Concluding thoughts on Plutopia

Thanks again Anna and Asif for your comments. I will try to answer some of your questions in this post. Referring to people who lived inside and outside Plutopia, Asif asks “how did people separate truth from fiction given the acute lack of knowledge and information?” That is the strange thing—the highly educated, well-paid residents of Plutopia were the last to recognize that there were fictions and an acute scarcity of knowledge and information about the plutonium plants behind the fence. The higher a man (invariably a man at the supervisor level) was in the hierarchy, the more likely he was to make statements at the time and later to me to the effect that there were no problems, that they had technical snafus basically solved, that public and worker health was not at risk—that they were not, as Anna puts it so well—in the most primitive stage of nuclear development. The incredible security and stability managers achieved in terms of consumption, finances and daily life translated into a sense of security vis a vis plutonium production. Low level, blue-collar workers and farmers living outside Plutopia, on the other hand, had fewer illusions. Their lives in general were less secure in terms of finances, housing, and health, and perhaps this made them susceptible to think in terms of danger on other levels. They told each other confidential stories in the coffee shop, spread those stories to others as rumor, engaged in a gallow’s humor, and as a consequence they understood a great deal more about the risks of plutonium production. I didn’t put it this way in Plutopia, but I speculate that the a person’s entitlement and status figured in an inverse relation to their knowledge and understanding of the extraordinary risks. That is why I worry just a bit when Anna compares the primitive nuclear technology of the forties and fifties to the superior Atomnograd technology starting in the seventies. Anna has been working with a similar class of confident and entitled nuclear technicians and engineers, and they might be under comparable illusions about the safety of their plants. Asif asks if the peculiar spatial practices, obsession with secrecy, tradeoffs on security, and disregard for environmental damage, extend from plutopia outwards toward the rest of Cold War society or were they already evident and were magnified in the plutonium territories. This too is a great question. Certainly, the manufacture of spatial zones for certain kinds of production and certain kinds of people was well underway in the US and USSR before plutonium was invented. Federal agencies by that time controlled large tracts of land, which was compartmentalized and commodified for easy, long-distance management. In the thirties, New Deal housing reforms created financial security maps that classified the security of issuing a loan in American urban territories by race and class. Soviet leaders at the same time created passport laws and policing practices that gave privileged access and supplies to residents of premier cities, while leaving villagers in rural spaces in a state a little better than indentured servants. These practices were in place in the thirties and the American and Soviet generals charged with building the plutonium plants drew on them. After these vast plants were in place, however, they became models for a new kind of spatial militarization of the landscape in the US and USSR. In the Soviet Union, the “post box” designation spread to nine other closed cities and hundreds of smaller towns, neighborhoods and institutes. New, civilian model cities, such as Zelenograd, dedicated to making electronics, or Pripyat created for nuclear plant workers near Chernobyl, took on the physical appearance of Ozersk, as well as its dedication to a singular technology, its spatial isolation and compartmentalization of interior spaces for security and secrecy. After the invention of the ZATO, the Soviet landscape became punctuated with closed buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and entire provinces–a vast overlay of the security state over the everyday state. In the US, the change was no less dramatic. From eastern Washington, senators and congressmen lobbied for funds to build “National Defense” highways around Hanford and Richland. These were broad, multi-lane arteries for quick evacuation in case of an emergency. Richland was perhaps America’s first small town gridded with five-lane arteries. The new mall in Richland made sense because the big buildings doubled as community shelters and the large parking lots as firewalls in case of an explosion. After the war, these ungainly spatial innovations—the artery and mall–became the norm in suburbs and inner cities throughout the country. Washington State politicians also lobbied for more and more dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers justifying the glut of electrical wattage (which no one needed at the time) in terms of national energy security. They also won federal funds for an expanding network of irrigation canals to feed new farms that unfortunately led right up to the cyclone fencing of the Hanford Plant. National food self-sufficiency served to rationalize this highly energy-intensive and inefficient way to grow food on what was becoming increasingly contaminated terrain. And then there is the postwar American suburb. Perhaps no architectural innovation has more altered the American landscape than the winding streets and numbing repetition of postwar, American tract housing. Richland, built in 1943-44 during the war, led too in creating the white, federally-subsidized, nuclear-family development that so sadly altered American cities in the second half of the twentieth century. Yes, Asif, I do mean to say that we all live in a form of plutopia, either on the inside or outside, and that is, along with the fact that our bodies are repositories of manmade radioactive isotopes, our nuclear legacy, so personalized and ordinary that it is hard to see. Anna is quite right that I spend too little time in Plutopia laying out the technical details of nuclear production. I was trying to keep the text relatively simple for non-specialist readers. I had an idea for a glossary, but in the editing stage I had to cut 30% of the original manuscript and there was no room for the extra pages a glossary would have required. Perhaps I can add one in a new edition. As far as archives go, I was led to believe that files related to the production of nuclear weapons (minsredmash) were in the closed Rosatom archive. I had no luck even getting officials at Rosatom to answer my letters requesting a visit. I should have followed up at the Ministry of Health because I found in the Cheliabinsk archive many clues about nuclear production in farm records and local government and party records of surrounding communities. I ran out of time, however, and room in the book for more material. The archivists in Cheliabinsk are real professionals. They are planning to put together a collection of documents related to the environmental history of the province, and there is much more to do on that topic. I think of Plutopia as just a first foray into a cultural-environmental-medical-political history of a territory. I hope other researchers will take advantage of this rich and vastly under-explored region and topic.

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