Michael Reagan recently went on the Hanford public site tour, here are his reflections:
Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. She remembers the flash, like “an overlapping of suns,” and the sensation that she was floating through air. When she tried to breathe, “dirt came pouring into my nose and mouth with the force of water flowing from a hose.”
She survived. But she lost every member of her family. They died over the course the following months and years, either from their wounds from the blast or radiation poisoning, or in the case of her parents, leukemia that killed them decades later. As an adult Yasui’s reflections explore “not only the obvious physical suffering caused by the bomb, but also the instantaneous extermination of all living things, the tragic breakdown of family systems, the destruction of the city itself, and the scars that such an enormous shock left on our hearts.”
The plutonium for the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki, called “Fat Man” by its designers, was made at Hanford.
Perched on the Columbia River in south-central Washington State, Hanford is dry and hot, a place now pock-marked with “cocooned” nuclear reactors and deep pits to bury the waste. The multiple locations and facilities used for weapons plutonium at Hanford are in a decades-long decontamination and cleanup process with no end in sight. It will take millennia – a scale of thought that doesn’t seem present at Hanford. The radioactive half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years. For uranium-238 it is 4.5 billion.
Together with staff from Hanford Challenge, a whistleblower and cleanup watchdog group, I recently visited the Hanford nuclear site, now on its way to becoming part of the national park system.
Coupled with a recognition of the human impacts of the bomb, the physical landscape of Hanford contributes to the feeling that one is visiting a site of holocaust. The rail facilities, the stark, secretive concrete reactors with high exhaust stacks, the hot desolate sun, all contribute.
The park tour gives a sanitized version of cleanup efforts (if you you’ll forgive the pun), showing visitors the facilities used to clean contaminated groundwater, industrial buildings, and other parts of the site polluted from plutonium made for the bomb.
Disturbingly, the content of the tour that focuses on wartime production is celebratory. It revels in the scientific and engineering achievement of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. The tour asks no tough questions about the use of the bomb, the ongoing impacts of radiological contamination on workers and the environment, nor the problems of working with material and on timeframes that are unquestionably outside of our control, and perhaps our understanding.
Information presented in the tour is selective. For example, Albert Einstein is mentioned for his encouragement to explore nuclear weapons in a famous letter delivered to President Roosevelt early in the project. Although this was Einstein’s only involvement, he called it his “single act” on the effort, his name is used repeatedly. No mention is made of his deep regret – he called the letter the “one great mistake of my life” – of his subsequent and repeated condemnation of “the use of the atomic bomb against Japan,” nor of his lifelong commitment to pacifism. He called the atomic bomb the “most abominable means” available to humankind. Coupled with the possibility of “inevitable war” if current trends continued, he wrote that the bomb and warfare would “spell universal destruction” and hence should be avoided at all costs.
There are a great many other examples that diminish the Hanford tour’s credibility. Tour guides, for example, present the decision to drop the bomb as a military necessity, even though the scholarly consensus and the record from key war-planners says otherwise. (See Gar Alperovitz’s book on the topic). Another problem not mentioned is the ongoing human impacts and safety issues, made plain by numerous whistleblowers from the site.
On the Hanford site tour there is no thought given to Sachiko Yasui or the other victims in Nagasaki. She deserves our attention. With a “sense of responsibility for the future,” Yasui ties questions of history to the present, asking not only “about tragic destruction, but also about the continuing horror,” that the bomb represents. With hope she tells us “the Nagasaki atomic bombing is a lesson that was left behind for all humanity, to ensure that such a catastrophe is never repeated. If we do not learn from this lesson of the past, how can we live in peace in the present nuclear era?”
The many problems at Hanford push Yasui’s questions back to us: the tensions between past and present, failures and future possibilities. But the official tour reflects none of this. By trying to celebrate the technical achievement of Hanford, devoid of larger context and questions, the site’s tour compounds the tragedy, the “shock left in our hearts.”
Until we have a more robust reckoning with the past, Hanford will remain a site of national sorrow.