A black and white arial photo of a cluster of buildings and smoke stacks along a river. Image: Hanford's N Reactor. (United States Department of Energy) Back To All Blog Posts

How Washington State Built a Nuclear World

Hanford is “the single most important place in the nuclear era,” argues author Steve Olson.

  • January 9, 2023
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  • Editorial
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  • By Steve Olson

In the Middle Ages, alchemists sought to convert what they called base metals like lead into precious metals like gold. They always failed. Converting one element into another element requires tools far more powerful than those available to the medieval alchemists.

The first place in the world where large-scale alchemy occurred was on a windswept plain in south-central Washington State. There, at a site now known as the Hanford nuclear reservation, scientists and engineers constructed the first devices capable of converting, in quantity, one element into another. But these modern alchemists were not turning lead into gold. They were creating a new element, discovered just a few years previously, that is needed to make atomic bombs.

Today, most people know relatively little about Hanford. During World War II, when Hanford was built, and in the Cold War that followed, Hanford was shrouded in secrecy. People who worked there—like my grandfather, who was a steamfitter at Hanford—could not tell anyone what they did at their jobs. Even today, though the site is now part of a newly created national park, an air of secrecy still clings to the place, as if the era of Cold War spies had never ended.

That needs to change. In my Speakers Bureau talk, “Atomic Washington: Our Nuclear Past, Present, and Future”, which is based on my book The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age, I argue that Hanford is in fact the single most important place in the nuclear era. If Hanford had not been built, the United States probably would not have had atomic bombs by the end of World War II. Today, every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal contains a trigger about the size of your fist made of the material manufactured at Hanford. And the ongoing cleanup of the site provides the world with a warning of the difficulties it will face if it opts for a nuclear-powered future.

Of the three sites in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park—Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Los Alamos in New Mexico, and Hanford, in eastern Washington State—the latter is where the physical, the personal, and the political meet most starkly. Hanford represents one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. It also embodies a moral blindness that could destroy us all. People have begun to realize, after decades of warnings, that climate change poses a severe threat to our species. Yet they blithely overlook the fact that human civilization could end in an afternoon if the leaders of the nuclear states were to unleash the force that Hanford has placed in their hands.

The B Reactor has been called a cathedral to twentieth-century science. But if so, it is a cathedral to a direful god.”

It’s not easy to get to the National Park site at Hanford. You have to go to Richland, Washington, and board a bus at a visitor center on the outskirts of town. That bus will take you, usually accompanied by a docent engineer who used to work at Hanford, 30 miles through the desert, to a bend in the Columbia River just south of the Saddle Mountains. There the bus will turn onto a gravel road and approach a massive concrete structure that rises like a modern-day pyramid from the sagebrush plain.

The first time I walked through the doors of the B Reactor at Hanford, it took my breath away. I couldn’t believe that this structure still existed and that you could walk through it as casually as if you were walking through a shopping mall. Furthermore, the facility is almost exactly the same as when the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi started it up on September 26, 1944. The B Reactor has been called a cathedral to 20th century science. But if so, it is a cathedral to a direful god.

The B Reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor built anywhere in the world. At the end of 1942, Enrico Fermi had built a small-scale reactor under the stands of an abandoned football field at the University of Chicago. Most histories of that reactor depict it as a triumph of scientific experimentation, as the world’s first demonstration that a controlled nuclear reaction was possible – and it was that. But Fermi actually had a much more immediate and practical goal in mind. He wanted to demonstrate that the large-scale nuclear reactors that even then were being designed at the University of Chicago, and which soon would begin to rise next to the Columbia River in eastern Washington, would work.

A black and white photo of workers in white jumpsuits working on a large, towering machine with what appear to be slots and pegs.

Image: Hanford’s B Reactor under construction, 1943/44. (United States Department of Energy)

Today we usually think of nuclear reactors as devices for the production of heat that can be used to drive turbines and generate electricity. But they originally were created to produce something much more specific – subatomic particles called neutrons. When uranium atoms split in a nuclear reactor, they emit energetic neutrons that can be used for many different purposes. In the reactors at Hanford, those neutrons were used to convert other uranium atoms into a new and artificial element that had been discovered just two years earlier, an element that its discoverers had named plutonium.

Plutonium, it turns out, is the best material in the universe for making atomic bombs. Pound for pound, it produces a far more powerful explosion than any other element. That’s why plutonium was the material used in the world’s first atomic explosion – on July 16, 1945, in a desert south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Plutonium was in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, three weeks later, and it would have been in the future bombs the United States was building to drop on Japan if the country had not surrendered. Plutonium’s power as a bomb-making material is why it’s used as a trigger in our nuclear weapons today and in almost all the nuclear weapons that exist elsewhere in the world.

Hanford produced plutonium for our bombs until the 1970s, at which point the United States and Soviet Union had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons each—an absolutely insane number, enough to destroy the world many times over. With so much nuclear overkill in its arsenals, the United States realized that it had more plutonium than it would ever need, and the mission of Hanford transitioned from plutonium production to cleanup of the incredible environmental mess that production had created. Extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel cells generates huge quantities of extremely toxic and radioactive chemicals, and in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s Hanford’s operators had no idea what to do with those chemicals—plus they had a war to win; someone else could deal with the waste problem. Their solution was to build 177 gigantic tanks as big as auditoriums in the middle of the desert and fill them with the chemicals left over from plutonium production. The tanks built in the 1940s had a design life of about 20 years. Just this year, the Department of Energy and its contractors started converting the waste in those tanks into glass logs that, eventually, once a place is found to dispose of them, could be buried deep underground.

There’s another legacy of the nuclear era here in Washington State. Twenty miles northwest of Seattle, on the eastern shore of Hood Canal, is the largest stockpile of deployed nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. That’s the site of Naval Base Kitsap, which is the home port of the United States’ west coast fleet of ballistic missile submarines. Each of the eight Ohio-class submarines that sail from Naval Base Kitsap carries up to 24 Trident II missiles, and each of those missiles has four to five independently targetable warheads. In other words, a single submarine sailing from Washington State has enough firepower to destroy every major city in Russia—and a single Russian submarine has the ability to do the same to all our major cities.

Washington State has been at the very center of the nuclear era. Plutonium was first manufactured here. Hanford remains the most radiologically contaminated site in the western hemisphere. Naval Base Kitsap has enough nuclear bombs to destroy humanity. Perhaps that gives us, as residents of this state, a special responsibility to help ensure not only that nuclear weapons are never used but that they are abolished from the face of the Earth.

Check out Steve Olson’s Speakers Bureau talk, Atomic Washington: Our Nuclear Past, Present, and Future, online and in-person around the state.

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