Additional thoughts on Plutopia

Thank you Kate, for your reply to my comment. Let me add only a few impressions. In most of the points I fully agree with you, especially on your argument that focuses on the history of the “dirty” aspects of the nuclear industry – waste (mis-)management – which reveals its real character. V printsipe, da. – But a few points I have to add, in order not to be misunderstood as a “‘pro-nuclear’ historian, presenting nuclear power as a solution to climate change.” I indeed would describe my own present political position as skeptically pro-nuclear with regard to climate change. In my research, however, this is not my program – since my research is not on the energy question in the age of climate discourses. So my political position may help me to understand nuclear engineers better than an anti-nuclear activist does, but it does not play the role Kate perhaps assumes. My book project reads “Atomogrady. Nuclear Cities between Utopia and Disaster,” so it is not only on Kuznetsovsk’s (or Desnogorsk’s, or Energodar’s, or Sosnovyi Bor’s) utopia and Soviet technical élite’s success, but, of course, on disaster – “civilian” disaster – since it is centered around the history of Prypiat and Chernobyl as well (though it is NO book on Chernobyl!).
 But what was intriguing to me was that even people from Prypiat, with disaster memories in mind, told me about Prypiat’s utopia. This was, still in the 1990s, the starting point of the very idea – only now to be realized – to write a history of the civilian atomograd. What was even more interesting for me to hear then – although it was mentally inaccessible to me as an anti-nuclear activist – was learning about people loving (even in an emotional sense) their job which I would have described as alienating and dangerous. Anyway, it was precisely this that raised my interest and brought me, simply speaking, to embark on learning what it is all about – working at a reactor and doing that in the Soviet system. This is how I discovered a very interesting aspect in nuclear man-machine relationships, which are not only governed by physical law, by the systemic characteristics of technical artifacts, by knowledge management, organization, ergonomics, and political frameworks, but also by – emotion.
 This is why the shock of Chernobyl was that deep for the nuclear élite. And this was why the former privileged atomshchiki perceived the contrat social between themselves and the Soviet state as disrupted. The state and the party retreated to a defense line as did the Western nuclear industry in developing the self-concept of a “democratic” industry with “Western” reactors opposed to the “totalitarian” industry with poorly designed reactors. The Soviet leaders, however, in trying to avoid the systemic question, retreated to the line of “kto vinovat?” (who is to blame?) and subsequently declared the operative personnel “vinovat,” which meant depriving people of their dignity who could not defend themselves – because they perished in the disaster, or those who had no means to defend themselves – since evidence was manipulated.
 So, the Chernobyl story, in the eyes of the atom people, was a story of defeat and, I would say, treason, and it marked the end of a techno-political love story: committed, working people doing wrong things, a prestige artifact running out of control, and the system bringing engineers to jail and disgrace and driving the elite out of paradise. Afterwards, during the systemic transition, the nuclear caste had the absolutely new experience of average people, parliaments, and NGOs interfering into what they perceived as “our business.” The Soviet atomshchiki, unwillingly, had to learn the techniques of addressing such challenges, as their Western colleagues did – the result is usually addressed as safety culture. But the Soviet nuclear élite never restored full trust in the state as it was before Chernobyl. Today, they are rather skeptical towards any state and political institutions, as I learned from many interviews and discussions.
 Recently, one 60-year-old Ukrainian nuclear engineer – who was trained in Tomsk – told me that atomshchiki of his generation still have a very ambiguous position regarding Beria. Knowing the horrors of the early “griaz” (dirt) in their industry, they, anyway, recall and respect Beria as the organizer of Kurchatov’s scientific success. However, Kurchatov’s favorite project was the “pervaia AES” of 1954, the first civilian power reactor in Obninsk, and the Soviet atoms for peace program, which enabled him to forbid Beria and the Gulag from haunting him, and which allowed the state and the nuclear elite to engage not in a plutopian, but simply in a utopian “civilian” nuclear social contract that was disrupted by Chernobyl. After the disaster, this highly emotionalized connection transformed into a more rationalized and de-emotionalized middle/working class social contract with state or corporate interest, which is typical for nuclear communities all over the world. Another point, or proposition, which I omitted in my previous post, because it seemed not that important to me to have it highlighted, but perhaps it would be a good idea when preparing of a second edition of “Plutopia”: Though this is a book centered around a highly complex scientific-technical setting, Kate leaves her readers somewhat alone with all this dosimetry, technical artifacts, physical and chemical processes. So I think it would be great to have a glossary at the end of the book, where the most important facts and physical units are explained in a popular way: Roentgen, Curie, Rad, Rem… (including an adjustment to present units – since most of them are given in the old Soviet Roentgen-based style, not in the modern Sievert based style (100 Roentgen = 1Sv). It would be additionally helpful to have some comparative information, e.g., on exposure limits for nuclear workers in the 1940s, 50s, 60s – which were appallingly high with comparison to the present 20 mSv/a, and some comparative data from Maiak, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, to give the reader a rough idea of what constituted a disaster in Hanford and Maiak in comparison to popular understandings of disaster. Of course it would be a great thing to have a principal explanation of reactor concepts and the process of plutonium extraction (I did that in a private e-mail lesson to Steve when he was proof-editing my first post). I think that would be a good idea in order to give the average reader a better idea on what made operating the early nuclear technology so horribly dangerous.

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