Second World Socialism

My thanks to Asif Siddiqi and Anna Veronika Wendland for their thoughtful reponses to Plutopia. I know both of these scholars and respect their work a great deal. They summarize many of my main points much more eloquently than I do in Plutopia. The two authors bring their own expertise to this topic, which surpasses mine in the fields of the history of science and technology. I really enjoyed reading their comments and I will try to respond to them here and in future posts.

Asif asked about the nature of the comparison, generally; and about whether in looking for parallels, I might not shun differences because they smack of Cold War era rhetoric. I have to admit that I wince at the word ‘comparative” to describe Plutopia. I describe it rather as a “tandem” history. I did not take up these two topics because they were in some way comparable (they are, I suppose, but so are many other pairs of cities). I put Richland and Ozersk together because people in these two towns were having a kind of long-distance conversation with one another over six decades. That is the interesting thing about wars. The two belligerent parties cannot easily talk to one another because of the war, but communication has to still go on, in order to carry out the war (and with it the development of technology) and in order to secure as many survivors as possible.

The people in Richland were intensely focused (as a matter of survival, but also their well-being) on plutonium production in the USSR and on the nature of socialism generally. They needed to know how many reactors and processing plants Soviet engineers had built at Maiak so they could match and better that number. They needed to know too that socialism limited freedoms, which for them were also restricted, and that Soviets’ consumption was limited as they demanded more consumer rights, in order to show, in part, that they were not, as some observers charged “socialist.” The same was true in Ozersk, where residents used to say that if you drilled a hole through the earth, you would end up in Richland. That is how I imagined the two cities as orbiting one another on the same axis, linked irretrievably by the arms race, by common technology shared via espionage, and by the legacy of contaminated territories.

I am careful in Plutopia not to actively compare Richland and Ozersk. I do not think you will find sentences such as “as in Richland, in Ozersk also…” Instead, I wrote short chapters in order to place the histories of the two cities together in tandem, juxtaposing the stories so that if a reader draws comparisons, that is their affair (and some reviewers, indeed, have read into Plutopia the affirmation that the USA was better at producing both plutonium and egalitarian societies). I adopted this approach in part because a more subtle version of comparative history occurs through many histories of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Hiding in the background, rarely overtly stated, but slipping through the cracks nonetheless, is a vast ongoing project of comparing (failed, repressive, limiting, uninspiring) East European socialism with the (successful, freedom-loving, fair, just and creative) capitalist West. The examination of the East-West/socialism-capitalism disparities did not end with the Cold War, but continues as a current in histories to this day. I thought it would be more interesting to bring this current to the surface and examine it in the open. To do so meant a lot of extra work. I had to take a long, serious, archival and historiographic look at the American record (rather than assuming an unproblematic and generalized “West”). When I did this, I found that the two super-powers in the Cold War naturally exchanged a lot of information and actively copied one another. They felt they had to mimic the rival in order to keep up.

That brings me to Asif’s point about secrecy and the ZATO’s derivation. He points out that many Soviet civilian institutions, such as factories, industrial facilities, even educational institutes had draconian regulations for secrecy. Indeed, Soviet officials created “regime zone” regulations for sites of military production in the mid thirties. Historians of the USSR, however, well know that regulations on the books only haltingly translated into practices on the ground. Lavrentii Beria encountered this problem in 1947 when he showed up at the plutonium plant construction site in the Urals. He had issued careful orders mandating a “regime zone” that called for the isolation of the construction site with fences and guard and the careful selection of civilian and Gulag workers employed on site. Beria found none of his instructions had been carried out. He returned to Moscow, renewed the construction site’s leadership and insisted on a radical plan for a new security regime. This plan called for a vastly new order magnitude. He decreed that the new site leaders take the plutonium plant off local maps, reroute train lines that passed alongside it, and encircle with fence and guards not just production areas, but residential and Gulag camps—in effect locking everyone in and issuing them passes (not just workers, but spouses, children, even babies) in order to be inside the zone. I could not find any similar regime zone in the USSR that fenced off residential areas as well as production areas before 1947. Not even in the Gulag did this kind of security exist. The Gulag, of course, locked people in, but we also know that the Gulag was a very porous institution with prisoners coming and going daily to jobsites, and with many ranks of prisoners living outside of the Gulag zones. At the same time, I saw in the records that Beria had intelligence about Los Alamos, where Army Corps generals had put up a fence around a large New Mexican plateau, and restricted the movement of scientists and their families to a pass system. At Los Alamos, even babies had passes on their diapers. Beria asked for more information, specifically about Los Alamos’ security arrangements. Beria had this intelligence when he ordered the radically new security system around Ozersk and then he made sure, on a second visit, that his decrees had been carried out.

Anna Veronika Wendland’s essay does a wonderful job characterizing the kind of labor in which nuclear workers engaged from the 1940s to the 1960s, and how that hands-on, “dirty” work became safer with improvements in technology and rationalizations of man-machine encounters in nuclear power plants in the 1980s. Anna Veronika should know. She trained for years in nuclear engineering in order to spend a couple of months as a participant-observer in the Rivne nuclear reactor in Ukraine. She writes that she started years ago in West Germany as an anti-nuclear activist, and much like anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, who carried out research as a participant observer at the Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, she came to have a new respect and appreciation for the work nuclear engineers do in their daily lives. Civilian power plants are “civilian,” she writes, open to the public and increasingly in the late 20th century subject to oversight from regulatory agencies and NGOs, which, Anna Veronika rightly points out, have gone a long way toward emancipation from military and corporate influence. She describes herself as a “pro-nuclear” historian, presenting nuclear power as a solution to climate change.

Yet, if this is so, why does the energy company pay for education and recreation near Rivne? What is behind that nuclear social contract? The concept of an “Atomstadt/atomgorod/nuclear village” is a term that migrated around the globe from Richland, where DuPont officials coined it. The “nuclear village,” as corny as the term sounds, traveled as far as Japan, where GE, a former Hanford contractor, set up the first Japanese version of Richland. Anna Veronika argues that the last remnants of the original blue-collar nuclear industry are these socio-spatial mini utopias created by power companies interested in insuring reliable workers living stable lives in subsidized, family-centered communities. These workers are willing to take on the risks of working in and living near volatile nuclear power plants. If this is just a remnant, an expensive one, of the old form of nuclear power, why does it remain in the “gradually disintegrating welfare state?” In our neo-liberal economy, are not good paying ‘clean’ jobs and cheap energy enough of an incentive?

I would answer this question as I did in Plutopia by pointing to the example of Fukushima where two major problems emerged in the wake of earthquake and tsunami. Setting aside the wincing thought of more reactors and more severe weather induced by climate change, Fukushima illustrated dramatically the one area of nuclear production that has not seen vaulting innovation in the past seven decades: that of waste management. The Fukushima plant had no place to store its nuclear waste, and since the plant was zoned “nuclear,” it kept the waste on site, right next to the reactor, magnifying the impact of the disaster and the levels of spilled man-made radioactive isotopes that will enter the earth’s biosphere before this continuing catastrophe is finally arrested. I focused on radioactive waste in Plutopia because plutonium plants produce so much of it. I document how, over the years, Soviet and American plant managers shifted funds from waste management to making plutopia nice with schools, recreation programs and better housing. Yet, since the 1990s when this trend changed and billions of taxpayer dollars have been funneled to Hanford for the superfund clean up, still little progress has been made in the technology of waste management. The Hanford clean up, as well, continued to suffer from Cold War-era problems including lack of government oversight, corporate corruption, design flaws, termination of whistleblowing employees, and worker safety problems.[1]

The second problem Anna Veronika does not address is that of accidents at power reactors. During emergencies, civilian nuclear power plants revert to military-style management. Because of this unfortunate pattern each nuclear disaster occurs as if it were mankind’s first. When, for example, the Fukushima reactors melted down, Tepco, the corporation that owned the reactors, denied it, as did Soviet leaders after Chernobyl, American leaders after Three Mile Island, and Soviet leaders again after the Kyshtym explosion in 1957. Denial of the disaster meant that local populations in Japan, as in the US and the USSR, did not receive iodine pills, their evacuation, which should have been immediate, was delayed, and Fukushima residents have been left to guess at the public health impact of the ongoing spillage of radioactive isotopes from the smoldering and leaking plant. In the aftermath, independent and NGO scientists have battled with corporate and government spokesmen over the health effects of the accident; the arguments causing a great deal of confusion and obfuscation in explaining a “threshold dose” (the fact that one doesn’t exist) and the emergence of significant spikes in children with thyroid disease and tumors. Because of the penchant and need for secrecy at a nuclear installation and the ability to transform a civilian site to a military one in a matter of minutes, we are left with the inability of corporate-government management to respond to a public disaster as something other than a military operation.

Both the incapacity to deal with emergencies and radioactive waste create situations where people near nuclear installations are left living in ruins, abandoned to their poor health, fertility problems, and children with congenital health problems. Those are risks I believe we as a global society should turn down.


[1] “U.S. GAO – Hanford Waste Treatment Plant: DOE Needs to Take Action to Resolve Technical and Management Challenges,” accessed May 10, 2013,; “Subcontractor Fraud, Hiding Docs: Paralegal: CH2M Hill Withheld Documents in Fraud Case | Hanford News |,” accessed December 8, 2013,; “Leak in Hanford Double-Shell Tank Getting Worse,”, accessed June 14, 2013,; “Head of Company Overseeing Leaking Nuclear Tanks at Hanford to Step down – U.S. News,” accessed May 30, 2013,; “Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous: Scientific American,” accessed May 10, 2013,

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