The Apocalypse Factory

AS SOON AS Franklin Matthias flew over the Horse Heaven Hills, he knew he’d found what he was looking for. Spread out below him was a barren, wind-swept plain. The Columbia River, running cold and deep, separated the plain from higher ground to the north and east. To the west the top of Rattlesnake Mountain was covered by snow, but the rest of the land, tinted gray-green by sagebrush, was snow free, even on this first day of winter.

Matthias, a 34-year-old colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, went through the checklist he’d gotten from the engineers at DuPont. The Columbia could provide plenty of clear, cold water for the nuclear reactors. A row of spindly metal towers carried high-voltage lines from Grand Coulee Dam, which had come online just the year before. Not far from the towers, a spur line from the Milwaukee Road emerged from the gap where the Columbia cut through the Saddle Mountains. DuPont could haul equipment, construction materials, and chemicals down the rail line to the site.

The plain was at least twice as large as the twelve-mile by sixteen-mile expanse that the engineers had demanded, and no large towns were nearby. If one of the reactors blew up, relatively few people would be killed. And on that December 22, 1942, with the sun low on the horizon and silvered by clouds, the land looked sere and forlorn. A few scraggly towns — Richland, Hanford, and White Bluffs, according to the map — interrupted the treeless expanse, along with some bedraggled farms. But the number of people who would have to move couldn’t be more than a thousand or two. “This is it,” Matthias thought. “There’s nothing like it in the country.”

Matthias was looking for a place to build a facility that he had been told could end World War II. Four years earlier, two chemists working in a laboratory a few miles away from Hitler’s Berlin headquarters, with the invaluable help of an Austrian physicist living in exile in Sweden, had announced that atoms of uranium could split and release immense quantities of energy. Alarmed that Nazi Germany would use the discovery to build atomic bombs, the United States had launched a crash program, dubbed the Manhattan Project, to build them first. Even as Matthias was flying over the towns of Richland, Hanford, and White Bluffs, workers were clearing a vast tract of land in eastern Tennessee, near a sharp rise of land known as Black Oak Ridge, where a massive factory to create bomb-making materials would rise over the next two years. On the flanks of an extinct volcano in New Mexico, other workers were converting a boys’ school in the tiny hamlet of Los Alamos into a top-secret laboratory, where many of America’s leading scientists would soon congregate to assemble the raw materials of the atomic age into weapons of unprecedented power.

Los Alamos and, to a lesser extent, Oak Ridge have gotten most of the attention in histories of the Manhattan Project. That’s understandable. The Oak Ridge facility produced the material in the first atomic bomb used in warfare, the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. The scientists at Los Alamos accomplished in a few short years work that would normally have taken a decade.

Hanford and its successors have given us the ability to destroy ourselves and everything we have ever created.

But I argue that the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington State is the single most important site of the nuclear age. Hanford produced the material in the first atomic bomb ever exploded, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The first full-scale nuclear reactor was built at Hanford; all subsequent reactors have used ideas and technologies developed there. The last atomic bomb used in warfare — the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945 — contained nuclear material manufactured at Hanford.

The Hiroshima bomb was a technological one-off. No subsequent bombs used that design, except for a few artillery weapons that were soon discarded. At the core of every nuclear weapon in the world today is a small pit of radioactive material made either at Hanford or at a comparable facility elsewhere in the world.

Hanford and its successor facilities have given us, for the first time in history, the ability to destroy ourselves and everything we have ever created. Understanding what happened at the site that Colonel Matthias chose on that solstice day in December 1942 may give us a way to avoid that fate.

IF Matthias had looked through the window of his reconnaissance plane toward the northeast, he would have seen a distant gray smudge on the horizon. That’s the town of Othello, Washington, where I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s. I had an idyllic, all-American childhood in Othello. In those days of laissez-faire parenting, my friends and I, on weekends and in the summer, were free to do pretty much anything we wanted once we’d finished a few chores. We could ride our bikes to the swimming holes outside town, to the strange rock formations carved into the desert by prehistoric floods, sometimes all the way to the Tri-Cities, 60 miles to the south, on the banks of the Columbia River. We congregated at Othello’s many parks to play baseball, at the drugstore to read comics, and at the one-room library adjacent to City Hall. In rosy hindsight, I remember Othello as an isolated, self-contained paradise where we were free to make our own mistakes and enjoy our own triumphs.

Hanford and Nagasaki have always been the neglected stepchildren of World War II. Some people might have heard of Hanford as the “most contaminated nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere,” or as the location of a multibillion-dollar Department of Energy cleanup, but they probably haven’t heard much else. In Japan, residents of Nagasaki often wonder why Hiroshima gets so much more attention than the city on which the second bomb was dropped. Throughout the world, people tend to speak of “the bomb,” rather than “the bombs,” as if the two quite different bombs dropped on Japan can all be captured in a single abstract image.

Hanford was born in secrecy, operated in secrecy, and remains obscure today. Most histories of the Manhattan Project have focused on the exotic physicists who worked largely in New Mexico, not on the chemists, metallurgists, and engineers elsewhere who were just as vital to the project’s success. As Richard Rhodes said of his magisterial four-volume history of the atomic age, “I treated plutonium production to some extent as a black box, inadvertently contributing to the myth that the atomic bomb was the work of 30 theoretical physicists at Los Alamos.”

Yet the successful operation of the facilities built at Hanford changed the course of history. World War II would not have ended the way it did without the bomb-making material from Hanford’s reactors. The Cold War would not have been fought the way it was if Hanford and the corresponding facility in the Soviet Union had not been churning out their deadly product — enough to end human civilization many times over. The ongoing cleanup of the site has provided the world with a precautionary tale of nuclear overreach.

The history of the atomic age looks radically different from the perspective of Hanford. The United States probably would not have undertaken an atomic bomb project during World War II if Hanford could not have been built. Without Hanford, the U.S. military certainly would not have had multiple atomic weapons with which to bomb Japan and threaten the Soviet Union after the war. The history of Hanford explains why the world’s first nuclear reactor was built when and where it was. It accounts for the decision to bomb Nagasaki just three days after Hiroshima, before the Japanese government had time to react to the new era of warfare that had begun. It recalibrates the moral calculus of the Manhattan Project. When asked after the war about the famous statement made by Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos laboratory, that physicists had “known sin,” Crawford Greenewalt, the lead engineer at DuPont, the company that built Hanford, said, “My God, if everybody that has made an important contribution to the Hanford project was a sinner, then it would take several Rose bowls to hold them all.”

Hanford is where people first confronted all the dilemmas of power, pollution, destruction and sustainability associated with nuclear energy.

Of the three sites in the Manhattan District National Historical Park established in 2015 — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford — the latter is where the physical, the personal, and the political meet most starkly. Hanford represents one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements; it also embodies a moral blindness that could destroy us all. People have begun to realize, after decades of warnings, that climate change poses a severe threat to our species. Yet they blithely overlook the fact that human civilization could end in a few hours if the leaders of the nuclear states were to unleash the force that Hanford has placed in their hands.

Hanford is where people confronted for the first time all the dilemmas of power, pollution, destruction, and sustainability associated with nuclear energy. The laws of physics enable us to create substances that can release immense quantities of energy. This energy can power electrical grids, cure cancer or cause it, and destroy cities. The substances produced in nuclear reactors will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, longer than we have existed as a species on this planet. Are we mature, reasonable, and wise enough to be entrusted with such knowledge?

What Colonel Matthias had been told about his 1942 mission to Washington State was right. The facilities built at Hanford did end World War II. They also opened the door to a new world, one with which we still have not come to terms.

Excerpted from The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age. Copyright © 2020 by Steve Olson. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

W. W. Norton’s web page for The Apocalypse Factory.

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The Folio Seattle video of Steve Olson discussing his new book.

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Steve Olson is a Seattle-based writer who specializes in science, mathematics, and public policy. He is author of several nonfiction books, most notably Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins (2002), which was nominated for the National Book Award and received the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers. His other books include Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (2016); and The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age (2020).
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