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Seminar: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 3:30 p.m.

Lethal Landscapes: the Soviet-American history of plutonium, radiation and the communities that learned to love and then fight over the bomb
Dr. Kate Brown
University of Maryland Baltimore County

In 1944, brigades of construction workers, soldiers and prisoners transformed Richland, Washington from a ranch town to an ‘operators’ village’ exclusively reserved for workers at the new Hanford Engineering Works, a vast, ambling complex behind cyclone fencing that produced plutonium for the Manhattan Project. A few years later, inspired by Hanford, soldiers, prisoners and construction workers broke ground on another special city dedicated to plutonium workers. This one located in the thick, marshy forests of the southern Russian Urals. Both cities, Richland and Cheliabinsk-40*, existed to secure the secrets of plutonium. To keep the plutonium safe, plant employees were carefully-screened and closely-watched in isolated communities in remote locations. To keep the plutonium workers, engineers and scientists happy in these provincial locations, industrial leaders rewarded them handsomely and invested generously in the plutonium communities.

In short, it took a village (really a small city) to produce the few kilograms of plutonium necessary for a nuclear bomb. The cities existed for four decades in relative obscurity (Richland) or outright secrecy (Cheliabinsk-40). Chernobyl changed all that. When reactor number four blew in April 1986, it gave a pulse to anti-nuclear groups that had long demanded to know what went on behind the cyclone fencing of military nuclear installations. As American and Soviet documents were de-classified, the public learned that the plants had dumped, each day, tens of thousands of curies of radiation into rivers, air and soil. As the days had accumulated into decades, the total of spilled curies mounted into the millions and then hundreds of millions.

Since Chernobyl, the public memory of the plutonium cities has existed in a vortex of controversy. Commentators, residents, and activists characterize the plutonium cities variously—as radioactive and dangerous, or as safe and wholesome, “a great place to grow up.” People in towns surrounding the plutonium cities filed lawsuits for damage from what they charged were radiation-related health problems. Meanwhile, many residents in the cities fought against acknowledging a connection between the plutonium plants and local health problems.

Brown argues that the contentious legacy of the plutonium cities derive from the fact that the cities were built as model modern communities with novel new security regimes. Meanwhile radiation was also a modern contaminant--undetectable without sensitive equipment and the source of illness only after long latency periods. In short, the incongruity of the comfortable and thriving plutonium cities against an invisible, radioactive geography enabled the tragedy of massive environmental contamination, enabled too the personal tragedies of contaminated bodies to go unnoticed and unheeded for decades and remain controversial to this day.

Location: Physics Bldg., room 401