One of the best trends in historic commemoration is a greater willingness to honestly embrace history some would like to forget. In the bill containing Washington's new Wild Sky Wilderness that just passed Congress, there is funding for a National Park Service memorial on Bainbridge Island commemorating the shameful internment of Japanese civilians during World War II. The internment proposal was pushed hard by Rep. Jay Inslee and Sen. Maria Cantwell. Coming to terms with our nuclear past is another problematic area, but one that is also getting more attention in the West.
The latest issue of High Country News features a story by Jennifer Weeks called "Remembering our atomic past: Proposed museums help preserve the west's nuclear history" (subscription req.). The piece looks at the proposal to convert Hanford's old B Reactor into a museum, and a similar museum project is underway in Rocky Flats, Colorado. As I wrote earlier, there is also talk of developing a nuclear exhibit and education center somewhere in the Seattle area by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. They are eying the old Nuclear Reactor Building (More Hall Annex) on the University of Washington campus as a possible site.
There already are museums and visitor's centers that look at aspects of our "atomic past," notably the Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico where you can buy everything from an Albert Einstein T-shirt to matching Fat Man and Little Boy shot glasses. But such museums inevitably make people squirm because the nuclear legacy is not just one of science and energy, but one that encompasses mass destruction, war, radiation sickness, displacement, and environmental pollution. Does one weep for the victims of Hiroshima, applaud the brilliance and enterprise of the Manhattan Project pioneers, or celebrate Cold War victory with a swig from an Einstein "Half Life" coffee mug?
That complexity is exactly why these projects are compelling and necessary. In the High Country News story, former University of Washington and now Stanford historian Richard White is asked about how such museums should tell the story:
First, says White, they should describe how the [nuclear] sites' missions evolved as the Cold War played out beyond the urgency of the war years. Second, they should tell the stories of the people who were displaced. (At Hanford, for example, more than 1,500 settlers were moved off their land, and the Native Americans were denied access to the Columbia for fishing.) "A few years ago, people would have tried to eradicate leftovers from the past that were considered distasteful and make things pristine, the way the U.S. did when it rebuilt Berlin," White says. "This is much better. Buildings provide a physical presence."
That latter point is really interesting, because so much of our nuclear history took place in secret at remote facilities, necessary both in wartime and for safety. And radiation itself is invisible, which was part of the reason it was so feared: You could be killed even if you were miles away from a blast site, or years later from exposure by cancer. On top of that, the atomic Cold War was in some respects itself virtual, a theoretical conflict of war-games and what-if scenarios.
Creating museums that wrestle with the pros and cons of nuclear power and weapons can make it all tangible, can go beyond bunkers and burial sites and bring it into the daylight. The story quotes Kim Grant, who is involved with the Rocky Flats museum:
The Cold War was predicated on the idea that war would never be fought, so we don't have battlefields and artifacts as we do from the Civil War. Much of this stuff was off-limits, behind fences or buried in the ground. But if you look, it's all over the place in the West. It's not being preserved or commemorated very well, so we have a kind of amnesia about it.
Amnesia isn't a good thing when we're still making atomic history and will continue to for tens of thousands of years. Preserving memory is not only smart policy, but it could be a matter of survival. The story points out that the B Reactor in Washington was the first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world and made the plutonium for the Trinity test and Fat Man, the bomb we dropped on Nagasaki. Rocky Flats was where they made nuclear bomb triggers from the 1950s through the 1980s. While the U.S. government is spending many billions of dollars to clean up nuclear sites, it seems only proper that some of that money should be siphoned into restoring the full historic record so that all of us can learn more about the consequences, for better and worse, of our actions.
And speaking of drawing public attention: Abby Martin, the UW grad student who is trying to save the UW's Nuclear Reactor building, tells me that a student organization, Friends of the Nuclear Reactor Building, will be holding a barbecue at the site to accompany an art installation there on May 16. They'll be inviting architecture and engineering students and hope to draw attention to the building, which was one of the few — perhaps only — nuclear reactor sites designed specifically to be visible to the public. The reactor's been decommissioned, so no roasting weenies in the core. Details on the event to follow.