Hanford's nuclear history is messy, but worth preserving

  • Alex Ernst Roth


Hanford, in eastern Washington, is arguably the most polluted radioactive waste site in America.  Yet if Congress passes pending legislation now backed by the Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties, parts of Hanford will be included in a new national historic park.

The intent of the proposed park is to preserve relics from the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II program that created the world’s first atomic bomb. In addition to parts of Hanford, the park would also include buildings and artifacts at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., where other key parts of the bomb project were carried out.

If I had any doubts about the worthiness of preserving such monuments, they were erased recently when I joined a public tour of the B Reactor, the centerpiece of the Hanford portion of the proposed park. It was the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor, operating from 1944 to 1968, and its purpose was to produce plutonium.

The deadly output from the B Reactor helped power the first nuclear explosive ever tested, as well as the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, killing 70,000 people.  The facility’s scale and intricacy are breathtaking.  Even more impressive, it was built in the technological era of the slide rule—in just 13 months.

But if the Manhattan Project was one of the most significant undertakings of modern times, it is also among the most controversial. Depending on who you ask, our country’s decision to drop two atomic bombs during World War II was either indispensible or indefensible.  Plenty of other historic parks commemorate morally complex events, but few such events are so recent.

I was thoroughly charmed by the B Reactor tour guides. Several were retired Hanford workers who conveyed the sincere, can-do ebullience that defines the Greatest Generation. They appropriately explained the functions of different parts of the reactor, and showed no overt jingoism. But the tour omitted any information or discussion that might offend the sensibilities of the surrounding community, whose high school team in nearby Richland is called “The Bombers,” and sports a mushroom cloud as a mascot.

If the park proposal moves forward, the Department of Energy will continue to manage most of Hanford, which is nearly half the size of Rhode Island. But it will be up to the National Park Service to staff and interpret the sites newly opened to the public.

At Hanford, the Park Service will have another set of complexities to address, and some may be even more fraught than questions about the morality of our atomic attack on Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the B Reactor, along with other facilities at Hanford, manufactured most of the plutonium for the tens of thousands of nuclear bombs that the United States built throughout the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the fly-by-the-seat-of your pants disregard for the rules that was necessitated by wartime emergency continued well after the war ended. And ongoing secrecy shielded Hanford’s actions from public scrutiny. The result was dangerous operating procedures and careless handling of radioactive materials.

Over the years, for example, Hanford lost track of enough plutonium to build dozens of Nagasaki bombs. The workforce was recklessly endangered, and developed an abnormal number of cancers. Huge amounts of radiation were also released beyond the borders of the site, and some of those releases were even intentional, in flagrant disregard of known risks. One nearby area became known as the “death mile” because so many people there suffered from cancers.

Hanford’s post-war history makes the site even more compelling to visit, but it’s hard to imagine interpretive materials broaching disturbing events from this period much at all.  Hanford’s long-hidden impacts on workers, public health and the environment only began to come to light in the 1980s, thanks to the muckraking of reporters along with the courage of whistleblowers, citizens’ groups and, sometimes, reform-minded federal officials.

Today, Hanford is the subject of an immense cleanup that is many billions of dollars over budget and decades behind schedule. The site cleanup is now projected to take another $112 billion and at least 35 years to complete.

Maybe someday the Park Service will find a way to include the history of those who revealed Hanford’s shameful secrets and worked to hold its leaders accountable.  Maybe their deeds will be presented as just as heroic as those of the ingenious patriots who built and operated the B reactor. In the meantime, Congress would be wise to safeguard our atomic artifacts and welcome the public, so visitors can contemplate their complex and contradictory legacy.

Alex Ernst Roth is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a policy analyst, attorney and writer in Washington, D.C.

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