Oh Utopia, Where Are You?

„The weather is fine. Everything is blossoming. We are looking forward to our Mayday and Victory day celebrations. Victory day is the most important holiday. But the foremost thing is peace.” These sentences evoke words, sounds, and melodies from the Soviet 1980s, but they are really from the Polissya region in Northwestern Ukraine, April 2014, and Svitlana is writing an e-mail to me. She is a former teacher who is now working as a public relations officer at Rivne NPP (Nuclear Power Plant) in Western Ukraine, in the Atomic city of Kuznetsovsk. The city, on the river Styr, is made of 1970s-style white concrete panel apartment blocks, filled with green space and blossoming cherry trees, and a place with many children—Kuznetsovsk is one of the few growing industrial cities in Ukraine. It was founded in 1973, its citizens come from all over the former Soviet Union, and many of the male, single migrants of the 1970s and 80s got married to local Western Ukrainian women.

The city is bi-lingual: people switch freely between Ukrainian and Russian in private conversation, while shopping, or in the streets, and so do nuclear operators at work. Kuznetsovtsi connect a strong Polissian regional identity to a specific technocratic urban self-image. They love to call their city atomograd. “The nuclear power station gives us food and home,” they say. They tell stories of local development thanks to nuclear technology, which encompasses not only the city, but the surrounding countryside as well. Social outreach and schooling programs in the 30 km perimeter around the plant are financed be the State Energy Company. Kuznetsovtsi celebrate Western Ukrainian Easter rituals as ardently and eagerly as Mayday and Soviet Victory Day on May 9, or their professional holiday “Energy worker’s day” (Den’ Energetika), on December 22. In these days of Ukrainian crisis, when pro-Russian separatists are roaming the East, beating up opponents, taking hostages, and killing local politicians, these post-Soviet people display Ukrainian state-nation unity in Soviet terminology: “We do not accept to have our collective be split up along national lines”; “If our stantsiia [the nuclear plant] is in danger, we will all stand like one man defending it.”

“The weather is fine, we are looking forward to Mayday and Victory day”—these might have also been words from Prypiat, Chernobyl’s industrial town, a few days before the disaster at the plant’s unit four in 1986, which put an end to 16-year-old Prypiat, and to the lives of many of its inhabitants, and then to the thousands of “liquidators,” soldiers, technical specialists, and volunteers. Prypiat and Kuznetsovsk—situated about 250 miles one from another—are urban twins with different fates. Prypiat ended in disaster, Kuznetsovsk is living the Soviet utopian dream in Ukrainian disguise to the very present. Living with and living from the atom was a dream of affluence, upward social mobility through education, local development, and mutual understanding. This dream is still going on in the Rivne region. Living with and living from the atom was also a nightmare of falling victim to irradiation, of human hubris rendering tens of thousands of square miles of forests, rivers, swamps, pastures, and villages hostile to human and non-human beings. This is going on as well.

Both narratives and experiences, nuclear utopia and dystopia, have forerunners in the 1940s and 1950s, when the atom—in an inversion of the Soviet atoms for peace propaganda—was not yet a worker, but a soldier. This earlier story has been masterly told by Kate Brown in her book on global Plutopia, which focuses on the first two sites of weapons-grade plutonium production, Hanford in East Washington, with its nuclear working class city of Richland, which dreamt a state-subsidized middle class dream, and Maiak in the Southern Urals, with Ozersk, a top secret city of experts, workers, and forced laborers, which then only appeared under the post office box code “Cheliabinsk-40”.

Plutopia, as Kate shows us, was an American-Soviet project, connecting the fates of people across the ocean, though they may not have been aware of each other’s shared experiences. It was powered by the post-WW II arms race and mutual intelligence efforts, as much as by intrinsic structural similarities of the two super-states. Stalinist Soviets and McCarthyite Americans had much in common, with McCarthyite America facing, and even discussing, the immanent logical contradictions between anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-utopian propaganda, on the one hand, and a quasi-socialist Big Brother governance, on the other hand, operating in the nuclear industrial cities of the Columbia basin. Some contemporaries recognized the parallels between the New Deal and Socialism, comparing the Tennessee Valley Authority to Dneprostroi. There were even fears that America might be on a dangerous path to “fascism” in light of the techno-political regime staged in Hanford by the federal government.

Kate stresses the astonishing structural similarities between the state/corporate new American frontier society of total thought, labor, and body control in Richland, governed by the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and such private corporations as DuPont and General Electric, and the Urals tsardom of nuclear corvée which was run by Soviet Tchekists such as Beria, congenial Big Science organizers such as Igor Kurchatov, and connected semi-civilian, semi-military structures such as Minsredmash and its predecessor structures. These similarities encompassed almost every aspect of running the Cold War nuclear industry. It especially included technology. The Soviets, relying on excellent intelligence and fellow traveler physicists’ volunteering information, took US blueprints as a model for plutonium production reactors and radiochemical processing plants. And it eventually included appallingly similar histories of environmental disaster and colonial history. The primitive nuclear technology of the 1940s through the 1960s operated under constant threats and pressure from above for lagging behind production schedules, and produced a horrible legacy of “normal effluents” and “normal accidents” with subsequent radionuclide pollution that can be traced hundreds of miles away and even surpasses the readings of the Chernobyl zone.

What is even more striking is that both regions, both urban structures exhibited socio-spacial zoning, a compartimentalization of space according to sliding social hierarchies. Core staffs were a caste of racially and ethnically profiled, privileged nuclear workers with the right to live their lives as nuclear families—white Americans on the one side, “white” (no Tatar, Bashkir, Jewish, or German) Soviet Russians on the other. These elite residents bargained for and gained social security and middle class affluence in exchange for accepting health hazards, spatial isolation from their kin, and political disenfranchisement, the latter lasting until perestroika in Soviet Russia and the 1960s in the U.S. The systemic costs and risks of these nuclear projects have been born to the present by the downstream indigenous populations or ethnic minorities toiling in low-level jobs on the nuclear sites: Indian, African and Mexican Americans, Bashkir and Tatar, but also Russian villagers.

But there are stark differences to be noticed as well. Whereas convict labor played a significant role on the US site only in the early phase of the Manhattan project, Gulag labor, the subaltern labor of ex-convicts, and quasi-convict soldier’s labor became the social cornerstone and stigma of the pioneering years of Hanford and Maiak through the mid-1950s. This implied, as Kate impressively shows, no Socialist rectangular barrack order, but rather dirt, stink, illness, and anomie in the camps, worker’s dorms and drunk tanks, a survival-of-the-rogue Gulag warlord capitalism, which, as many Russian sociologists state, is the direct socio-genetic predecessor to post-Soviet oligarchic capitalism. Archaic violent entrepreneurship (whether state-controlled or self-organized) was, like primeval forms of human labor, the mainstay of nuclear newbuild, which emerged from virtually nothing in the Russian forests and swamps. Primitive labor was similarly at hand for “liquidating” nuclear accidents and nuclear everyday waste, which of course did not mean liquidation, but rather the displacement of radionuclides to other places and the redistribution of risk, with the most risk imposed on the least wealthy and privileged population, down to the children and not yet born (and often: still-born) next generations.

After Chernobyl, the main line of defense for the Western nuclear industry was the systemic question, which was in a bizarre way injected with cultural prejudice, and non-verified semi-truths on nuclear technology, which reflected more on Western perceptions of the Soviet bloc than the West’s ability for thorough analysis of the Soviet nuclear sector. Western officials and corporate representatives then argued that Western nuclear technology was safe, since it was not comparable to Soviet technology; that the damaged reactor was designed not only for electrical generating, but for weapons-grade plutonium production; and that technologically it was a child of the antediluvian Maiak reactors, which made it appear all the more evil. This was untrue in a double way, since, firstly, the history of nuclear energy is a transnational, entangled history, as Kate has impressively shown in her book. Secondly, the argument was spurious due to bare technological facts as well. Industrial RBMK (graphite-moderated, pressure-tube boiling water reactor) reactors, such as the unit in Chernobyl, though similar to early Soviet reactors in their modular design, have never been operated as dual-use reactors (and are not to this very day). This was due to a couple of technological reasons related to the specific needs of generating nuclear power (e.g. load management, fuel burn-up). Moreover, Western countries and the Soviet Union of course used similar technologies, be it uranium-graphite reactors for plutonium production, or pressurized water reactors for generating electric power. The latter, “Western” (pressurized water reactor) design had outscored the national Soviet Russian RBMK (which had in fact American grandparents) already before Chernobyl, and Soviet VVER (pressurized water reactor) technology possessed some safety characteristics which, in the eyes of “Western” experts, renders it in some respects superior to “Western” designs.

The main post-Chernobyl argument, however, was that Western democracy would catch safety flaws such as those that occurred in the Soviet Union. It is an achievement of Kate’s book to point out, based on transnational evidence, that this was true and untrue in the same way. She proves that inhibitions against knowledge transfer, secrecy, segregated labor, and thought policing—in one word, zoning off nuclear technology from civil society and exempting it from democratic control—is incompatible with the requirements of nuclear safety and human rights. Her argument could even, but does not, refer to Robert Jungk’s critique of the “Nuclear State” (Der Atomstaat, 1977), which represents in a way the inverse argument, thus making the critique central to past West German controversies on nuclear power. Kate Brown shows us how military nuclear technology enhances totalitarian characteristics which are already in the place in a political system. According to Robert Jungk, however, it is the very technology that leads to dystopia. He expresses concern towards the decline of democratic institutions in states operating the full nuclear fuel cycle—the “plutonium economy”, as it reads in the German discussion—since non-proliferation, security from terrorist attacks, and counter-espionage require extremely strict security regulations and workforce security clearance to an extent that transforms workers from citizens into modern slaves, and nuclear societies to semi-democracies, where specific industry sectors are fenced off and exempted from democratic regulation.

However, Kate’s argument also shows that this is the very point that makes the history of the civilian nuclear sector, including the Soviet civilian nuclear city, a more complicated case, and it is for this reason that I mentioned it in the beginning of my discussion. Kate argues from a scholarly and at the same time warm-hearted, emphatic, and I would estimate, rather anti-nuclear activist standpoint. She draws a direct line from Maiak and Hanford to Chernobyl, TMI, and Fukushima, as Robert Jungk would have done as well. However, this is the point where I would like to object in some respects. In doing this, I am arguing from the position of, say, a skeptic pro-nuclear (in the spirit of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) historian of technology, who has discovered her gradual alienation from her own years-long radical anti-nuclear activism in the 1980s and 1990s.

Nuclear power generation in the West and the East was, in a way, a public project. At first, the point was making the atom acceptable to the public (the atoms for peace era), and discovering it as an apparent solution in the quest for “white,” clean energy. Subsequently, when the post-Hiroshima fear of the nuclear Armageddon gave way to grass roots mobilization and critique against civil nuclear installations, the technology as such became the subject of societal controversy. At the same time, it was subjected to a gradually increasing democratic control, to alternative surveillance through NGOs and, first of all, to inspection through supervisors and regulators, who were slowly, but constantly emancipating themselves from corporate and military influence. Similarly important was the growing acceptance of NGO expertise as an equal opponent (and not as incompetent). This is well documented for the (West) German and the US case since the 1970s, and an ongoing, or just emerging process in France, and the post-Soviet space. This complex process remains under-researched, and transnational or comparative research in a post-Soviet/Western perspective is almost completely lacking. This is why Kate’s book represents a great incentive for me and my personal research interests as did Gabrielle Hecht’s great book on the “techno-political regime” of nuclear technology and its relevance for the transformation of national identity in 20th century France (The Radiance of France, 1998).

What we can carefully conclude from the evidence we have at hand is the skeptical-optimist hypothesis that there is an impact of democratization on nuclear technology, and that this is a dialectic process, in which disaster experience—nuclear dystopia rather than utopia and plutopia—plays an eminent role. It is precisely in this process that Charles Perrow’s apodictic work “Normal accidents” powered the discussion on tightly coupled man-machine relations in highly complex technological settings such as industrial-scale nuclear or chemical installations. Perrow’s and others’ work eventually led to the transformation of visual design and ergonomy in control rooms, and to new types and logics of operational instructions in nuclear power plants. So, at this point I would disagree with Kate, who connects Perrow’s 1980s approach to the failure and disaster experience in early Hanford and early Maiak. There, I would argue from the technological perspective that the cause of “normal accidents” can be traced not to complex, but rather to insufficiently complex systems and relationships: reactors reduced to the very simplest systems, constructed in haste, using rivers as parts of their primary circuit, losing roofs in storms; radiochemistry processing carried out with buckets and rubber gloves; spilled radioactive solutions being cleaned up with scrubbing-brushes and rags, without special clothing. This was rather the antithesis to highly complex, intermediate man-machine relations. Reactor work in the 1940s was not alienated work, but solid handwork. Remote control, manifold redundant and diversified safety equipment, backup systems, and digitized I & C—all the developments which made reactor technology as complex as it is today, and providing the further potential sources of failure that Perrow was discussing in the early 1980s, were still ahead.

Accordingly, the sources of an operator’s mistakes in the pioneering days of nuclear technology were very different from the mistakes Perrow described. Nuclear installations of the 1940s failed not due to control room operators’ misinterpretation of 3,000 signals within three minutes, but due to fuel elements and conducts cracking, pipes leaking, pumps breaking, and waste storage tanks exploding. The lion’s share of reactor work then was dirty blue-collar plumbing work right on the highly radioactive site, with brachial methods of cutting off highly radioactive debris of damaged fuel rods. In today’s nuclear power plants, such as Rivne, only the most seasoned generation of engineers in their 60s still know people who have done such work a generation before. The Russian work griazno, dirty, for radioactive contamination (rather than the German and English notions heiß, hot) meets such working conditions best. Nuclear work in the pioneer era was Manchester, with the same instruments as in Manchester, and not Three Mile Island. Chernobyl, however, recalled both: the accident was produced by highly complex and mismanaged man-machine relations, but the cleanup was conducted with the dirty, manual methods of the nuclear pioneer era.

Nuclear technology developed, too, as the result of extremely antagonistic interest groups bargaining for their stakes. Eventually, this process left a significant footprint on Western and Russian/Ukrainian industrial reactor design, on transnational knowledge transfers in nuclear technology, and on nuclear safety and security cultures, even in societies where experts are not used to or are but step-to-step learning to speak with the public in an understandable language. In a way, the slogan of “lessons learned” (from TMI, Chernobyl, or Fukushima) is not as hollow and lobbyist as it may seem to activists. Kate’s very question is whether lessons have been learned from Hanford and Maiak as well, since they are not “household words,” and knowledge about them is still classified or partly de-classified, and since Maiak is in full operation to the very present. It is, by the way, representing the invisible “tail” of Rivne’s success history as well, since spent nuclear fuel from Ukraine is still shipped back to and reprocessed in Russia. All that makes the historicization of Maiak so complicated a task, and this makes Kate’s book so unique an achievement. When I stayed in Kuznetsovsk, I lived in a cosy, typical Soviet apartment with my kitchen window looking on six giant cooling towers. For several weeks I embarked upon a participant observer program at the NPP, spending holidays and workdays with the people where they live and work. Kate’s research conditions were much worse, since she had to stay in a cottage outside Ozersk’s perimeter and her respondents were contacted through third parties and came to her for a meeting, which often produces awkwardness and reluctance to speak freely. So I profited from the very fact that an NPP is a civil, commercial, but not a military installation. It has its secrets, of course, which were not revealed to me as a foreigner. But I was able to meet the people where they are, at home and at work, and I was astonished and excited to see how overtly nuclear operators engaged in talking history during work situations in the main control room, or on routine walks, which I took with them. I met people who, generally speaking, connect a story of personal success, “nuclear” and “extended family” life (since there is already the third generation growing in Kuznetsovsk) to their native nuclear installation. It is people telling the stories of Prypiat before utopia turned into disaster. Kate Brown had people telling many stories of everyday disaster, though many assured her that they do not want to conceive it as a story of defeat and lamentation: they recall life in Ozersk as youthful and in vivid and sunny colors.

So, when finally comparing Ozersk to Prypiat and Kuznetsovsk, I would argue, that in the Soviet Union, it was really the civilian Atomograd of the 1970s and 1980s that embodied the Soviet urban and technological utopia which Kate describes as the never-achieved goal of the secret plutonium city. So, perhaps, the title, Plutopia, is sexy, but misleading, since the focus of Kate’s book is on suffering and on tremendous radioactive pollution, from everyday effluents to nuclear “belch” as in 1957. The atom-rabotnik city had much in common with its atom-soldat predecessor model (though that relates rather to Ozersk after its rude and rogue pioneer years), first of all through their common historic subjection to Minsredmash structures, and the self-awareness of a young, prosperous, privileged city populated by the technical intelligentsia. However, the two models were different in many other ways, since the atom-rabotnik city was public, a propaganda asset, an open city with its own name, which had regular public transport connections to the big cities such as Kiev, Rivne and Lviv. Moreover, it was not fenced off, but had functioning links between the city and its hinterland, between locals in the surrounding countryside and their kin, technicians and engineers of the first generation, who made their careers inside the city. The civilian atomograd was centered around a “regime object” where workers had undergone security clearance and were subject to KGB surveillance and often, KGB harassment. But the city was a non-zoned area, operated and constructed by “free” (in Soviet terms), often migrant labor, and it gave upward mobility to former marginalized populations, and, though limited, it allowed for participation of indigenous people. This does not mean that there was no social differentiation between urban Russian-speaking white-collar and rural Ukrainophone blue-collar work, a cleavage which gradually vanished in the wake of Ukrainian independence.

Summarizing this socio-spatial setting, I would argue that, if there is any nuclear urban utopia left cum grano salis Plutopiae, this is the place today. The workers and engineers in the post-Soviet atomograd—like their automotive-mobilized co-professionals in the civilian Atomstädtchen or nuclear towns and villages in the vicinities of Brokdorf, Grohnde, Indian Point, TMI, or Vogtle—are continuing to live their Contrat Social with the state or the energy company. This is the Old Deal of the already seven decades-old nuclear age: accepting personal hazards in exchange for consumerist prosperity and personal social security, as do other working and middle class people in other high-risk industries, which are embedded in gradually disintegrating welfare states.

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