Notes on Kate Brown’s Plutopia

Kate Brown presents the first decisive account of the major plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union in “Plutopia : Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.”  Drawing on interpretation gleaned from government records as well as oral testimonies Brown tells an astounding story of two nuclear power towns, Ozersk, Russia and Richland, Washington. What unfolds is a complex history of how American and Soviet leaders created what Brown calls “plutopias”—ideal communities for nuclear families in exchange for their cooperation with state control over bodies.

The residents of these nuclears towns were gainfully employed with extensive health monitoring and enjoyed an elevated standard of living compared with locales outside of their plutopian boundaries. Brown’s study 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. For the “plutopians” it seemed as if they were willing to concede the health surveillance over their bodies in exchange for the commodified treasures of their toxic locales. Brown’s study emphasizes the questions inherent in such a trade off as it related to residents of Ozersk while juxtaposing the rights of “plutopians” in Richland, Washington:

“At this writing, Ozersk remains in a state of incarceration, fenced and guarded. I wondered about these choices. Why did residents of these plutonium cities choose to give up their civil and political rights? Soviet citizens had no electoral politics, no independent media, but the residents of Richland lived in a thriving democracy. Why did the famed checks and balances fail to the extent that a calamity surpassing Chernobyl occurred in America’s heartland?”[1]

It is through telling the story of Plutopia that Kate Brown’s shows how “risk, was calibrated along the lines of class and affluence.”[2] From this revelation readers are introduced to a history of nuclear energy and its attendant effects on landscape and society.  Brown’s text explores racial and class dimensions as well while commenting on the repressive political tactics that kept the class elements of society in place. All these elements enliven our understanding of the power of corporate and state control of energy sources and the people slated to live and be surveilled within its exclusive dominions.


[1] Kate Brown, Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).4

[2] Ibid, 7

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