Detail from book cover
Detail from book cover

Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities, with Kate Brown

Nov 1, 2017

Chernobyl is considered the greatest nuclear disaster of all time. But over decades America's Hanford plant and Russia's Mayak plant each issued almost four times the amount of radiation as Chernobyl. Historian Kate Brown explains that in the closed atomic cities serving these plutonium plants, "residents gave up their civil and biological rights for consumer rights." How does today's America mirror these segregated plutopias?

STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Stephanie Sy. Our guest today at the Carnegie Council is Kate Brown, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as well as the author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Kate is currently researching the long-term environmental and health impacts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Kate, welcome to the Carnegie Council. It is so nice to meet you.

I think the Chernobyl disaster is a good place to start because a lot of people believe that was the greatest nuclear disaster of all time. You started researching that, and that brought you to another nuclear disaster that nobody talks about.

KATE BROWN: That's right. I call them the great plutonium disasters. I was looking at Chernobyl, and I realized that the estimated amount of radiation spilled in Chernobyl was 50-to-100 million curies, and that is a lot. But there are these two other places where they made plutonium during the Cold War, the Hanford plutonium plant in Eastern Washington State and the Mayak plutonium plant in the Southern Russian Urals of what had been the Soviet Union. They each issued about the same number, 350 million curies, almost four times Chernobyl. I thought, That's so strange. Chernobyl is a household word. Since 2011, Fukushima has been a household word. But nobody has really heard of Mayak, or even Hanford, in this country. And I wondered why that was the case.

Of course, there is the obvious answer, which is that Chernobyl and Fukushima were both big accidents. They were really camera-ready events, and the stories were covered by the international news media, and nightly we watched the disasters unfold until the news cycle ended. With Hanford and Mayak, they were both military sites and were kept under lock and key for 40 years, secret places.

STEPHANIE SY: What time period was this?

KATE BROWN: In 1942 they broke ground on Hanford. In 1946 they broke ground on the Mayak plant.

STEPHANIE SY: They were producing plutonium in the early 1980s.

KATE BROWN: That's right, really up until Chernobyl.

As I looked into why these places were so unknown, the other thing I realized was that this colossal amount of radiation spilled, 350 million curies, there were some accidents, but most of that environmental degradation occurred as part of the normal working order.

STEPHANIE SY: Of just producing plutonium, processing plutonium?

KATE BROWN: Every day they would process plutonium. You take about a hundred tons of uranium, and you distill it down to a kilogram, softball-size, of plutonium. All the rest is waste, and that waste, they have dumped it into the rivers, up the smokestacks, into what they call "reverse wells," holes in the ground, trenches in the ground. They did with the waste, this high-tech, toxic waste, what humans have always done with their waste. That really floored me when I realized that these were disasters by design. As part of an intentional working order they did this.

These are not small bomb labs, they are big factories; 40,000-50,000 people worked in these places over the four decades they were in operation, and I could only find one KGB agent who blew the whistle in four decades.

STEPHANIE SY: What did he blow the whistle on? On the exposure to radiation?

KATE BROWN: On the exposures. People living downwind from the Mayak plant were in these incredible winds full of radioactive gas.

STEPHANIE SY: And who blew the whistle on the East Washington plant?

KATE BROWN: Nobody did until the 1980s.

STEPHANIE SY: I want to get into all the health impacts, but one of the things that is so interesting about your book Plutopia is that it is not just about the health impacts, it is about the way in which government and corporations created a community around plutonium manufacturing that made these two Cold War, ostensibly totally different cities on opposite sides of the Cold War have a lot in common. It is actually why you call the book Plutopia, echoes of utopia, of course, in that.

KATE BROWN: Yes. That is a word I made up, putting together plutonium and utopia. The reason I call it that is because I was trying to figure out why did all these people live in these places, these working class people, and agree to labor practices and environmental practices that sullied their own environment and put themselves and their families in danger.

I finally realized that both places had very similar technologies but also very similar social structures. Each had a secret, closed nuclear city attached to the plant that was exclusively reserved for workers and management at the plutonium plant. And these are what I call Plutopias. And they were wonderful places. People loved them. They were subsidized.

STEPHANIE SY: And that was by design.

KATE BROWN: That was by design. They built these places with prisoners in the Soviet Union and migrant labor in the United States and prisoners, and they found that the single migrant laborers, whether they were prisoners or soldiers or just migrant workers, they brawled and they boozed and they murdered and raped, and they thought, Oh, my God, who is going to produce plutonium? We can't have a working class that is as volatile as the product.

STEPHANIE SY: So those people built the plants, but they did not want them to stay working with this volatile substance because they were volatile people.

KATE BROWN: That's right. They found that men, mostly single migrant men, created a lot of trouble. So what if one of them throws a spanner in the works of a plutonium plant?

STEPHANIE SY: Because they were aware of the dangers.

KATE BROWN: They were very aware.

STEPHANIE SY: So where did they find the workers for the plutonium plant?

KATE BROWN: So they go, "Well, you know, we need to have safe workers. We need reliable, dependable workers who are silent and submissive, do what the bosses say." What better feature in these new atomic cities than to bring in the nuclear family? So they bring in mom, dad, kids, no extended families.

STEPHANIE SY: Middle class families?

KATE BROWN: Working class. And these working class families—imagine 1930s in the United States, think of Steinbeck, hardscrabble places. People come in from mining towns in New Mexico. They are thrilled to have a job and a nice apartment or house with appliances and amenities.

STEPHANIE SY: And this is given to them—

KATE BROWN: This is given to them if you work there.

STEPHANIE SY: —by the nuclear plant.

KATE BROWN: Right. Which is paid for by the federal government.

Richland, Washington, was a very strange place. It was the arsenal of democracy, but there was not a bit of the features of the American democracy in that town. It was owned by the federal government, it was run by the corporation, there were no elections, there was no private property. DuPont and General Electric (GE) selected all the businesses, and then they gave everybody monopolies, and then, when they started to raise prices and gouge the consumers, they set prices. So journalists would come in and they would say, "What is this?"

STEPHANIE SY: "What's going on here?"

KATE BROWN: "Is this fascism? Is this socialism?" It was anything but American-style democratic capitalism.

On the Soviet side, they were looking at Los Alamos, and they saw that the Manhattan Project had made a city, surrounded it with a barbed wire fence, gave everybody a pass—even babies had passes on their diapers—and made a controlled system. They said, "That's a good idea. We'll make that."

So they created a closed nuclear city with gates and guards and only allowed in workers who had passes who worked in those plants. Then they supplied them with wonderful schools with PhDs teaching, so the working class got social mobility for their kids, 30 percent more wages than other working class people around, as I said, great housing; the shops in the Soviet Union were always a problem to get supplies. They were supplied like the top leadership in Moscow.

STEPHANIE SY: So they were living like kings among the working class. There is a line in the introduction of your book which sort of sums up this part, which reads, "As Plutopia matured, residents gave up their civil and biological rights for consumer rights." Post-1930s it makes a lot of sense that they might be willing to do that.

I guess my question is—first of all, we all know what civil rights are. Define biological rights.

KATE BROWN: What I am thinking about in terms of biological rights—and these are rights that we are only beginning to think of asking for, and I think as a society we need to concentrate more on this, and that is the right to live in a place and consume safe products that are free of toxins and contaminants and free of potential risk and damage.

Of course life is risky, and as we live, we age and we eventually die. But, since 1949—some say earlier—there is this age of the Anthropocene, and one way that geographers a thousand years from now will be able to carbon-date this period, this epoch that we now exist in, is they will go back and see a layer of new elements on the soil that were never there in the millennia before. And those will be plastics, radioactive isotopes, and chemical toxins. These are all new, man-made products that are a product of the 20th century for the most part. And they are toxic. They are toxic in terms of producing cancers, neurological damage, damage to our immune systems, and genetic damage.

STEPHANIE SY: When people were signing up to work at the plutonium factory, did they understand that there were risks at that time, and were they educated about them?

KATE BROWN: Yes and no. In the records of the management, DuPont calls this super-poisonous product "plutonium." They understood it was highly toxic. If a human ingested it, it was going to be a critical problem for their health. In the Soviet Union, they described this as a front, and people die at the front, and we might have some casualties here, too.

STEPHANIE SY: So a war analogy.

KATE BROWN: That's right. It was a militarized notion.

Those ideas get erased over time. So, in the 1930s they had a very good sense of the kind of damage that radiation caused to humans, genetic and other kinds of damage. That knowledge gets forgotten and glossed over as the Cold War production of weapons morphs into the Cold War production of nuclear power and radioactive isotopes for medical uses. And more and more there is a push to gloss over potential health effects, to not ask questions, not do studies. That, I think, is something we have yet to really address or rectify.

All throughout, the National Cancer Institute (NCI)—I went to ask the acting director at the time during the Cold War, why were there no studies at the U.S. National Cancer Institute between the connection between radiation and cancer. He said, "Well, of course we knew there was a connection between radiation and cancer, but to ask that question would be to go political, and no scientist wants to go political."


There is another aspect of this—and I want to go back to the health issues when we talk about your current work with Chernobyl—but you were also pointing out in Plutopia the socioeconomic inequalities that were baked into this arrangement of Plutopia, the community that sort of had all of these gifts really from the government, upward mobility, schooling, education, stability, stable jobs. What was happening in the communities around where the plutonium was being manufactured? Did they have those benefits?

KATE BROWN: That is a critical question. To get a job at either of these plants you needed to get a security clearance, and to be not deemed a security risk you needed to be White and of the majority population. In the United States that really translated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. There are some Catholics, there are a few Jews in Richland. Until 1951, there were no African Americans at all and no Mexican Americans. And no Indians—although that is a population of which there were plenty of people like that out in Eastern Washington at the time.

In Russia it was coded as mostly Russian, Ukrainian. The Muslim minority in that area, Bashkirs and Tatars, also were considered a security threat and were not hired. This is a very dangerous business, to produce plutonium. They knew people were watching.

STEPHANIE SY: You write, "Radioactive byproducts recognize no boundaries."

KATE BROWN: Right. It went everywhere.

STEPHANIE SY: So even if they were not allowed the security clearance and living within the Plutopias that you write about, they would have potentially been exposed to the byproducts of the production of plutonium.

KATE BROWN: Yes. Also, they realized that, okay, workers are getting sick, and these people are looking to see if people will get sick in these towns, so we cannot have that. So if a worker who is monitored—and they had these badges—got too much of a dose, they pulled them off the dirty jobs.

But somebody still needed to do the dirty jobs. Who is going to do them? So they solved that problem, too. In the Soviet Union they sent in soldiers and prisoners, and they did the work of digging trenches in radioactive land, doing plumbing with ragingly hot pipes, standing guard under yellow smog that was full of radioactive gas. In the United States, they sent in migrant minority workers to do those jobs and also soldiers, many of whom were also minorities, over the years.

So what you get are these two tiers of labor: the selected residents of Plutopia—paid better, universal health care, safer jobs—and those who lived just outside the boundaries, whether they were farmers or migrant workers or prisoners or soldiers, who were getting more of that radiation. But they were migrant, they moved in, they moved out, and when they left they took with them the radioactive isotopes they had ingested, any future health problems, and any epidemiological trace.

STEPHANIE SY: Going back to the comparison of the amount of radiation that was "leaked"—that is the word you used—from these plants, what do the soil and water look like today in those places?

KATE BROWN: The Hanford plant is on the Columbia River. It is a high-volume mountain river with lots of water rushing by. At the peak of production they dumped in 19,000 curies a day of radioactive waste. So that affected the fish in the river, the people who ate the fish in the river, who were often the local indigenous tribes and sports fishermen. And they started to see patterns in the 1970s of cancer shadows along the Columbia River in Oregon and down at the mouth of the river.

STEPHANIE SY: How long did it take to start seeing those cases?

KATE BROWN: Usually, the latency period for cancer is about a dozen years. So in the 1970s the first study comes out. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) gets a rival study, smears that scientist, the public doctors.

STEPHANIE SY: So the Department of Energy has its own scientists who come up with their own study.

KATE BROWN: Yes. They still do.

STEPHANIE SY: Studies that would support continuing nuclear energy generation.

KATE BROWN: That tends to be the conclusions that they draw that I found over four decades. The science was an interesting science in that it did not ask a lot of critical questions, and they did not go out into the community very much to monitor people who were drinking radioactive milk, farming on radioactive fields, but they did do some studies that said "we found nothing," and they would maybe look at 20 people and find two cases.

STEPHANIE SY: Not a very big sample.

KATE BROWN: Exactly. Those are the kinds of studies, sort of a "crackpot science" I would call it.

STEPHANIE SY: You would call these government scientists "crackpot scientists"?

KATE BROWN: I would. And if you look at the science today, I think a lot of people would agree that they were not really asking the critical questions that needed to be asked.

STEPHANIE SY: Because they were trying to serve a political agenda?

KATE BROWN: That is what I asked. One source said, "Well, sure, we could have done those studies, but what if we had found something?"

One of the uses of a closed society in the Soviet Union, they dumped 3.2 million curies of high-level radioactive waste into a river when they ran out of storage tanks temporarily. For three years they dumped in this river, the Techa River. And they did not tell the people living along the river. And they drank from that river and bathed in it and fished in it, etc. They went down a couple of years later and found that everything was sullied with radioactive waste.

So what the Russians did is they put everybody under medical observation, brought them in every year, drew blood, did all kinds of tests. Every new baby was given a file, and for four generations they followed these people. It was a closed society. They could ask these questions about what happens when people live with chronic low doses of radiation. They felt they could openly ask that question because it was a closed society, and they would have a clamp on the answers.

STEPHANIE SY: Interesting. Did we find out what the answers were?

KATE BROWN: The answers are not good: 97 percent of the people in those communities have one chronic health problem or another; lots of kids with immune system disorders, chronic illnesses, birth defects; very, very high rates of cancer. It is a tragic story.

STEPHANIE SY: Then you have Chernobyl, which happens in 1986. Is there a full reckoning at that point, the degree, the sort of photo-ready disaster, and the fact that it was so well-publicized and that it really became sort of the scary nuclear disaster that everyone talked about, at least until Fukushima years later? Was there a reckoning at that time that the health impacts of nuclear, that the potential environmental and health impacts really needed to be considered before continuation of nuclear energy or nuclear weaponry development?

KATE BROWN: A lot of panic when that story broke. It was still during the Cold War, so scientists in the West were saying the Soviets are not telling us everything and they are holding back information, and their first instinct was to inflame. The scientists in the West said there were 2,000 dead, and the Soviets were saying we only have two dead. This back-and-forth was going on.

Everybody, whether they were in the Soviet Union or outside, was saying, "We need to have a long-term epidemiological study of the people who have been impacted by this disaster so we can finally answer this question about long-term chronic doses of radiation." You hear scientists saying it in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Soviet leadership, and the American research institutes. And, do you know, Stephanie, the one thing that has never happened is that there has never been a long-term epidemiological study of Chernobyl health effects.

STEPHANIE SY: That is so surprising.

KATE BROWN: There has been a series of small ones. The big study was going to get funded by the United Nations in 1990. They held a pledge drive, but the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization did a preliminary assessment in which they said, "We find no health effects from Chernobyl five years later, and we think there won't be any in the future other than perhaps a few thyroid cancers."

STEPHANIE SY: What is so worrying about that, Kate, is that you think of the World Health Organization as being this apolitical, independent organization. You think of the IAEA, which for those who don't know, is the nuclear watchdog agency—they oversee inspections, for example, in Iran to verify the Iran deal, things like that—as independent agencies with integrity. And yet you are saying that they said, "We don't need to look long term at these consequences." Why is that?

KATE BROWN: That is exactly what they said. I do not mean to besmirch the agencies. They are responsible agencies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency does try to keep the world from blowing itself up and to keep both nuclear power and nuclear weapons installations safe, but Chernobyl was extremely threatening. Immediately protestors throughout North America and Europe started calling for the shutdown of nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons programs and the disarmament of states and of installations in Germany, for instance, in Europe. It threatened the whole enterprise of peaceful production of nuclear power and radiology, radiation medicine. They felt like the biggest threat was not so much radioactive isotopes but hysterical publics who would not be fully armed with proper education, proper knowledge, did not know how to interpret this data, and would panic. They were constantly trying to stem panic.

So when the World Health Organization sent in a commission—they sent in three scientists—they spent five days going to seven different locations, and at the end of that period they said, "We don't see any health problems." Nobody took that seriously. What can you say in five days with three guys mostly inside of cabs and airplanes?

STEPHANIE SY: Did they look at historical records?

KATE BROWN: They had no time. They only had five days.

So then the International Atomic Energy Agency was asked by the Soviet leadership to do a study. They spent 18 months. They said they sent in 200 scientists, and they produced a much longer report, about 300 pages, that said the same thing.

STEPHANIE SY: "We did not find anything."

So now, Kate Brown comes in, a historian, and I understand you have been poring over tens of thousands of documents, that you have been in the field. Can you talk about the process? You are now investigating and trying to find out what really happened, what the health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl really were. What does that entail?

KATE BROWN: The first thing that a historian does is go to the archive. I walked into the archive in Kiev and I asked for the Ministry of Health records on the Chernobyl disaster, and the archivist, who I have known for many years, laughed at me and said, "You're not going to find anything. That was a banned topic during the Soviet period. They didn't write anything about Chernobyl."

I said, "Well, why don't I just look at the findings anyway."

In a couple of minutes, whole document collections entitled in plain Ukrainian: "The Medical Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe." And I started reading, and I have not stopped.

STEPHANIE SY: So there is a record?

KATE BROWN: There is a huge record, yes. Then I went on to Minsk and to provincial cities in Ukraine and Belarus, and then I went to Moscow. Everywhere I went I found a very similar story of doctors on the ground, and sanitation and hygiene experts on the ground, reporting two things: One, people are ingesting a great deal of radioactive isotopes in their food products, in the water, and in the ambient dust that was spreading everywhere. The second thing that the doctors are reporting—and this really sort of picks up speed starting in 1988—is that people have these strange, what they called a "whole bouquet," of medical problems.

STEPHANIE SY: How far out from the site are you seeing this type of health effect?

KATE BROWN: They evacuated from 30 to 80 kilometers around the site. But then there are other pockets farther out in Belarus because the clouds went over Belarus. What I am finding is that Soviet Air Force pilots flew through those clouds, seeded them so that they rained in sort of a triage scenario, and they rained on Belarus before they got to the bigger Russian cities. So there is an awful lot of contamination in Belarus, 70 percent of the fallout fell there.

So when I go to those local records, and the doctors on the ground are writing—always classified documents—saying, "Look, in 1986 we had this many cases of leukemia, like one; and now here two years later we have 10 and 20," a big jump in that category. What are surprising are things like kids having eyesight problems because eyes are an organ that is external and very sensitive to radiation, chronic digestive tract disorders, problems with immune systems, cardiac problems. And then later, after about five years, a big epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. And since then, there has been a lot of thyroid cancer in adults as well.

STEPHANIE SY: Like you said, really early on, scientists knew that radioactive isotopes would eventually cause cancer, so it is no surprise that you are finding these incidents.

What do you really want people to take away from this? What kind of policy adjustments do you think need to occur based on what you have seen and researched?

KATE BROWN: Right now the official tally for Chernobyl fatalities is 44 dead. Those were clean-up workers, emergency workers, firemen who died right after.

STEPHANIE SY: Immediate fallout.

KATE BROWN: And then there are these 6,000 cases of cancer. I do not think anybody really believes that only 44 people died from Chernobyl. As you travel through these areas, just one person after another has a story to tell you: "Oh, my husband worked" or "my son worked on the clean-up" or "my daughter was a doctor, was sent in," wool workers who had to clean radioactive wool, meat, people working in stockyards who had to kill radioactive animals.

STEPHANIE SY: Anyone exposed.

KATE BROWN: Everyone exposed. So lots of stories of people dying at 30, 40 years old.

So it would be great to have a more realistic tally than these 44, and it would be wonderful if we could—even though it has been 30 years and a lot of time has passed—to finally have that long-term epidemiological study of the health effects of Chernobyl. We have wonderful tools now that we did not have 30 years ago to try to use the body as an archive to see how much radiation has been stored in the body and what kind of damage it has done.

STEPHANIE SY: But I feel like even with the information we know and even with the information you have in Plutopia a lot of people might draw the conclusion that there is just such a huge potential cost to the production of plutonium or uranium or the fuel of nuclear energy. I assume that is the conclusion you have drawn, that it is not worth it.

KATE BROWN: I do not think it is worth it. We do not have solutions to what to do with radioactive waste, which is why we have sullied environments. We do not have very good science about the problems of radioactive isotopes lodged in bodies and what happens to bodies.

For instance, right now the state of Washington had this shocking case over the last year six years of 45 women giving birth to anencephalic babies—that means babies born without [parts of their] heads. Forty-five cases is an astonishing number. The background for that is one in a million or something. So the state epidemiologist did a study, and they thought, well, maybe it is nitrates. No, they canceled out nitrates. Maybe it is folic acid. No, they canceled that out. Maybe it is radiation, because all the counties that had it, most of them were right around, the three counties surrounding the Hanford plant. The Department of Energy said that no radiation leaves the site. The site is bounded by a cyclone fence. As we know, radiation gets into the groundwater, it gets into the air, gases, it migrates through water.

STEPHANIE SY: There are no boundaries.

KATE BROWN: There are no boundaries. And it is extremely prolific.

STEPHANIE SY: They are seeing that with Fukushima as well, right? They are seeing things turn up on the West Coast of the United States that have been irradiated from Fukushima because it is one ocean that circulates, and we all breathe the same air.

KATE BROWN: And what radioactive isotopes do is they mimic nutrients and minerals that plants and animals, organisms, need to survive. So they migrate toward life.


KATE BROWN: So foods that we eat, they go right up the food chain. If there is some radiation in the water, that gets bio-magnified a thousand times in the fish in the water.

STEPHANIE SY: We talk about biological rights today, a lot of people talk about climate change and the right that one has to not live in a coal-fired community where they might suffer from air pollution, and rights that people might have to not live in a place that is either warming too much or has experienced sea level rise, other effects of climate change. Do you see parallels there?

KATE BROWN: Yes. You see over and over again, well, if we get rid of the coal plants or if we get rid of the nuclear plants, then—there is this rhetorical device—we will go into the Stone Ages again. It is a constant balance between biological rights and consumer rights. If people are going to have the freedom to consume, to consume wantonly, as much as they want forever, and a continually growing economy, which is our model—it is our economic model to grow endlessly, even though we know that is impossible rationally. That is always put up against these biological rights, which if you can cast doubt on the risks, if you can minimize the harm, then surely, meaning I could buy a car today or potentially get cancer 12 years from now, most people choose the car today. And as a society we are making those choices.

STEPHANIE SY: Which is very similar to what the Plutopia societies had to choose.


STEPHANIE SY: They knew there were risks, but they wanted comfort, and they wanted the immediacy of—

KATE BROWN: They wanted their kids in good schools and to go to great universities, and they tell you they have the highest per capita rate of PhDs in the country. So that really did deliver to the working class this incredible social mobility which is so valued and is a wonderful thing to have.

STEPHANIE SY: Except there is not necessarily that binary between clean energy, for example, and stopping economic growth, what we are finding. Although I will say it is interesting. There are some environmentalists who are for nuclear energy because it does not emit fossil fuels. Of course, the nuclear waste issue is there, but there are many who I have spoken to who believe that nuclear energy is a path out and is a way to combat climate change.

KATE BROWN: I think had we spent anywhere near a tenth of federally subsidized spending on development of nuclear power, if that had been channeled, and if it could be channeled now into solar, wind, channeling volcanic power, pedal, all these alternative forms of energy that are cleaner, we would have solutions already, we probably would not be facing this climate change issue. And I do not think it is too late to turn in that direction now.

Just look at the Hanford clean-up alone. The price tag now is $120 billion, and I am sure it will go higher.

STEPHANIE SY: So they are still cleaning up that site?

KATE BROWN: They are still cleaning up. They are still having a lot of problems. A tunnel collapsed last spring, in April, 2017.

STEPHANIE SY: I assume still nobody lives anywhere near there.

KATE BROWN: People live all around it. In fact, there are more and more people. The clean-up is big business and has drawn even more people, more housing starts—

STEPHANIE SY: So there are still people who are exposed to the soils.

KATE BROWN: So there is this case of the anencephalic babies. The Washington State epidemiologist closed the case, saying "We don't know why, but it would be great if we could ask more questions."

STEPHANIE SY: When was that?

KATE BROWN: That was just a few months ago. It was in the summer of [2017].

STEPHANIE SY: There is another theme that I want to go back to, which is how much we trust scientists and governmental and multinational corporations that are behind the technologies, as well as maybe how much we trust the international community on these issues. That is obviously a debate that has come up with climate change as well. There is a preponderance of scientists who have said that climate change is man-made, and these are the models we are looking at as to the consequences. But what can one take from reading Plutopia about understanding who to trust?

KATE BROWN: What you have to do with science is follow the money. Who is funding the science? What I see over and over again—and you even see manuals going to the Soviet Union: "This is how you deal with the public in a nuclear disaster. This is how to do smart public relations."

So there is a boilerplate that really sort of developed from the controversy over lead and tobacco, which is if there are independent scientists who say that there are health problems with lead and tobacco, you as an industry hire rival scientists to do a rival study, you muddy the issue, cast into doubt the original scientists. You might even need to slander them a little bit and call them bad scientists or politicized scientists. So, rival science is a great way so that the public gets so confused that they throw up their arms and say, "I don't know whom to believe."

STEPHANIE SY: Right. This is what is happening in the climate change debate in this country, at least.

KATE BROWN: Right. You relativize it. You say, "Well, yeah, nuclear power has some risks, but there are far more risks to burning coal." They said that for years, and the Atomic Energy Commission paid for studies to show how dangerous coal was.

STEPHANIE SY: Wow. So what is an average consumer of information to do, Kate?

KATE BROWN: It is very difficult, right? We are struggling with the issue of fake news all the time.

STEPHANIE SY: And fake science, apparently.

KATE BROWN: And fake science apparently, too. I think that whenever science is backed by an interested party, whether it is a government agency, an international agency, or a company, we have to weigh that. We really do have to inform ourselves as citizens so that we can make educated decisions about where our news is coming from.

I think the wonderful thing about universities is that they have people like myself who are given time to go deeply into these issues. If you read books of historians of science or historians on a lot of topics or social scientists, they are doing exactly that, that time-consuming work of following the money, weighing the science, judging who ended up being correct and who was hiding facts, hiding evidence.

STEPHANIE SY: It is pretty clear with the people who have suffered from cancers, where they feel the science has fallen on this.

Kate, is there anything else you want to add before we conclude?

KATE BROWN: Yes. I think one last feature of Plutopia that is so interesting—I end my book saying we are all citizens of Plutopia.

What the Cold War and the militarization of our society did is that it also militarized our landscape in really curious ways, so that Richland, which was this curiosity, this anomaly of a federally subsidized community with only white working class and managerial class people living in it, all got the same paycheck, that that becomes a norm after World War II. More and more people choose to leave cities where there are all kinds of classes and all kinds of people from different ethnic and racial groups, and move out to monoclass all-white suburbs that are subsidized by federal housing loans and federal grants for better schools.

And they do it because they say, "I can get a better deal, I have more consumer rights out there, and I can secure great schools and safety and security for my family." And in doing that we have created a society that is so much more segregated than even during the time when segregation was the law in half the land.

So now we have these big debates in our society between people who openly proclaim themselves as white supremacists and openly are saying that America should be only for certain people and not for anybody else. And that is new or revived from a hundred years ago. A shocking revelation, but I think it has a lot to do with our spatial transformation of this country.

STEPHANIE SY: What is so mind-blowing is what you suggest, that there is a conscientious effort systematically to create our communities this way. Just knowing that, I think, is half the battle.

KATE BROWN: Yes, right.

STEPHANIE SY: Kate Brown, thank you so much.

KATE BROWN: Thank you, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE SY: Really fascinating.

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