The sole upside of leaking radioactive sludge from (at last count) six 1940s-era tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is to prompt Westerners to revisit a complex political and engineering history. Perspectives evolve. Prior to the space race, the Manhattan Project was shorthand for a scientific marvel, for telescoping a colossal project into an abridged timeline. We need a Manhattan Project to fight polio, 1950s-era politicians said, to create cold fusion, to put a man on the moon. There was a cost to plutonium production, however.
“During World War II and the Cold War, the West received more than its share of America’s nuclear weapons facilities.” John Findlay and Bruce Hevly write in “Atomic Frontier Days.” “As a result, it also received more than its share of the nation’s Atomic Age pollution.”
Today, Hanford’s legacy is a muddle, the mother to the Manhattan Project in need of a 21st Century Manhattan Project cleanup. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, is an overlooked treasure. To transcend pigeonholing, Hanford demands renewed understanding.
Last Thursday, Washington U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced a bipartisan bill to establish a National Historical Park at three Manhattan Project-related sites: Hanford, Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. A national historical park provides the kind of protection afforded sites such as Valley Forge and Lincoln’s birthplace.
“Designating the B Reactor as a National Historical Park would secure its long-term preservation while expanding visitor access to a key site in our nation’s history,” Cantwell said. “Giving historic sites at Hanford the same status as Independence Hall will help honor the groundbreaking engineering achievements and tremendous sacrifices of those who labored there.”
The region’s business honchos support the effort in part to celebrate the remarkable work of Hanford employees and to tease out a richer narrative of the Tri-Cities. Historians are keen for a dispassionate understanding of the B Reactor. Retired engineers currently oversee tours, accommodating and masterful on the science but often reticent on the history. (“This was how we won WWII, now, back to the graphite used..”) The National Park Service is better equipped to provide a comprehensive interpretation.
In addition to the B Reactor, the bill will extend protection to Hanford High School and other buildings that illustrate the site’s history, including the relocation of local families.
A national historical park won’t cleanup Hanford. But a deeper understanding of the West’s Cold War legacy will, in the very least, intensify calls to come to terms with it.