A couple of days ago, a long-awaited date arrived: Marty and Doc’s journey to October 21, 2015, in Back to the Future II. In the film, Marty tried to bring “Gray’s Sports Almanac” back to 1985 so that he could place bets, and get rich. Doc gives Marty a stern lecture against changing the past. Unfortunately, Biff overhears the conversation, takes the almanac, and steals the flying DeLorean in order to help his former self get rich. Biff is, of course, a (disturbingly familiar) big-haired bully. Yet, I must admit that I am also tempted to follow his example, steal Doc’s time machine, and travel to the past in order to use hindsight to change the present and future.
Since this is a blog about Hanford and not, for example, saving the world from ever having to have heard this song, I’ve slapped together a “to do list” in case anyone happens to find an unlocked time machine:
- Warning that, 25 years later, the Waste Treatment Plant has cost $19 billion, and that there are still major technical challenges that remain unsolved. Perhaps the program would have been better managed–by not trying to design the thing while building it, for example– had the project’s difficulties been anticipated. Perhaps managers would also have listened to engineers and others pointing out serious design-flaws, instead of firing them.
- Pulling the “Radioactive Man” Out of the Way — In 1976, then 64-year-old Harold McCluskey got what probably should have been a lethal dose of americium, a radioactive (transuranic) element, after an unintended chemical reaction made his glove box explode. While McCluskey lived another 11 years and died of unrelated causes, the guy suffered quite a bit. Medical personnel were removing glass and metal from his skin for five months, and he had to endure around 600 shots of an experimental drug to help his body get rid of the radioisotopes more quickly. He had to be treated much like nuclear waste–locked away and contained–for a year, until his radiation levels fell to a safer level.
- Stopping the Manhattan Project — The impetus for the Manhattan Project was beating Nazi Germany to the development and deployment of a nuclear weapon. But, as we know now, Germany was not seriously committed to developing an atomic bomb. While the bombs dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often touted as “ending the war,” six out of the seven top U.S. generals and admirals at the time, including Eisenhower, did not think dropping the bomb was wise or necessary. Many of them did not think it was the moral or legal choice either. Instead of ending the war or saving lives, it seems pretty clear to me that the Manhattan Project violated the treaty rights of several indigenous nations, put the population of much of Eastern Washington at risk, diverted scarce resources and labor away from other civilian and war time needs, and resulted in war crimes. It also, of course, began what became a vast archipelago of contaminated sites across the U.S., its former territories, and beyond. Hanford is the biggest of these sites, and is considered by many to be the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere.
Of course, time travel is always tricky and dangerous. Checking some of these boxes may make others fade like Marty’s family photo in the original film. No one can say, for example, whether the rush to create nuclear weapons would only have been delayed a few years if the Manhattan Project never took place, or if the results of that alternate “Manhattan Project” would have been even worse. Some of these tasks could also create a “causal paradox.” Before being brought to the future to be upgraded with a “Mr. Fusion” trash to energy generator, the DeLorean’s “flux capacitor” ran on plutonium stolen from the (fictional) “Pacific Nuclear Research Facility,” which could have been produced at Hanford. That’s heavy. But, I think it would be worth the risk!
What would you add to this time traveler’s Hanford checklist?