Atomic Cities, the Mirage of Safety, and the Word “Environment”: A Conversation with Kate Brown

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The grad students here at the Center for Culture, History and Environment are putting together a symposium this spring focusing on the idea of environmental vocabularies—the words and terms we use to explain and define our research. At the center of the symposium is a question that has been troubling many of us for a while—it’s this word environment, which is nominally exactly the thing that brings us together, but we’ve begun to wonder whether we might be talking past each other when we talk about environments. How useful was it, we wondered, to talk about environments? Is there a better word, or are there better terms?

We’re inviting proposals for our symposium organized around this question, but in the meantime, I called up our keynote speaker, Professor Kate Brown from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, to put this question to her: How useful is it, in her own research, to talk about environments?

Listen to our conversation below. A lightly edited transcript follows. 

Our conversation started pretty broadly, with me asking about how she got involved in her most recent book project, called Plutopia: Atomic Cities, Nuclear Families, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.

Kate Brown: Well I was struck by the comments of residents who lived in these two towns that made plutonium, one was Richland in Washington State and the other was Ozorsk in the Russian Urals, and people in both of these towns spoke about how much they loved growing up in these plutonium cities because they were so safe and secure. And, that really amazed me, the idea of security living next to factories that made mankind’s most dangerous product. You know, it wasn’t just that, they were next to a plant that was central to the enemy’s target maps for nuclear annihilation. And to me their idea of security in living next to these places was wildly out of sync with reality. And I wondered how these really intelligent people living in these plutonium cities [were] taken in by state rhetoric that promised them security, when it would have been betterif someone was really worried about their safetyto take themselves and their kids and move anywhere else.

So I started looking for that word, security—in Russian it’s bezopastnostand what I found was kind of amazing. It was an abundance of references to safety. Of course there are sort of vague and misleading references to worker safety on the job, and the generic safety of the plants, but these were usually outright exaggerations—and I expected them. But, more often, I found that these guys who were in charge of building the world’s first plutonium plants were really obsessed with the safety of children going to schools, and the safety of the bus service, and consumer safety, and financial safety of their workers—and the people living in these towns had very similar concerns. And that’s when I really started to tune in and focus on this central idea of the book, Plutopia. In the creation of these sort of plutonium utopias, they created a mirage of safety for the nuclear family.

Kate Wersan: Did you encounter people speaking about their material environment and the landscapes they lived in in the same terms?

KB: So security for someone who grew up in one of these towns meant that you never had to lock your doors, that everybody in the town had been vetted, and so therefore every other citizen was a “good” citizen, was somebody who didn’t have a criminal record, somebody who was not politically suspectotherwise they would have never been allowed in the town in the first place. I mean, that’s a sign of how much they [the citizens of Ozorsk and Richland] were under surveillance, but they turned that into a benefit, a bonus, that “we all here are people who have made the grade. We’ve passed the security check.” And that sense of being chosen was extremely important for their sense of security.

But what’s eluded in all this discussion of security—and that’s what really amazed me—was that it somehow covers the big question of the safety and security of these nuclear plants, and of the daily, intended, doses of radiation that are issued as part of the daily operating order into the local streams, rivers, air streams, ground water, and soils. And that’s being gradually ingested by the people that live near these places. These questions of safety—these really important questions of people’s biological safety—are almost never raised. And so they were a community of people who were like-minded, who were dedicated to the same cause, who had the same rhythms of daily life, who lived in the same alphabet series of housing, and that was nice—that was comforting. And a lot of this was centered around the nuclear family.

This term, “nuclear family,” is an interesting one to explore.   I haven’t really gone back and tried to find the first time it was ever used, but I think it’s sometime in the 1920s or 30s, when people were thinking about splitting the atom. And so the nuclear family is supposed to imply, you know, this tightly knit that’s dedicated to raising really good, secure, confident, and creative citizens for a new democracy—where it’s a capitalist democracy or a socialist democracy. But, if you think about a nuclear family in a post-atomic age, that’s an unsettling term at the same time. A neutron can come in now and split open that nuclear core, and as the nuclear core is split open it releases a great deal of destructive and volatile energy. And so the nuclear family, as opposed to the sort of pre-war extended clan which served itself, it foraged on its own, it raised its own kids, the new nuclear family is highly dependent in a new, unstable, volatile, world. And so this nuclear family needs a strong defense, a highly endowed welfare state, and cradle to grave benefits, unlike the extended family before which could take care of itself in emergencies, could defend itself, could forage for itself. So you can see in this combination of a new kind of insecurity and a growing need and dependency, how citizens of Plutopia became strong supporters and defenders of their polity. I mean, they really were poster children for national loyalty and patriotism.

KW: I wonder if you could reflect on what this whole project makes you think about the terms environment or landscape, and whether there are words you’d like to add to a broader conversation, to augment, or refine in an environmental vocabulary—words you would like to add or words you would like to ask us to be more precise about.

KB: I think “environment” is a broad encompassing word, and I think people don’t really live in “environments.” I think they live in spatially bounded zones that they might call a community, they might call their places, they might call their town. And I think partly because—and this is what environmentalists claim—partly because they don’t see their environment as the bigger connected web of an ecosystem that surrounds then, but [as] just their little place, then as long as their little place is OK, than they’re OK, right? So Richland was very much defined as Richland. It was defined against the neighboring communities of people who now call themselves Downwinders, people who live downwind from the plant, downstream from the plant, people who were not protected by the same consumer safeties, their food was not shipped in from other places, their milk wasn’t checked, their ground and air was not monitored on a daily basis. So there was a sense that “my place is safe.” And I guess that that is what I try to do in my work, is to get historians to focus more on place and geographies, local geographies, and their subject’s sense of their geographies, than we often do. I mean, so many histories that we read—certainly not environmental histories but there are other kinds of histories—occur as if they are almost devoid of all place, people are sort of swimming without local geographies around them.

KW: So there you have it: I took our question about how useful the term “environment” was to historian Kate Brown and she said, in her work, she preferred to focus on other words—words like place, identity, and ecosystem.

But of course we’re not really done with this question, and Kate Brown, as our keynote speaker, isn’t really done helping us think through it. In the meantime, we’re asking grad students from across the disciplines and from all over the region to send in proposals to the CHE grad symposium  in order to help us build what we’re calling a “new vocabulary for the environmental past, present, and future.”

What we want to know is this: in your own work, what are the concepts or keywords that help you give shape to the concept of environment? Thanks for listening and we look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Featured Image: Crop of the
Plutopia book cover. For more information about Plutopia, visit

Dr. Kate Brown is a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow and Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In addition to Plutopia, Dr. Brown has published Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2015) and A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (2004). She is currently writing an essay collection called Being There, which she describes on her website as “the hapless adventures of an historian trying to recover the lost histories of modernist wastelands.”

Kate Wersan is a PhD candidate in the History Department at UW-Madison and a CHE Graduate Affiliate.


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