Radioactive Ranch: How Hanford’s history reflects the West

Credit: University of Washington Press

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.

The isolation and “emptiness” also addressed both security and safety issues: Here was a piece of property, like a homestead, where you could do whatever you wanted, and no one would know, care, or get hurt. On the frontier, there was freedom for cowboys and nuclear engineers. The risk of being downwind? Just another frontier hazard.

In its early phase, Hanford’s pioneer reactors created the substances needed to bomb Japan into surrender, and later to build the Cold War arsenal. When its mission shifted from winning the war, a new direction was found in the nuclear build-up to face down the Soviet Union. Hanford needed a city to house its staff, so Richland became a federal city run variously by the Army, the Atomic Energy Commission, and government contractors Dupont or General Electric. It was a company town under government control, and the satellite communities of Kennewick and Pasco became part of the Hanford ecosystem and class system: white collar Richland, blue-collar Kennewick, with minority workers shuffled off to the other side of the tracks in Pasco.

But Hanford’s civilian employees wanted more control as time went on. Richlanders wanted to own their own homes, people put down roots and demanded that their electeds look out for the good of Hanford. Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson became tireless Hanford boosters, seeking federal funds and new missions for the site as its reactors became obsolete. The concept of the Tri-Cities became an identity of business and industrial groups, who looked after the area’s growing interests and ambitions. They wanted both the security and backing of federal largesse, but also the full independence of entrepreneurs. 

They tried to sell Hanford as a nuclear industrial complex, a technological innovation center, a source of nuclear power that no one else wanted in their backyards. In fact, a major selling point became the community’s willingness to tolerate risk other communities weren’t willing to take on. In 1986, a poll showed that 72% of Washingtonians were opposed to Hanford becoming a national nuclear waste repository, while a plurality of Tri-Cities citizens, nearly 50%, were in favor of it. The region had what the Tri-City Herald called the “precious ingredient” of public acceptance of risk.

Hanford is a lesson in how hard it is to shut down a government creation once it’s started. There’s the push to keep federal pork rolling, but also the way communities glom on. Just try closing military bases. The inter-connecting web of Hanford, the Columbia Basin, and hydroelectric power created a web of interests that is impossible to untangle. It spawned political constituencies that became powerful, including business, environmental, industrial, and labor groups. Hanford’s mission didn’t only creep; it morphed to perpetuate itself. It also left behind the intractable problem of pollution and waste; rehabilitation is the current mission, expensive, never-ending. The federal government didn’t build a bridge to nowhere at Hanford, it built a new never-ending type of nowhere that will have to be tended, monitored, and contained for millennia.

But it also created a vital community in the Tri-Cities whose mission goes beyond the reservation, yet is ever-tied to it. While the area has tried endless ways of capitalizing on its capacities, location, and atomic history, it has also flourished in other ways. With water, agriculture has flourished. Once, people dreamed of more reactors; now they have thriving wineries. The nuclear reservation, which took so much land out of cultivation and grazing, also preserved Hanford Reach, the last relatively-free-flowing section of the Columbia with its Chinook salmon runs. Hanford might contain some of the most toxic ground on the planet, but it also hosts semi-wild area that is no longer seen as empty, but rich with recreational and biological potential. And there’s even cultural tourism business now that Hanford’s old B Reactor is a national landmark, having produced plutonium for the first nuclear blast (Trinity) and the Nagasaki bomb.

Atomic Frontier Days, while making the case for the federal nature of Hanford, also makes clear that it was local leaders who played a signifcant role in keeping it going, and not just area boomers like Sam Volpentest of the Tri-Cities Nuclear Industrial Council. Volpentest, who could make lemonade out of a toxic lemon, once called the waste at Hanford a “gold mine.” Given the cost of the clean-up, he was partly right.

The book also gives us a look at the attitudes of state figures like Gov. Dan Evans, a former Boeing engineer, and Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, both of whom are classified as pro-Hanford technocrats. Then there is Gov. Art Langlie, a former Seattle mayor who, as a gubernatorial candidate, worried about the impact of construction workers imported during WWII on local jobs, and requested they be sent back where they came from. “Particularly,” he said, “the negroes.”

And there was the dynamic duo of Scoop and Maggie, who were brilliant in obtaining funds and working the bureaucracy to get what they wanted. Jackson was a believer in processed plutonium, asking in the 1950s, “How can we conceivably not want to make every possible atomic weapon we can?” Maggie, at one point, supported damming Hanford Reach to provide more hydropower for industry. The decline of Hanford as a federal favorite can be marked by Magnuson’s 1980 defeat and Jackson’s death in 1983. Local clout waned. Hanford was not simply imposed from above by a too-powerful federal government, but was aided and abetted, for better or worse, by local politics for all its post-war decades.

Atomic Frontier Days is scholarly, well-researched, and doesn’t fall into the category of being either a pro-nuclear propaganda piece or an anti-nuke eco-indictment. It’s an informative, detailed view of the the complicated forces that created and shaped Hanford, and how that is not entirely atypical of how the West was won and sometimes lost.

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