Trip Like I Do—Hanford Works, June 28

Somewhere past this barrier is the B Reactor, where plutonium was manufactured for more than a quarter of a century and was used “in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in ‘Fat Man,’ the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.”

By 1966, the N Reactor came on and this death factory started to produce electricity, so up until that moment, the massive amount of energy produced here through the splitting of atoms and collision of neutrons “served no social purpose,” as Richard White so poignantly puts it. He goes on:

“Everything at Hanford seemed to produce its opposite, and then blur the distinctions between them. Having chosen the region because of its sparse population, having emptied the original Hanford, the government started to repopulate it. … Hanford was both full and empty.”

The double-tragedy of this place is that the Wanapum people were the first to be displaced to make room for this empty quadrant. And nothing was left untouched:

“Like the river itself, each radionuclide has its own geography, its own pathway which intersects with the flow of water, the movement of air, the circulation of blood. Scientists were initially confident that they could contain the releases … But they didn’t understand the nature of the Hanford Reservation. … Seen in one way, Hanford represented the transcendence of nature. … Seen another way, Hanford only complicated natural systems. It could not escape the movement of wind and water or the life cycles of plants and animals. It could not escape human bodies. It became another complicating and dangerous element in a vastly complicated organic machine.”

An element that killed people here and abroad, then and many years after the fact, through thyroid cancers and other complications. The government has been cleaning up the area and is even now opening up the site for scheduled bus tours; I plan to go on one of these someday.

The whole place is spooky, not just because of its awful past, but also, in how strangely its memory is being kept. There’s an “Atomic Heritage Foundation” that supports the tours here. On their website, you’ll find interviews with Nagasaki survivors that look more like interrogations, as well as papers raising awareness of the engineering efforts that went on here in a field where nuclear physicists get all the glory. It’s bizarre. A microcosm of a country that hasn’t fully figured out the terrors it has wrought. Power is the subtext of everything out here.

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