Blogs > Robin Lindley > The Apocalypse Factory: Steve Olson Discusses the Path of Plutonium From Hanford Nuclear Reservation to Nagasaki

Aug 7, 2020

The Apocalypse Factory: Steve Olson Discusses the Path of Plutonium From Hanford Nuclear Reservation to Nagasaki

tags: nuclear weapons,plutonium,Nagasaki,World War 2

Steve Olson is an award-winning, Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Winner of the Washington State Book Award); and Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins (a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers). His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other periodicals. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Institutes of Health, and many other organizations. 

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email: robinlindley@gmail.com.




In the late 1930s, German scientists were conducting experiments to create atomic bombs. In response, and fearing a German bomb, scientists and engineers in the United States in 1939 launched what became the Manhattan Project, an effort to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. And to beat the Germans to the punch.

In early 1941, American nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg discovered the radioactive element that he named plutonium, which has an atomic number 94. In the months after he isolated the element, he and others saw plutonium’s potential as a fuel for atomic weapons. American efforts to develop a nuclear weapon redoubled after the US entered the war with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

As part of the Manhattan project, the US rapidly built a huge facility for plutonium production at Hanford in south central Washington State, an arid, desolate area on the banks of the Columbia River.

During the war, the Hanford nuclear facility attracted tens of thousands of workers from scientists and engineers to skilled workers and laborers. Except for a few project leaders, workers did not know the goal of their intense work at the plant until an atomic bomb fueled with Hanford-produced plutonium incinerated most of the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. That “Fat Man” bomb killed at least 80,000 people—mostly civilians—and injured many others. Three days earlier, on August 6, Hiroshima had been destroyed by a uranium-fueled bomb.

After the war, scientists determined that plutonium was a more efficient fuel for nuclear weapons than uranium. Hanford became the hub for the production of plutonium, the fuel for all of the nuclear weapons produced during the Cold War. 

After the raucous early work camp was shut down in 1944, the operators of Hanford lived in what historian Kate Brown calls the government-created and highly-subsidized “Plutopia” of Richland, Washington, where highly-paid workers and their families were provided first-rate education, health care, and other amenities. In this arrangement, workers produced the extremely dangerous plutonium and the government kept their work secret.

When the Cold War waned in the 1980s, plutonium production stopped at Hanford. The mission then shifted to environmental cleanup and restoration. Today, the facility continues to make news, especially on health concerns and the progress of the massive clean-up.

In his lively and lucid new book Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age (W.W. Norton)acclaimed author Steve Olson blends history and science to tell the story of plutonium and of the massive production facility at Hanford. He details how the nuclear facility was created and how it shaped the story of the region and the nation. And he persuasively argues that Hanford is the most important site of the nuclear age.

Mr. Olson’s new book is based on extensive research and travels to Hanford and other US site, as well as to Nagasaki—a trip that contributed to his vivid and moving description of the bombing 75 years ago and its horrific aftermath. 

Mr. Olson chronicles this nuclear era history through human stories from survivors of the bombing to the great nuclear scientists and military leaders as well as the humble laborers and citizens of the Hanford area. A native of eastern Washington, he presents a unique perspective on the immense Hanford facility that altered world history. 

Mr. Olson is an award-winning, Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Winner of the Washington State Book Award);  Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins (a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers); Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition (named a best science book of 2004 by Discover magazine); and, with co-author with Greg Graffin, Anarchy Evolution. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other periodicals. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council; the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; the National Institutes of Health; and many other organizations. 

Mr. Olson generously responded to a series of questions in a conversation by email.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Steve on your new book on plutonium and Hanford. What inspired your new book? Did it grow out of your childhood in Eastern Washington or your past research on the many topics that you’ve explored in your writing?

Steve Olson: Several things had to come together for me to begin working on this book, but I doubt I would have started it if I hadn’t grown up in Othello, Washington, just 15 miles away from the nearest reactor at Hanford. We couldn’t see Hanford from Othello, because it was on the other side of a ridgeline from us. But we knew it was there, behind barbed wire fences and heavily guarded.

Also, I’ve always been interested in science, even when I was a kid, so I grew up wondering what went on at Hanford. And then, in 1983, when I was living in Washington, DC, a magazine editor sent me to Hanford to write a story about nuclear power, and I decided in the middle of that trip that I wanted to write a book about the place someday.

Robin Lindley: How did you and your family and friends think about Hanford when you were in grade school and high school?

Steve Olson: I grew up in Othello in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Hanford at that time was still an extremely secretive place. People had known since the end of World War II that it make plutonium for nuclear weapons, but they didn’t know much more than that. My grandfather was an occasional steamfitter at Hanford. But workers at the plant had to agree not to tell even their family members what they did.

Robin Lindley: Your book is wide-ranging, from the discovery of plutonium to the story of Hanford and the wartime use of plutonium to nuclear waste cleanup efforts today. How did your book evolve from your initial conception?

Steve Olson: Not long after I decided to someday write a book about Hanford, Richard Rhodes published his incredible book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. That book had a big influence on my thinking about what became The Apocalypse Factory.

I always wanted to tell the whole story of the nuclear age, from the discovery of fission and plutonium to the present day. But to make the book manageable, I knew that I had to tell the story from a particular perspective, so I chose to tell it largely through the lens of the people associated with Hanford’s construction, operation, and decommissioning.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for the book? Did do archival work and interviews the major figures you discuss? Did you find any surprises?

Steve Olson: I did almost every kind of research I can imagine doing -- interviews, archival research, multiple days spent in Hanford and the surrounding area, trips to places like Oak Ridge and Nagasaki, and huge amounts of reading (I didn’t anticipate how much reading I would have to do). 

I was surprised by how much new material I found, even on a topic that many others have written about. Some of it is trivial, like the fact that Fermi built his first reactor in a racquets court rather than a squash court. But some is much more important. I make the claim, for instance, that the Manhattan Project would not have happened if Glenn Seaborg hadn’t discovered plutonium a few months before Pearl Harbor, which is a claim that hasn’t been made before. That’s the advantage of telling the story from the perspective of Hanford. Things that seem puzzling about previous historical accounts suddenly become clear.

Robin Lindley: Your writing on the experiments with uranium and the discovery of plutonium is vivid and engaging. You cover this history of radiation and nuclear physics from the time of the Curies to the work with atomic weaponry. The speed of development of atomic weapons was breathtaking.

Steve Olson: Maybe the most exciting thing I discovered in writing the book is how many scientific developments had to occur in relatively quick succession to make atomic bombs possible. The scientific story of plutonium’s discovery is amazingly compelling -- and also idiosyncratic. 

If you ran history again, it would almost certainly not work out the way it did. I’m glad you liked the scientific descriptions, because that section of the book used to be about twice as long. But my editor at W. W. Norton, Alane Mason, argued that readers would not be eager to plow through that much science before Hanford even appeared on the scene, and I struggled mightily to cut that material down.

Robin Lindley: Nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg is credited with discovering plutonium and is a major figure in your book. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about him and his discovery?

Steve Olson: Many readers, I think, will feel a special affinity with Glenn Seaborg -- I certainly did. He was from a small town, was fascinated with science as a boy, worked his way into world-leading scientific institutions through perseverance and good judgment, and suddenly found himself in a position to change the course of world history. The discovery of plutonium in 1941 was not at all preordained. If Seaborg hadn’t had the knowledge and experiences that he did, plutonium might not have been discovered for several more years, and the Manhattan Project might not have happened. Counterfactuals are impossible to construct reliably, of course. But a historical account of its discovery makes clear how improbable this particular course of events was.

Robin Lindley: When did US nuclear scientists first realize that a world-altering weapon of war could be made from uranium and later plutonium? 

Steve Olson: The full awareness grew on them gradually, even if the path ahead seems clear in retrospect. Not long after the discovery of fission around Christmastime of 1938, scientists realized that an atomic bomb should be possible if enough of a rare isotope of uranium could be separated from uranium ore -- a process that seemed so daunting that the physicist Niels Bohr once said “it would take the entire efforts of a country to build a bomb.” 

But the realization that plutonium also could be used to make an atomic bomb took place slowly after Seaborg and his graduate student assistant first isolated the element on February 24, 1941. A committee at the National Academy of Sciences -- where I’ve worked as a consultant writer for the past 40 years -- considered the issue in three reports issued over the last half of 1941, and you can see the committee’s position change as the prospects for a plutonium bomb grew brighter.

Robin Lindley: A big part of your story is of how Hanford was chosen as the site for producing plutonium and how the nuclear facility there shaped history. What were the major considerations in choosing Hanford for this huge facility?

Steve Olson: I start the book with the selection of the Hanford site. In December 1942, a colonel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer named Fritz Matthias was sent to the western United States to look for a place to build the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactors, which is what you need to produce enough plutonium for atomic bombs. He took a list with him of the necessary site characteristics: water and electricity for cooling the reactors, a rail line to transport equipment and chemicals, and enough isolation to limit casualties if one of the reactors blew up. As soon as he flew over the Horse Heaven Hills in south-central Washington State and saw the arid and sparsely populated plain that lies within a broad bend of the Columbia River just southwest of Othello, with powerlines from the Grand Coulee dam running through the site and a spur line from the Milwaukee Road, he knew he’d found what he was looking for.

Robin Lindley: How did Hanford fit into the overall development of nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project?

Steve Olson: Hanford produced the plutonium for the first nuclear explosion in human history -- the Trinity test that was carried out in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima used uranium produced at the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee, but that was a technological one-off -- almost no bombs of that design were ever built again.

The Nagasaki bomb, and future bombs then in the pipeline, were designed to use plutonium from Hanford. Along with a second facility built later in South Carolina, Hanford produced the plutonium that is used as a trigger in all the current nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. That’s why I call my book The Apocalypse Factory. If the plutonium from Hanford is ever used in a large-scale nuclear war, human civilization will probably end.

Robin Lindley: How did the US government deal with residents of the area including Native Americans in taking possession of the land for the Hanford facility?

Steve Olson: Callously, at best. The 1,500 or so residents of the area that would become Hanford all received a letter saying that the government was taking over their property and that they had a few weeks to a few months to move elsewhere. They were horrified, though many later said that they also felt a patriotic obligation to comply. But then the government tried to pay them much less for their land than it was worth, which set off new rounds of acrimony. 

Meanwhile, the land in that area had been used for millennia by various groups of Native Americans, including the Wanapum, who were the group closest to Hanford. Though they retained some rights to visit the land during World War II, they subsequently lost those rights. The Wanapum were treated as badly as Native Americans were all over the West.

Robin Lindley: Historian Kate Brown called Richland the biggest welfare program in US history. How did Hanford evolve from a rowdy work camp of mostly single men to a community of middle-class families in Richland? 

Steve Olson: I would characterize Richland, at least in the early days, as a kind of military installation or base, though one dressed up in the garb of a small American town. When people moved to Hanford, they went to work as employees of the large companies that had contracted with the government to build and operate Hanford. Military officials oversaw the companies and the town’s residents, and those officials felt that they had to provide a semblance of normalcy for people to do their jobs well and compliantly. The town depended on the government for its survival, but the handouts were indirect and targeted.

Robin Lindley: Apart from some high-ranking officials, the workers at Hanford didn’t know that their work would result in a plutonium bomb that would eventually incinerate much of Nagasaki, Japan. How was secrecy maintained on this massive project that employed hundreds of workers?

Steve Olson: The security was astonishing. I know, since my grandfather and some of my high school friends worked there. While building the reactors, crafts workers would know what they were doing but not what anyone else was doing. Workers climbing a ladder would have to show clearances to prove that they belonged higher up on a ladder rather than lower down. Billboards, water towers, and fliers were plastered with the phrase “Silence Means Security.” If people talked too much, informants among the workers would alert their superiors, and the talkers would be reprimanded or terminated. Even after most of the security restrictions came down at Hanford, the old sentiments prevailed.

Robin Lindley: On August 6, 1945, the US dropped its first atomic bomb, a uranium device, on Hiroshima. On August 9, Hanford’s plutonium bomb fell on Nagasaki. However, Nagasaki wasn’t the original target. What did you learn about the change in plans and the phrase, “Kokura’s luck”?

Steve Olson: Nagasaki was the backup target on the second bombing mission, and it was added to the target list in an amazingly capricious way. On July 24, the generals in charge of the atomic bombings in Washington, DC, received a message to add Nagasaki to the bombing list from air forces chief Henry Arnold, who was with President Truman at the Potsdam Conference. Nagasaki was not an obvious target, and no one knows who at the conference insisted that it be included in the list, but the generals in DC complied. 

Then, the day of the mission -- which had all kinds of things go wrong -- the primary target, Kokura Arsenal, was covered by clouds and smoke by the time the B-29 containing Fat Man arrived at the city. The Bockscar, which was piloted by 25-year-old Charles Sweeney, made three runs on Kokura, but the crew were never able to see the target and drop the bomb. Thus, the phrase that is still associated with the city: the luck of Kokura.

Robin Lindley: Your description of the Nagasaki through the eyes of a Japanese doctor and other witnesses is vivid and heartbreaking. What was the scope of the destruction in Nagasaki and the casualties?

Steve Olson: I did my best to describe the devastation and human carnage, but there’s no replacement for going to Nagasaki or Hiroshima and reconstructing in your mind what an atomic bomb can do to a city and its people. The Urakami Valley of Nagasaki is several miles wide and eight or ten miles long, yet almost everything in the central part of the valley was destroyed. 

My own sentiment is that any national leader who has the authority to drop atomic bombs should be required to go either to Nagasaki or to Hiroshima and witness the scale of destruction that the bombs caused. And those two bombs were very small by today’s standard!

Robin Lindley: What were the medical consequences of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki? 

Steve Olson: Casualties at both Nagasaki and Hiroshima are surprisingly hard to estimate. But deaths caused by the Nagasaki bombing could have exceeded 100,000. Tens of thousands of people were killed by the initial blast and fire. Tens of thousands more died in the succeeding days, weeks, and months from the radiation generated by the bomb. And tens of thousands more died prematurely in later years from cancers and other diseases caused by their radiation exposure. And this is just a small example of what would happen if nuclear weapons are ever used in warfare again.

Robin Lindley: You mentioned that you traveled to Nagasaki as part of your research. How did it feel to visit there?

Steve Olson: I spent a week in Nagasaki reconstructing the minutes, hours, weeks, and months after the bombing through the eyes of a surgeon at the Nagasaki Medical College Hospital named Raisuke Shirabe. I traced his steps in the hills above the hospital as he fled from the burning city. I had parts of his diary translated into English. I met with his daughter and granddaughter and talked with them about Dr. Shirabe, who subsequently spent decades studying the effects of the bomb on the city’s residents. It was the most emotionally affecting research I’ve ever done for a book.

Robin Lindley: How do you see President Harry Truman’s role in deciding to use atomic bombs? Wasn’t there disagreement on whether to use a second bomb?

Steve Olson: Leslie Groves, the leader of the Manhattan Project, who is one of the central characters of my book, once said that Truman was like “a boy on a toboggan” when it came to making decisions about the use of atomic bombs on Japan. Truman generally distanced himself from the decision making. He never made a formal decision to use the bombs. The course was set by Groves, and Groves wanted to use two or more bombs to end the war quickly. He had the additional motivation of wanting to demonstrate that both of the approaches he had backed -- uranium from Oak Ridge, and plutonium from Hanford -- worked so that he would not have to answer to congressional committees for wasting government funds.

Robin Lindley: Manufacture of nuclear weapons picked up during the first couple of decades after the Second World War as the Cold War with the Soviet Union heightened. The nuclear weapons built after the war were fueled by plutonium so Hanford became a busy production facility. Why was plutonium preferable for bombs as opposed to uranium—as used in the Hiroshima bomb?

Steve Olson: Plutonium produces significantly more energy, pound for pound, than uranium. In modern nuclear weapons, a small pit of plutonium is detonated to create temperatures high enough so that isotopes of hydrogen in other parts of the bomb begin to fuse together, which releases much more energy than the original plutonium bomb. Essentially, every nuclear weapon in the U.S. and Russian arsenals is built around a small version of the Nagasaki bomb.

Robin Lindley: What was Hanford used for once production of nuclear weapons slowed? Didn’t plutonium production end there in the 1980’s?

Steve Olson: By the 1970s, both the United States and Soviet Union had more plutonium than they would ever need. Each country had built more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, representing more than a million times the destructive power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the insane size of these arsenals began to drop, and the excess plutonium was set aside either to use in future weapons or to be disposed of. Since then, most activities at Hanford have been directed toward cleaning up the horrendous environmental contamination caused by decades of plutonium production.

Robin Lindley: What have you learned about environmental damage caused by the Hanford nuclear plant?

Steve Olson: Hanford is the most radiologically contaminated place in the western hemisphere, matched only by the comparable site in the former Soviet Union. One hundred and seventy-seven tanks, most the size of a large auditorium, contain millions of gallons of highly radioactive and toxic chemicals generated in the process of producing plutonium. If you held a glass of that material at arm’s length, you’d be dead in a couple of minutes. 

The Department of Energy has made lots of progress in cleaning up Hanford, but it has just begun to deal with the tank waste. Current plans are to immobilize the waste in glass logs and deposit them in a long-term radioactive waste repository. But the technology has been difficult to develop, and the United States has not yet created a repository for the high-level nuclear wastes it has generated.

Robin Lindley: Is the US now making nuclear weapons?

Steve Olson: The United States and Russia are no longer adding to the size of their arsenals. But they are modernizing and miniaturizing their nuclear weapons, which could have the effect of making them easier to use, and if the United States refuses to extend the New START treaty, which expires next February, nations are likely to start building more nuclear weapons. 

As I say in the book, we are going in the wrong direction. Every action we take should be directed toward constraining and ultimately eliminating these moral abominations.

Robin Lindley: To me, the issues of the Hanford cleanup are very complex and seem overwhelming, especially when scientists talk about the extremely toxic substances at the site and the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium. What is the status of the cleanup now and what needs to be done?

Steve Olson: As I said, the Department of Energy has made important progress. Most of the sites right along the Columbia River have been cleaned up, though they are still largely off limits to visitors. Most of the contaminated equipment and soil have been transferred to a plateau in the center of the site, which is also where the tanks of radioactive waste are located. But completing the cleanup, which the federal government is obligated to do, will take many more decades and will cost hundreds of billions more dollars.

Robin Lindley: Hanford and the Tri-Cities have benefited from huge federal government expenditures for more than 70 years, yet the populace seems to be largely conservative and anti-government. How do you see the politics in the region?

Steve Olson: It’s a great contradiction, as are so many aspects of our political life these days. The adjoining cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, known as the Tri-Cities, were largely the creation of the federal government, and they remain heavily dependent on federal largess -- more than $2 billion per year flows to the area for the ongoing cleanup. But the area is generally conservative, even if many individuals and groups in the region are not. 

Many people think of the area as rural, even though the regional population is now more than 300,000. The population tends to skew white, older, and blue collar, since Hanford was for decades a production facility. 

I grew up surrounded by the conservative politics of the area, and they puzzled me even as a kid. I could see no obvious reason why people so distrusted government. I’m still puzzled. I’d like to write about it someday to try to understand it better.

Robin Lindley: You have a gift for bringing complex issues to life. Who are other writers you admire or see as influences? Are there rules you follow in your lucid writing about technical issues for a general audience?

Steve Olson: I dedicated this book to my wife and also to the memory of John Hersey, from whom I took a nonfiction writing course in college in the spring of 1978. All my books have been heavily influenced by what he taught me. He wanted us to pay attention to the structure of our writing, often by adopting a model that we would visualize in putting a story together. He taught us to pay attention to individual words -- we read poetry in his class to see how words fit together and acquire meaning from their context. 

John Hersey was also my personal connection to World War II.  He had been there in 1946 doing research to write his book Hiroshima.  Now I was in Japan 72 years later doing historical research in the other city destroyed by an atomic bomb.

It’s very kind of you to say that I have a gift for writing, but I see whatever success I’ve achieved as solely the result of practice and determination.

Robin Lindley: You deal with world shaking events in your book, and we are still faced with the threat of nuclear annihilation and an intractable nuclear waste mess, and now a novel virus that is devastating much of the nation. As an acclaimed writer and astute observer, where do you find hope?

Steve Olson: I remain a hopeful person, even though writing a book about nuclear weapons can beat the hope right out of you. But humans have not used nuclear weapons in warfare, as of August 9, for three-quarters of a century. Until recently, the United States and Russia were making steady reductions in their arsenals. 

Many people who have been or could in the future be in positions of authority recognize the need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. And the ongoing cleanup of Hanford gives me hope. As I wrote in the book, “Hanford’s cleanup, if done persistently and well, could provide an object lesson in making the Earth whole again.”

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about your new book or your writing for readers?

Steve Olson: Learning what happened at Hanford is, I think, the best possible way to learn about the nuclear age and what can be done to abolish nuclear weapons. I tried to write this book so that readers would end it with a sense of both understanding and purpose.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Steve for your generosity and thoughtful comments. And congratulations on your sweeping new book on Hanford, plutonium, and much more. It’s an honor to connect with you.

comments powered by Disqus