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Radioactive Ranch: How Hanford's history reflects the West

A new history of Hanford tells us about the motives, contradictions, and influences that shaped the "nuclear reservation" that has changed lives and re-shaped the world.

A plutonium separation building at Hanford.

A plutonium separation building at Hanford. U.S. Department of Energy


At the end of Atomic Frontier Days (University of Washington Press) by John Findlay and Bruce Hevly, the authors tell us about a Gene Autry 1935 serial called The Phantom Empire. I've seen this film in its condensed version, and it's one of the most hilariously bad sci-fi movies of all time, called Radio Ranch. In short, an underground civilization called Murania attempts to prevent the singing cowboy Autry from broadcasting his weekly radio show from his ranch. What else is a secret, advanced civilization to do?

The fate of mankind hangs in the balance. But the authors see an interesting precursor to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation here. Autry, of course, represents the wild frontier, yet it's a frontier changed from the Tim Mix days. It has state-of-the-art broadcast technology. The secret underground civilization is even more advanced, and its scientists are busy inventing dangerous marvels that are dependent on radioactive materials. Like an "atom-smashing" machine that can destroy civilization itself. Atomic science was already at home on the range before it was even a reality.

All this was filmed before Hanford was conceived, or the Manhattan Project that created it was launched. But it previews a fascinating fusion between the Old West and the Atomic Age. A 1948 poster for a local Richland celebration, Atomic Frontier Days, shows the atom symbol against the glow of a giant sun above a covered wagon with the slogan, "New Light on the Old Frontier." 

This fusion was more than symbolic, it was real to a point. Frontier thinking helped create, sustain, and adapt Hanford; it contributed to some of its fundamental problems and challenges. The forces that have made it what it is are complex, but they emerge from geographic, psychological, technological, commercial, and scientific approaches that are both national and very local. Atomic Frontier Days, subtitled "Hanford and the American West," written by two University of Washington historians, attempts to get at the major dynamics that created it.

For many people, Hanford is a word that causes us to hit the snooze-button, partly because it is the problem that will, literally, never go away: The half-life of plutonium waste is 24,000 years. Built during WWII as part of the Manhattan Project, its original purpose was to generate the plutonium needed to make atomic bombs. Hanford was not a think-tank like Los Alamos, but a manufacturing facility run by people who understood chemicals and arms. It was less about physics, the authors tell is, than about heating, cooling, and plumbing.

The confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima Rivers was selected because a large tract of undeveloped land was needed (it's half the size of Rhode Island). As was a ready source of electricity (thanks be to those New Deal dams), and a massive water source to wash away and dilute the waste. The project also needed to be out of range from Axis attack and the prying eyes of the press, public, and Russian spies. The Columbia Basin's desert was perfect; there was no real runner-up.

The authors point out the factors that went into creating Hanford. It was a federal project, much like others that have shaped the West, including the railroads, homestead policies, dams and rural electrification, land reclamation, irrigation, and inland navigation. There was defense work and nuclear energy production too. These days, the commitment that keeps Hanford going is environmental clean-up. Like much of the development of the West, Hanford is largely a creature of the federal government, even if locals don't like to think of it that way. Western farmers and ranchers and, yes, engineers, often view themselves as having nothing to do with the federal welfare state, even as they benefit from it.

The idea that the land that was taken for the Hanford complex was isolated and alone also fit the myths of the West, which was uninterested in or actively hostile to Native American attitudes about places and their traditional uses. Small agricultural and ranch communities were also displaced for Hanford, but this was justified not only by the war effort, but by the sense that the sage-brush country was empty and under-developed.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 21, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Friends rolled their eyes at me several years ago when I told them I was going to take a bus trip around Hanford. But they were wrong!

The bus was full of mostly old fogeys who got to see some of the complex cleanup problems - like keeping nasty isotopes out of the Columbia River.

But the centerpiece was the walk-around/through tour of Reactor B. To look back and see the ingenuity and complexity around building the reactor boggles the mind. As awful as the outcome was, we in the post-PC age should marvel that it could be done at all.

If you are at all interested in history or science and want to take a tour, mark your calendar for early March of 2012 because there are limited tour dates (April-Sept) each year and they fill up quickly. Here's the website--www5.hanford.gov/publictours.

m-t-e

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