. 29.
Presented by York University’s Department of History, the lecture “Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters” takes place at 3 p.m. in the Schulich Private Dining Room.
This year’s lecture will be delivered by Professor Kate Brown from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Brown is the author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, 2013), which won seven prizes, including the Dunning and Beveridge prizes from the American Historical Association. Brown’s A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard, 2004) was awarded the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for the Best Book in International European History. Brown’s most recent book, Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten, was published in 2015. She will publish A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future with Norton in 2019.
Brown’s lecture will draw upon official records and dozens of interviews to tell the 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, equalling four Chernobyls, and laying waste to hundreds of square miles and contaminating rivers, fields, forests and food supplies. Because of the decades of secrecy, downwind and downriver neighbours 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.
All are welcome to attend.