Western Trailblazers of the Atomic Age and Beyond: Interview with John Findley and Bruce Hevly





2-20-12

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney who contributes to History News Network, Crosscut, Real Change and other publication on history, social issues, politics, law, medicine, the media and the arts.

The strong man with the dagger is followed by
 the weak man with the sponge.
—Lord Acton

During the Second World War, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the banks of the Columbia River in south central Washington State attracted thousands of workers to the desolate and sparsely populated area.  Few of the workers knew the aim of the Hanford project until an atomic bomb fueled with Hanford-produced plutonium incinerated the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and hastened the end of the war.

After the war—and a brief hiatus—Hanford resumed creating material for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. By the late 1980s, however, as the Cold War waned and fear of nuclear contamination and disease mounted, Hanford stopped producing plutonium and shifted its mission to environmental cleanup and restoration. The site continues to make news as technical experts, lawyers, activists and politicians joust over its controversial past and uncertain future.

Most books on Hanford tend to either present a triumphalist story of a new nuclear technology that won wars hot and cold or a sobering antinuclear tale of contamination and human illness.

But University of Washington history professors Dr. John Findlay and Dr. Bruce Hevly found a more complicated and nuanced story. In their new book, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (University of Washington Press), they illuminate modern American Western history by focusing on Hanford and the story of the communities that grew from the mammoth project there—the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

Dr. Findlay, a specialist in urban and social history, and Dr. Hevly, an expert in the history of science and technology, chronicle the legacy of the atom and how the citizens of this unique region coped with war, economic and ecological challenges, and dependence on federal largesse and corporate power. The authors concede that they cannot resolve contemporary controversies over nuclear weapons or the environmental and health effects of Hanford, but they seek to “recapture the contours of past interactions between the federal presence in the West, the communities dependent on it, and the ways in which a broader regional polity variously supported, opposed and ignored it.”     

The book has been praised for its meticulous research and measured, “neutral” account of the fortunes of Hanford and the Tri-Cities. Eminent historian of the American West, Richard White, commented: "Atomic Frontier Days captures one of the most interesting and controversial places in the American West in all its surprising particularity. Technologically sophisticated, shrewd, at once analytically unflinching and generous, it belongs on the short list of books necessary to understand the West and its complicated relation to the nation." And Seattle writer Knute Berger noted that the book offers “an informative detailed view of the complicated forces that created and shaped Hanford, and how that is not entirely atypical of how the West was won and sometimes lost.”

Dr. Findlay and Dr. Hevly previously co-edited a collection of historical essays, The Atomic West (1998). They recently sat down and talked about Atomic Frontier Days at the University of Washington.

Can you talk about the origins of your new book, Atomic Frontier Days?           

Dr. John Findlay: Two things happened. I took a tour of the Hanford plant in the late eighties. As a person from Seattle, Hanford always bored me. It was always in the papers, but it didn’t make any sense to me. And I didn’t care about eastern Washington that much. But the site through the [U.S.] Department of Energy (DOE) was offering tours in the late eighties. By that time, it was controversial and people were beginning to talk about the mistakes they made. But a lot of people we talked with on the tour were quite proud of what they’d done and wanted people to know what a special and unique place Hanford was. Many of those people shared really provocative experiences.

The second event was that Bruce came to the University of Washington. We had a mutual interest in the history of technology in the region and we thought this was a topic we could work on together.  

Dr. Bruce Hevly:  I’d add that there was this distinctive period before I came to the University and before John and I started work on the project and it was what resulted in John taking this tour, and that was the opening of the site. There was a decision by the Department of Energy to embrace a policy they called “openness” in the late eighties. That had various consequences. Part of what happened was publication of substantial releases of radioactive contaminants from the site. There had been a generalized concern about this, and the Hanford story took a more concrete form when that material became available.

And a second thing that happened was as the Reagan administration had tried to increase the production of nuclear weapons as part of its stance to bring the Cold War to an end. The Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union had drawn people’s attention again back to Hanford because [its] N nuclear reactor, a major Hanford resource that produced plutonium, was of the same type as Chernobyl. So suddenly there was a specific point of interest at Hanford and [raised] all these questions about whether the site was safe, and about how you make assessments of that safety and how much risk people were willing to assume to meet some other goals that had been associated with the site. 

There is a sense, as John said, that a lot of the Hanford story has been out of the public view but at moments when it effloresced it got interesting, and one of those moments was in the end of the eighties. 

Bruce, you have a background in physics and chemistry.  Did you have a special interest in Hanford before you began teaching here?

Hevly:  I came here in 1990.  Both John and I came from western Washington and, if you go to the Tri-Cities, people often say you people from western Washington are out to get us.  You’re against us and you don’t know what goes on here. 

The fact is that most folks in western Washington just haven’t thought much about Hanford for a very long time. It’s not that people are out to get Hanford, but they really don’t know anything about Hanford to begin with.

I knew something about it, but it wasn’t so much my physics training that made me aware of it, but I went to graduate school with another historian of science who had graduated as an undergraduate from the University of Washington and he came from Walla Walla, [and] he was educated here by my senior colleague Tom Hankins, a historian of science, who taught a history of the atomic bomb, which he started to teach in 1971. I think we were the first school to teach nuclear history.

My classmate had taken the atomic bomb course from Tom and knew a lot about Hanford and we talked about it. And when I came here, I inherited that course from Tom and I began teaching nuclear history, following in Tom’s footsteps. We have local sites that are important. Hanford’s the most important, [but] there are major nuclear sites in Idaho, and Fort Lawton in Seattle was scheduled to be an anti-ballistic missile site under the Safeguard Program, so there are sites of nuclear history around, which I thought about more when I knew I would be teaching here.

It must be somewhat rare for an urban/social historian to team up with a historian of science to write a sort of biography of a region.

Findlay: I think it was a matter of complementing one another. I learned a lot from Bruce about technical matters that I just never understood when I read about them in the papers, and I’d gloss over that. We’d talk about Hanford together and all the technical things took on meaning. Often the meaning had a direct connection or tremendous influence on the issues or topics I was more interested in, like the emergence of a political-lobbying apparatus in the Tri-Cities that could get more and more [resources] from the federal government.

Although we have different trajectories [and] interests in our research, it wasn’t difficult for those to come together in our research and writing the book, and in many ways it came together quite well.

Hevly: We did take this on in a step-like fashion. There were two catalytic events. One was, even before I came, John wrote me and asked if I’d like work on this. That was the starting point in one sense. The other was we wanted to do something to focus part of the department’s attention on the study of regional history. The department established the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, recognizing there were a number of people in the department working on regional history and it was an attempt to consolidate resources and establish a pattern for collaboration among those people. One thing [the Center] decided to do was hold conferences on topics that would interest wide groups of people, and the first one was a conference called “The Atomic West.” 

Then you edited the book version called The Atomic West.

Hevly: Yes, the edited volume came out of that. The idea there was that three literatures operated in isolation from each another. One was regional history: the history of the West or the Northwest. Second was the  history of science and technology and, in particular, nuclear history. And the third was political history. 

You could find histories of nuclear facilities in the West, whether Los Alamos, or the Lawrence-Berkeley Laboratory in the Bay Area, or nuclear power stations in California, or Hanford, or the Idaho laboratories. Sometimes you found accounts in regional histories, [but] very often it was done by political or institutional historians who very much wrote from the perspective of Washington, D.C. There were also accounts of the development of the technology or the scientific ideas behind the technology. These folks didn’t talk much to one another, so the conference tried to bring those three strands together. 

Once we got the conference volume edited and published, we began with the idea that we would look at Hanford ourselves, but that conference provided a model for how to go about it: that is, to make more than one style of historical interpretation talk to others. What was new to me at the time—which may be a cliché now—was some of the ideas of the new Western history, which had as its banner that the U.S. West was urban, racially-diverse and federally-dependent, and those were ideas to keep in mind when writing a history of the West. All of those ideas applied to Hanford, and for me, that was an idea I never would have gotten if I’d stayed within the history of science and technology.

Findlay: Hanford was a case study in the new Western history in many ways: the federal government role in the early development, the urban development, the racial diversity. Another thing was that we were struck by how many histories of nuclear sites were written from Washington, D.C. That’s an important perspective, but the people of the West and at these sites weren’t just waiting for Washington D.C. to tell them what to do or to hand out resources or take them away. They had their own lobbying machine.  They would sometimes resist what the federal government wanted or push it even further.  It was important to look at the relationship between the locality and the federal government and the role of state officials, elected or otherwise, and see how those parts worked together.

Did your research include much oral history?

Findlay: We didn’t do many oral histories. We did a couple and relied on some that were already out there. Even though many records concerning Hanford remain classified, our problem was never a shortage of resources. If you do a project on the twentieth century that has to do with the government, almost always your problem will be too many resources. There are not only government documents but newspaper coverage and so on. It’s fair to say we could have done oral histories in many areas and broadened what we did, but I felt inundated by too many things, even while being acutely aware of things we left out. 

You’d think that being in Washington, D.C., or in the Tri-Cities would be a better location than Seattle for the research, but being in Seattle [was] pretty good, too, because our library is the repository for all the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project materials and for the archives for Senators Magnuson and Jackson, and their fingers were all over Hanford from the start. So there’s material here that students of Hanford had never seen in this detail. We could have done more foraging than we did, but there was way too much stuff already and it was a relief to limit it.

Hevly: And there’s a couple other things that shaped it. I’m very aware of how many things we didn’t get to, and I’m told there’s a time when you have to stop research and write. There’s certainly more out there. 

We did this in steps, and the second step after the edited volume was that we wrote a chronological history of Hanford and the Tri-Cities with support from the Department of Energy. This became a substantial narrative history that they relied on a fair amount when they did a site history for a historic preservation process that attended the dismantling of the site, which is now ongoing. We actually made a proposal for support from them to do a first version of a history, and in that proposal we asked for support to do an oral history, and we didn’t get that support. At that point, we didn’t have the resources to engage interviewers especially to get the workers’ perspective. If the funding had been available, we might have tried it.

The other thing that was very striking to me, although there was a lot of material available in the Tri-Cities, it was also interesting to see how records were kept there and it shaped what you could get at. When we were doing archival research, records in the Tri-Cities had classified material intermixed with non-classified material. Since neither one of us has a security clearance, particularly the clearance that the Department of Energy requires, we couldn’t see a lot of material. That meant we saw copies of material we couldn’t see in the Tri-Cities in Germantown, Maryland, at Department of Energy Headquarters, and John found an enormous amount of Manhattan Project material in the Army took a lot of the records to the repository closest to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was the Atlanta Records Center. A lot of those materials had migrated away. Still, we assume there’s a fair amount in the Tri-Cities, but a lot of it we haven’t been able to see.

Findlay: We also asked for funding for a photography project that would look at past and present, and that also was not funded. We looked at different angles at different times. But you can’t do a project like this without talking to people. Even if the discussions aren’t formal, taped interviews, you learn from a lot of people, and that kind of conversation is always going on. There are many people who helped us through conversation. So there was oral history, but it was all informal, little of it recorded.

Also, as you talk to people, you realize that Hanford can be very polarizing. People are either quite critical of it or quite defensive about it. After a while, I came to feel that probing those two perspectives at great length wouldn’t have been very productive. You’ll get the same defensiveness or the same criticism from certain groups of people. Often it was easier, or more productive, to go back and see what they said in papers at the time. And there was no shortage of material in the DOE archives, in the library, in the newspapers, in the Congressional and Senate papers, and so on. There were plenty of voices there and never a shortage of material.

You’ve had positive reviews in terms of the objectivity of the book on more controversial issues, and it seems that was a goal of your project.

Findlay: People haven’t trashed us yet, but I think some people would say “why are you so neutral? Why don’t you take a side?” There’s still litigation. There’s still clean up. There are still moral questions about nuclear weapons. We’re reasonably happy about our position. You’re right that we aimed for a neutral perspective. There are some people that won’t be satisfied that it is so neutral. It doesn’t provide ammunition for a particular agenda. 

Hevly: But I think we have both felt that we’re living proof of the proposition that if you stick to the middle of the road, you get hit by traffic in both directions.

But we do take a strong advocacy position in the book. This may be a cop-out, but the position we take is to advocate on behalf of a historian’s approach: asking questions about context and about complicated narratives. 

There are simple narratives. The simplest narrative is we’re all victims. We’re up here in the in the upper left-hand corner, minding our own business, and the government comes and poisons us all and keeps it all secret and won’t tell us what they’re doing—and that’s horrible and undemocratic and totalitarian. That’s a simple narrative.

We think there’s a more complicated narrative, which historians tend to provide, that is more true and more useful. The complicated narrative is that we wanted the government here. We wanted the jobs. We wanted to industrialize eastern Washington and to make the fullest possible use of the Columbia River to enhance the economic development of the state. That’s not to say the government always told the truth or always made all the relevant facts available, because that’s not true.  But it’s also not true that we were ignorant of what was going on there and so that we were totally against it. There were times when Washingtonians advocated forcefully for federal investment in Hanford, and not just people in the Tri-Cities, but people all over the state.

So the book takes an advocacy position on behalf of history and part of that, as John said, is saying very clearly that there’s an ongoing history of Hanford. Some of Hanford’s history will be resolved in the courts, and historians generally can’t really answer questions of legal responsibility. There are histories going on in epidemiological studies that remain controversial, and probably historians are not superior to epidemiologists when it comes to resolving questions about cancer rates and causes.

But historians provide some guidance not just in terms of relevant facts, but also about attitudes that people might take when thinking about decisions made in the past. Just begin with the idea that the Cold War wasn’t just a big joke. You often see references to Cold War hysteria or the assumption that there was an unrealistic concern about expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union.

The historian’s job is not to go back and correct people’s perceptions of the past and say you were really wrong about Stalin. It may be more important to remind people that people were really worried about Stalin, and that’s part of what was going on.                                           

Thank you for explaining the perspective of the book—and the role of the historian. As a point of full disclosure, I grew up in Spokane and went through the duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack. I don’t recall hearing much about Hanford, and I think it was out of sight, out of mind, for many of us despite its proximity until more recent revelations on contaminants and so on.

Findlay: It’s not a part of our book, but [Spokane] has a reputation as a conservative city. Washington Water Power and a lot of natural resource industries like mining dominated the economy but, in the eighties, one of the reasons Hanford becomes a big issue and so much material is released is that activists and journalists, especially in Spokane, are so persistent. There’s Karen Dorn Steele [Spokesman-Review reporter] and the Hanford Education Action League [HEAL] that file hundreds of Freedom of Information requests and get stuff declassified and pressure the Department of Energy [and other agencies] to release information. And Spokane is part of the story that we underplayed with the activists there. 

What was the Hanford area like before the Second World War and the Manhattan Project?

Findlay: There were four or five small towns in the area. The area was heavily agricultural. Pasco and Kennewick were the bigger towns and both of them were involved in processing and transporting food products from farms in the area, including farms on what is now the Hanford reservation. Richland, White Bluff, and Hanford were small towns on land that eventually became part of the federal enclave. 

These farms relied on irrigation, but there had never had been much investment in irrigation. Through the 1930s the combination of the Depression and aridity drove a lot of people away. They couldn’t get much value for their crops. When the Army showed up in 1942 to look at the site and condemn it, it was persuaded that the farms weren’t worth a lot of money and they always offered lowball estimates and the Army at that time tried to get [property] for as little as possible. But it’s also the case that people had moved away and farms were abandoned or weren’t really being utilized fully. Access to water wasn’t readily available. The emerging Columbia Basin irrigation project was going to irrigate the other side of the Columbia first, so even farmers who were looking forward to irrigation didn’t have much hope of getting any water from the Grand Coulee Dam project in any short order.

The Army felt when it was buying the property that it wasn’t worth a lot of money and it had seen better days, which weren’t glory days to begin with, and the Depression had undermined any prosperity. So there’s not a lot of money being offered, but the farmers in 1942 are having the best year in a long time and they resist the Army offers and want to increase the money being offered by the Army.

There are some things in the area that attract the Army. One is the brand new Grand Coulee Dam. Even though irrigation is a ways off, the dam is finished and providing electricity. The Army also sees that the river can cool the reactors and carry away waste products. And then Pasco has a railroad that goes into the reservation and that’s crucial for bringing in people. Even though the overall economic climate has never been one of prosperity, especially during the Great Depression, there are key structural elements there—the river, electricity and a railroad—so you can industrialize rather quickly.

Hevly: There was an air station in Pasco too, so there’s the rudiments of a military infrastructure. Once the Army has condemned and purchased the land, in addition to electricity and a lot of cold water, they have empty space, which is also thought of as a crucial resource for the project that not every site would offer. So this area upstream of Pasco and Kennewick is regarded as the ideal spot and is immediately recognized as such by the survey team.

There are indigenous people still there. The Wanapum tribe is one, and they have fishing rights on the river, although the damming of the Columbia with the Bonneville Dam downstream changed the fishing economy of the river. 

It’s interesting that in the accounts of the scientists who came from Chicago, they would get off the train in Pasco and go to the site and it was what they expected: a desolate wasteland with sand blowing all over and Indians trekking back and forth across the site. Many of these people were from back east and some were European refugees, so they knew this was what the West was like. The reason it was like this was because the Army had removed the agricultural settlements, cut down orchards, bulldozed areas and stirred up sand. And the Army commander on site came to an agreement with some of the native people that they could continue to fish in the Columbia, but they had to be escorted across the site. So you had treks across the site under escort to make that fishing possible. What the Army had done accidentally was to create an Old West film set for the Easterners to appreciate when they arrived.

Were the Indians eventually displaced or were they permitted to remain?

Findlay: They lived north of where the Hanford reservation was created. They were accustomed to fishing on the river and taking the fish back, and the Army allowed them to continue after much negotiation and deliberation. It was surprising. The Army trampled a lot of people’s rights and somehow it didn’t trample these Indians’ rights. I’m not sure these Indians have treaty rights. They’re not on a reservation like other treaty Indians, like the Yakima for example. But somehow, Col. [Franklin T.] Matthias and the Army allowed them to continue fishing as though it was something they couldn’t abridge. When they abridged everyone else’s rights, this [situation] stands out starkly as an exception to the overall pattern.

Hevly: Col. Matthias said, “why don’t we fish for you and bring you the fish?” The Wanapum said “no, we have to go the Hanford Reach and fish.” Col. Matthias finally agreed and they used trucks and they were escorted in and out. But he could have said we’re the U.S. Army, and the Army is in the business of not letting Indians do whatever they want. Instead, they got to fish on the site.

Findlay: Something else that didn’t make it into the book. I found this letter from the DOE to an Indian rights attorney in the 1980s. They’re asking some basic questions about treaties and Indian rights forty years after they occupied the place.  It’s curious that, after operating the site for 45 years, they still didn’t understand the roles and rights of Native Americans. I don’t think [the Indians] were allowed to fish after the war at the Hanford Reservation, but Matthias allowed it for a brief period during the war. 

How did Hanford fit into the overall Manhattan Project and the development of atomic weapons?

Hevly: It happens very quickly. The discovery of uranium fission happens almost simultaneously with the move to war in 1939. That is, the fact that uranium can be induced to undergo a process of division in which it gives up a lot of energy as it breaks apart raised the prospect of a chain reaction. Neutrons, which are subatomic particles, will cause some uranium atoms under some circumstances to shake themselves apart. In that process, uranium atoms give up more neutrons so you can have a multiplying effect. If that happens at a slower rate, it produces a lot of heat and you can use that to run a motor, or turn water into steam, or turn a turbine and you have electricity, or you can turn the propeller on an aircraft carrier. If it happens very rapidly, you then get an explosion.

 The problem in making a bomb is to get a sufficient amount of this material in close proximity—or a critical mass—and you have to keep that critical mass separate until you want it to explode, and then you have put it together very rapidly to get an explosion.

Starting in 1940, people’s attention was on uranium, the first material they had seen with this artificial fission taking place. But further theoretical work suggested that not all uranium will undergo fission of the type needed for an explosion. For that you need a rare uranium-239, which is chemically identical to the great mass of uranium, which is uranium-238. (The number has to do with the number of protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of the atom.) Because they are chemically identical, you can only separate them based on the mass of a single neutron ... to isolate the fissionable isotope.

There is another substance called plutonium. It was mainly a theoretical element, although very minute amounts were created in accelerators before the United States’ entry into the war. So, in the summer of 1942, when there’s a move to invest heavily in nuclear weapons on the part of the United States, the decision was made to hedge any bets and pursue both major options. Uranium isotope separation was pursued at Oak Ridge. Then the idea was to also produce plutonium, which you do by putting uranium fuel in reactors; plutonium is a by-product of the processes that take place in uranium-fueled reactors. 

Rather than concentrate everything at Oak Ridge, which had limited supplies of space, labor, electricity and other resources, the decision was made to put plutonium production elsewhere. That leads to the search for the ideal site, and that brings people to Hanford. The advantage of making plutonium in reactors is that, once you’ve run the reactors for a while, you can take the used reactor fuel and do chemical separation on that because plutonium is chemically distinct from uranium.

Once you cook the uranium to produce the plutonium, extracting the plutonium is a straightforward chemical engineering problem, which companies like DuPont were very familiar with, and the DuPont Company was drafted to manage the Hanford site.

Findlay: And Los Alamos is where the final weapon will be determined and the inventors will manufacture [the parts] that make each of these weapons work. It wasn’t obvious from the start which fuel to choose and that takes the [expertise] of the physicists. The fuel is either made at Oak Ridge or Hanford and that is sent to Los Alamos for final assembly.

Didn’t it turn out that Oak Ridge made the components for the Hiroshima bomb and Hanford made the Nagasaki bomb?

Hevly: Yes. During the war, people find that it’s relatively easy to make a uranium bomb explode, but it’s difficult to get the fuel for a uranium bomb. And it’s relatively easy, once you make the investment, to produce plutonium, but it’s very difficult to get a plutonium bomb to explode. That’s why the first nuclear detonation—the Trinity test in New Mexico—is a test of plutonium device. But the uranium bomb was never tested and was first used in combat because people were so sure it would work—but also because there wasn’t sufficient uranium fuel to test one because it was so difficult to get even enough uranium for one [weapon].

The plutonium from Hanford was used for the Nagasaki bomb, and to some it seems this second bomb was something of an afterthought and raised more troubling questions for some than the first Hiroshima bomb. That’s probably outside the scope of your research.

Findlay: There’s all kinds of arguments. Some people say both bombs were necessary and some say neither was necessary. And some say the first was necessary and the second was unnecessary. 

I think that Truman and the decision makers had imperfect information. Even today many American historians discussing one or two bombs still don’t know enough about what the Japanese were thinking and why they changed their minds. There’s some new findings that the Russian decision to [attack] and the increasing proximity of the Russians to Japan was as important or more important than one or two bombs. But that’s not my expertise.

Did the government go to plutonium bombs during the Cold War because plutonium is easier to produce than uranium?

Hevly: That’s evolving technology. At the end of World War II, Hanford had the ability to keep producing more plutonium than Oak Ridge could produce fissionable uranium. The plan was that if the Japanese did not surrender, Hanford would keep producing plutonium bombs and the Army Air Force would keep dropping plutonium bombs on Japan until they did surrender. 

After the war, uranium is in demand for all kinds of things because you need it for bomb fuel or to fill reactors to make plutonium. There’s a uranium boom in the U.S. after the war [with] expanded uranium mining in the United States and Canada.  There’s a huge emphasis on prospecting for uranium. 

But in getting bombs per year or kilograms of fissionable material per year, plutonium seems like a good bet. Before long, the demand is that for material to be available for producing bombs for the stockpile but also for research. There are different designs. A mixed plutonium-uranium design is a very effective explosive and that demands some of both. In the late forties and fifties on, the big emphasis is on hydrogen bombs or fusion weapons. For hydrogen bombs to work, you need a fission bomb to ignite a fusion reaction in another kind of fuel, and for that a plutonium core is useful in terms of its radiation per weight.

So Hanford finds a demand for its product, and as time goes on, some of the component production is done at Hanford so, rather than machining bomb cores elsewhere, some of that is done on site at Hanford under conditions of great secrecy so that the workers themselves can’t even see the equipment. The plutonium goes behind a curtain and gets processed into specific shapes that no one is supposed to know as components of hydrogen bombs.

There’s controversy about what kind of bombs to make, but plutonium is in tremendous demand for all kinds of them, whether straight plutonium bombs, mixed bombs or boosted fission bombs, or hydrogen bombs.

Some may think of Hanford as a research facility with physicists like Einstein and Oppenheimer running things, but you correct that impression and portray Hanford as a production facility rather than a think tank.

Findlay: I have friends at the University of New Mexico who are fascinated by Los Alamos. Some who write about Hanford make the mistake that it’s like Los Alamos and they call it a national laboratory with physicists in charge. It’s a mistake imposing on Hanford what they know about Los Alamos. One of the points that Tom Hankins made from the start was that Hanford was not like that. Physicists were crucial for what happened at Hanford and they visited from time to time, especially when they started up the reactors, but it was a place run by chemical engineers, engineers and chemists, and it’s a production facility with all that suggests about workforce and those kinds of things.

Hevly: We wind up calling Hanford a culture of production.  It’s a problem-solving place and a place where a lot that gets done is because of skill not because of theory. Reactors, for example, aren’t operated by feedback circuits but actually by reactor operators, who play the reactor like an organ as they pull control rods in and out and manage the activity of the reactor in different zones. The reactor is a big cube, so things happen very differently in the very middle than they do at the outer edges.  The operator has to read temperature gauges and there is a constant dynamic interaction between the operator and the reactor. When things go wrong, there’s a problem-solving process that might involve some advance in theory but also might involve some advance in plumbing or design or logistics. There are all kinds of ways to overcome problems. The secret to the longevity of Hanford is that they have this problem-solving ethos and that they’re incredibly reliable at producing plutonium using old-style technology, [for] the reactor designs are not the latest and greatest for after World War II, but Hanford makes them work.

Findlay: The production focus was pronounced in World War II, [but] it was even greater after the war. The federal government separates its program in terms of production versus research more and more after the war. Hanford becomes a part of the government production bureaucracy, and Los Alamos, the University of California at Berkeley and Lawrence are part of the research cluster, so there’s a distinction between production and research, or scientists and engineers.

Can you talk about the transition of Hanford from the Second World War to the beginnings of the Cold War?    

Findlay: First, there was a hiatus and then questions of whether to continue production at Hanford and whether to continuing making nuclear bombs, and initially there was uncertainty and discussion.  So for about a year—1945 and 1946—what will happen with Hanford is uncertain. It’s not clear that the plant can continue to function. There was something called graphite creep and, unless some problems were solved, every reactor would overcook itself and begin to fall apart.  And then there are questions about whether the country will continue to demand nuclear weapons. If it does, there’s questions about whether to put them under international control or whether each nation will decide for itself.

By the end of 1946, it’s clear that the nation will commit to more production of nuclear weapons, and that crystallizes in 1947 with the Truman Doctrine and Churchill’s [“Iron Curtain”] speech and other things kick that off the Cold War. And a decision is made to expand and improve the three reactors that were built during World War II. By 1955, five more reactors are added, all larger than the ones built during World War II. So you go from three to eight reactors by the mid-1950s. And the decision is made that plutonium will be the fuel of choice for American nuclear bombs. They not only expand the size of Hanford, but they add a second plutonium facility at Savannah River [South Carolina]. That ultimately has a big impact for Hanford, but for the 1950s both are needed to produce enough plutonium.

The main Cold War transformation was to expand Hanford and to maintain and increase the production of plutonium. And plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so once you have certain quantity of it, it doesn’t go away. By the early 1960s, they decide they have close to enough and can close some of the Hanford reactors. And by 1971, all of those reactors are closed down. And even Savannah River cuts back on production.  So Hanford’s reactors are closed down for making plutonium, though they’re opened again in 1981 for a few years.

And the 1981 re-opening coincides with Reagan’s call for more nuclear weapons?

Findlay: Yes.  And the N-Reactor is in production from 1982 to 1987.  Then, after Chernobyl, it’s closed down permanently

Hevly: The key is that Hanford offers a liability as a production site. After the war, there were questions about whether Hanford should be kept open at all. It was too close to the Canadian border, within bomber range of the Soviet Union, and difficult to defend because, being downstream of the Coulee Dam, if you destroy the dam, you could flood out the Hanford production site. And at times, Washington State is not considered politically reliable—and called “the Soviet of Washington.”

There were a lot of investments made elsewhere. Hanford offered the ability to build the same kind of reactor bigger and better using the same design principles as those built during the war. They kept the wartime reactors going much longer than anyone ever planned. They built reactors along the same lines, including quite large ones, and kept cranking out plutonium.  Because there was a state of emergency after World War II with the Cold War, there was a huge demand for fissionable material, and whenever anyone [proposed] closing Hanford, the response was “like it or not, we need Hanford.” And Hanford was good at rewarding people for needing them and that keeps them in business.

The development of the towns around Hanford is a fascinating part of your book.  The government company town of Richland grows as the result of the federal project, and private ownership of homes there is not permitted until the late 1950s.

Findlay: The federal government had built a number of towns [such as] green belt towns in the east, and then operations towns in places like Coulee Dam and Boulder Dam to help support development of needed facilities.

So federal management and construction of towns wasn’t new. Oak Ridge and Los Alamos and Richland were going to be temporary, but they turned out to be long-term investments and the government owned and controlled them, but it wasn’t used to running towns itself, so in each case they hired a contractor to operate the towns on behalf of the government. So there were two entities, the government and whatever contractor it chose for that particular town.  Generally, the government—later the Atomic Energy Commission—got along okay with the contractors, but they didn’t always see eye to eye, and sometimes they had different agendas.  It’s interesting to see when the two forces that are supposed to run the town don’t always agree on how to run it.

Over the course of the Cold War, it became a source of tension that the government owned and operated the town. The Cold War emphasized capitalism over communism, and in that context even a town devoted to making plutonium seemed socialistic, so there was pressure in the late 1940s and accelerating in the 1950s for the government to divest itself of these towns. Part of the story is how it does that, and it’s not a simple procedure because the government can’t somehow disrupt life so much in the towns that it affects production. So it does divest, but it doesn’t happen too quickly.

Hevly: The language that justifies this island of socialism in the nuclear weapons complex is because you need a workforce on the site. Every aspect of life in Richland was a part of the production complex. The production complex is not just the reactors or the chemical separation facilities or the facilities to make uranium fuel for the reactors, but the school district or garbage pick up in Richland is part of the production facility.  So [Richland] should be just regarded as a component.  Even fairly conservative politicians in the Northwest such as Henry Jackson are okay with a measure of public power, with socialism, as a part of their move from New Deal liberalism to Cold War liberalism. Their argument was that a strong defense economy is part of the defense of the West, and the federal government providing an infrastructure for that economy is perfectly okay, especially if addresses imbalances of power between the West and the East.

Your book notes a transformation from a national security venture to a federal welfare project that supports Hanford and Richland. You also describe Richland in the Tri-Cities as above average and Pasco and Kennewick as lacking in some ways.  How did those three cities develop after the war?

Findlay: All three towns became dependent on Hanford for the economy and all three towns housed workers who worked at Hanford. Richland was owned by the government and operated by a government contractor, and that made it special.  The government didn’t allow just any worker at Hanford to live there. It prioritized people who had a certain level of skill and education, so Richland tended to be more middle-class and better educated in its population. It was a place of many families and, even though they’re not physicists, they are well educated and they care about a good education. The school district wanted to keep the parents happy and reproduce the well-educated, skilled workers who were preferred at Hanford.

Kennewick is more blue-collar, although some people are also educated and some people move there so they can own their own property and their own home rather than live on the government’s terms.  But Kennewick also has the most forceful racial restrictions and is really rigid about enforcing restrictions against African Americans living in town. Into the 1960s, they are quite discriminatory about their housing and other [public accommodations]. 

Pasco is always the least affluent of the three communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the population is primarily white, and tends to push African Americans and Hispanics to live on the east side of the tracks in east Pasco, an unincorporated part of Pasco. The kids attend Pasco public schools and there are almost no African American or Hispanic teachers employed in the school district through the 1960s, so segregation is pretty bad there, too. But Pasco is identified with minorities. It’s even more working-class or blue-collar than Kennewick.

Eventually Kennewick becomes the largest of the Tri-Cities because it has a shopping mall and has the most space for development in the sixties and seventies.   By the 1980s, Pasco sees its future as less tied to Hanford—unlike Richland and Kennewick. When there are polls on whether to support importation of nuclear waste, Richland and Kennewick support that, but Pasco, the more agricultural and the working-class and the minority town, becomes more critical and hostile to nuclear waste as a potential economic savior for the community, and Pasco opposes that. Even though it depends on Hanford in many ways, it’s less supportive of the Hanford economy than Richland and Kennewick.

Hevly: Another wrinkle is the way the county lines run, which prevents the three towns from unifying even if they wanted to because they’re in three separate counties. There were some proposals to redraw the lines to make the three towns an associated metropolitan area. For the state political balance, that would make the Tri-Cities the preeminent southeastern town and take from Walla Walla the mantle of leadership for southeastern Washington. So those [unification] efforts are rejected, partly because people in Pasco and Kennewick feel that people in Richland lord it over them as a Lady Bountiful that has the high school with nuclear physics lab, and an all-PhD orchestra, and provides the model of perfection for the other towns. But the other towns are not interested in Richland telling them what to do, and of course Walla Walla isn’t that interested in competing with the Tri-Cities for leadership of southeastern Washington.

If you’re from western Washington, you see the Tri-Cities as one place, but in no way is it one place. You can’t even walk from to the other. You have to get on a freeway to get from Richland to Kennewick, and Pasco is on the other side of the river. They are very distinct.

It seems, at least in Richland, that the people embrace the image of bomb makers and pioneers who are devoted to wiping out savagery.  Can you talk about frontier imagery its role in the Hanford story?       

Findlay: One thing about the middle of the twentieth century is that it’s the peak period for western film and television, and it’s a time when the Turner thesis, the frontier thesis, is at its greatest power. So the discourse of the frontier, the battle between civilization and savagery, permeates the entire country. And people in the Tri-Cities absorb that talk and use it for their own benefit. They see themselves as pioneers and identify with pathfinders and trailblazers and overland settlers: people who took on great risk to explore the West and tame it on behalf of the nation. 

People of the Tri-Cities used that rhetoric themselves as a way of saying we made sacrifices and we deserve the nation’s consideration and appreciation and benefits, such as better housing and that kind of thing,

The whole nation embraced the frontier-cowboy rhetoric, and the people in the Tri-Cities think they’re living it because of where they live, and because many of them moved west to live there as part of a western migration.      

And that frontier rhetoric gets tied to the rhetoric of science and technology. The book is called Atomic Frontier Days, and the phrase comes from a festival Richland held every year from the late forties to late fifties and it wove together the notion of the frontier and science. That’s part of the thing that townspeople did: they fashioned this discourse that relates the concept of the frontier to advances made in science and both are associated with sacrifices on behalf of the nation to make the nation stronger, and to prevent the nation from whatever forms of savagery exist in the twentieth century.

Hevly: Atomic Frontier Days partly grows out of a celebration of the fact that Hanford continues after the war. There’s some question in 1945 and 1946 about whether the site will continue in operation and it does, and it gets more and more important and it takes on this Cold War identity. 

It’s instructive if you look at the other great western product of the Cold War period, which is Disneyland. In the Disney Empire, the two strongest elements are what Disney called Frontierland and Tomorrowland. What does the Wonderful World of Disney have to offer? It has Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and it also has the Space Age, a futuristic path. And Disney goes to great lengths to tie those two together so that Frontierland is the path that will set us on a trajectory and lead us out into space in the future.

Hanford is distinguished by this but it’s not unique to Hanford to somehow mash these things together. There’s some interesting studies in popular culture that look at the furnishing of rec rooms in people’s houses in the fifties and sixties, and you have Ethan Allen frontier furniture and then some swooping futuristic clock or light fixture, and these things get mashed together as part of postwar identity.

The fortunes of Hanford are tied to national and international events and, by the 1980s, the focus of Hanford changes from production to clean up.  Can you discuss that transition?

Findlay: That’s a big question. A lot of people at Hanford in the seventies and early eighties see the management of nuclear waste as a source for diversification and prosperity, and they talk about importing the waste from other states to Hanford and storing it there. But Hanford is a production site and many people don’t see themselves as janitors or managers of waste. Even if they see the economic value of storing waste there, it’s hard for them to accept they have a good economic future based on remediating waste. The production culture is very forceful. The people are engineers and chemists and they see their job as producing rather than cleaning up. 

The Department of Energy and the people of the nation as a whole become committed to clean up more quickly than the people of the Tri-Cities, especially people in Richland and Kennewick who are more hesitant to engage clean up as a mission because they see their mission as production. But they don’t have much choice. In 1986 and 1987 all the declassified documents came out on how polluted the place was. 

In 1987 the N Reactor closed, ending the production of fissionable material at Hanford.  There was massive unemployment and people asking what to do. “How can we keep our economy going?” The Department of Energy began to talk about changing this culture and making clean up its primary mission. It realizes that if it doesn’t talk about clean up, it may be that some other organization will take over.

In 1989, this rhetoric of clean up crystallizes in the Tri-Party Agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Washington Department of Ecology. That formalizes the commitment by the federal government to clean up Hanford. By this time, there’s been enough economic hardship and sacrifice at Hanford, and different dreams of how the economy should go forward haven’t worked out. It’s not going to have nuclear reactors to generate power or to do nuclear research for medicine. What they have for the near term but perhaps the long term is clean up of a formidable amount of waste.

By the late eighties and early nineties, the community comes around and accepts this [clean up] as their future, and there’s not a lot of choice to it. But the business community and some other looked at this environmentalist mission with some hostility. By the early nineties, these people accept that clean up is the source of prosperity for the Tri-Cities. 

It was a tough adjustment.  They didn’t want to exist on income from the federal government and they didn’t want to be told by the federal government what to do, and especially when it had to do with the production mission. But by the early nineties they begin to see an end to production, and they accept it. 

They want the federal money still, don’t they, despite some mixed feelings about the government role?

Findlay: That’s a complicated subject. People after 1980 started to vote Republican because in the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats came to seem softer on national security than Republicans. Prior to that, the representative from Hanford was a Democrat, Mike McCormick, but that begins to shift in the 1980s.

Hevly: In this period, Hanford made a brilliant fighting retreat at the beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s administration. John Kennedy opened the last reactor, the N reactor, on a big day for Hanford. During the Johnson administration, other sites and production facilities are much more up to date than Hanford, and the stockpiles of plutonium are quite robust.  Johnson says “maybe we should shut Hanford down, because it’s not worth the money. 

And Hanford is able to mobilize political support to keep going. The price is that the Atomic Energy Commission embraces this idea of diversification, which is to say, for the time being, we’ll keep doing production at Hanford, but we also expect there will be investment in alternate sources of economic activity, and that’s the price for keeping in business. That turns out to be a big price in a way, because you have multiple missions and multiple contractors and each contractor has to suggest ways outside of the defense economy that they might support the local economy. Building a hotel and suggesting people should go from being electricians to being busboys or opening a cattle feedlot and suggesting that people go from being union pipefitters to working on a feedlot.  That’s the offer, especially to blue-collar workers at Hanford, and suddenly nobody knows who’s in charge or what they’re doing, and there’s a sense that things are unraveling and not as clear as they had been.  But it keeps them in business, and they stave off the Johnson proposal to shut them down.

Findlay: The eight reactors built from 1942 to 1955 were all shut down by 1971.  The idea that they’ll be a nuclear power source doesn’t pan out.  Then they were going to import waste, and that doesn’t pan out. They keep stringing it along, and these contractors have to invest in new businesses and some of those don’t pan out, but they keep investing as part of the price to get a government contract to work at Hanford. And I think that still goes on—the investment in non-nuclear activities to get Hanford to diversify.


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