Michael KreponThe Well-Read Wonk

Quote of the week:

“The hour is late. Let us hope not too late.” – Glenn Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Test Ban

Don’t jump to conclusions from the hyperbolic title of Steve Olson’s new book, The Apocalypse Factory. The subtitle tells all: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age. Steve has written a thoughtful, well-researched book about the crash effort to produce plutonium on an industrial scale at Hanford. I learned much by reading it.

It’s a story of hard work under time pressure and pride of accomplishment. It’s also a story of temporary solutions to waste management and disposal problems that came back to haunt, as well as the public health consequences of working inside or living nearby a highly toxic place of employment. There was a war to be won as quickly as possible, followed by an intense Cold War nuclear competition. So, short cuts were taken; environmental and public health standards would have to catch up later. (Truth in packaging: I can relate. My Dad made munitions at the Watertown, Massachusetts arsenal during World War II and died young from cancer.)

Hanford and Savannah River produced more plutonium than even the staunchest believers in nuclear deterrence knew what to do with. Hanford’s reactors outlived their need. The Reagan administration gave Hanford’s N reactor a new lease on life (along with battleships and much else) for the culminating chapter of the Cold War competition, but the N reactor’s revival was short-lived. It, too, was a battleship from an earlier era.

Nuclear power accidents, like nuclear first use on battlefields, disempower. The accident at Three Mile Island sent civil nuclear power on a downward trajectory. Then came Chernobyl (which lacked a containment vessel, like the N reactor) and the end of the Cold War. Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors were shut down permanently. The cost of the clean-up effort is likely to surpass the costs of their construction and operation.

Hanford and the destruction of Nagasaki by means of the plutonium produced there are, as Steve notes, the Bomb’s “neglected stepchildren.” Los Alamos and Hiroshima have drawn the lion’s share of our attention, and with good reason. Los Alamos was the story of an All-Star cast led by a brilliant and tragic figure that discovered proofs of concept.

In contrast, Enrico Fermi had already bequeathed to Hanford the key proof of concept working under an athletic field in Chicago. There were still serious engineering challenges to be surmounted but scaled-up construction projects draw less attention than scientific discoveries relating to “war winning” weapons.

As a consequence, people like me know little about Hanford. I didn’t even know the name of the person the Manhattan Project’s General Leslie Groves chose to oversee construction of its production complex and the nearby town of Richland. His name was Franklin Matthias.

Hanford was crucial. Oak Ridge was spinning enriched uranium used in the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, but most nuclear weapons today use plutonium. For this reason, Steve argues that Hanford was the single most important site of the nuclear age.

Every major facility involved with bomb-making deserves to have its story told — not just to recognize achievements that many rue, but also to clarify costs. Nations that are in a hurry to build the Bomb cut corners. These bills are still coming due, and many of the environmental and public heath consequences remain state secrets.

The story of Los Alamos has been well and repeatedly told. My close friend, Len Ackland, a wonderfully talented investigative reporter, wrote Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats, and the Nuclear West. Hanford, unlike Rocky Flats, wasn’t built on the doorstep of a major metropolitan area. It was sited on the arid plains of eastern Washington by the Columbia River.

Now Hanford’s story has been updated by a gifted science writer who reaches conclusions after careful and methodical evaluation of available evidence. Steve is also connected to this story, having grown up in a small town nearby. He draws on personal stories to add feeling and pathos to Hanford’s history.

For me, the most compelling figure in this story is Glenn Seaborg, who accomplished much from modest beginnings. His parents moved from Ishpeming, Michigan to the outskirts of Los Angeles when Seaborg was ten. He attended public school in Watts, took a chemistry course from a great teacher, and the rest, as they say, is history. Seaborg discovered plutonium and eight other transuranium elements, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He was also an effective administrator of institutions ranging from the University of California at Berkeley to the Atomic Energy Commission.

Seaborg never had regrets about discovering plutonium; it was crucial for him and for the fate of the war effort that U.S. nationals be the first to produce plutonium pits. But he was never a fan of the Bomb. (Check out his first-person accounts, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Test Ban and Stemming the Tide: Arms Control in the Johnson Years — both with Benjamin Loeb.) He was, however, a booster of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and believed that Hanford would be a game-changer.

Another compelling figure in this story is Leona Woods. She was a child prodigy who graduated with a degree in chemistry at the University of Chicago at the tender age of 19. At Chicago, she encountered James Franck, a Nobel Prize-wining German refugee. Woods wanted to work with Franck on a doctorate, but was rebuffed. Steve tells the story of how Franck made a similar request of his hoped-for mentor in Germany and was told, “You are a Jew, and you will starve to death.” Franck played it forward and backward by subsequently telling Woods, “You are a woman and will starve to death.” She worked with Robert Mulliken instead. Franck went on to argue against using the Bomb on Japanese cities; Woods went to Hanford.

Plans to build Hanford were flailing until DuPont stepped in to take over from Stone & Webster. DuPont’s contract covered costs plus one dollar. The Grand Coulee Dam was big; Hanford was bigger. The Feds acquired an area ten times larger than the District of Columbia for the buildings and for keep-out zones. The workforce peaked at 45,000. The first plutonium production reactor was built in less than a year. Eight others would follow.

In February 1945, Matthias got in a car and drove from Hanford to Portland with a square box containing Hanford’s first shipment to Los Alamos. Its contents were worth $350 million at the time. He took the train to Los Angeles, where he was met by a courier who would take the shipment to New Mexico. Matthias insisted that the courier upgrade his seat to a locked compartment. Other shipments would follow for the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb.

Steve’s chapter of the flight of the Bockscar carrying the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki makes for compelling reading. The crew and the plane returned to Tinian with barely sufficient fuel after encountering mix-ups and cloud cover.

The sections dealing with the postscript to Hanford’s heyday are also compelling. The “interim” solution for waste management was to pump it underground as well as to store it in tanks. The waste eventually leached down to the water table and headed toward the Columbia. Steve believes that this problem has “largely” been stemmed. We shall see.

If you find these story lines intriguing, you’ll be rewarded by reading Steve’s book.


  1. Dr David Lowry (History)

    Despite Hanford’s prodigious plutonium production output, the old Atomic Energy Commission still thought it important to import from the UK a further 7 tonnes of weapons-useable plutonium form the British civil Magnox nuclear plants between 1962 and 1969. Why would the USAEC need this extra pu? I was told per ally by now deceased practitioners of the late 1950s & early 1960s the pu was used in US warheads.
    Dr DavidLowry, IRSS, Cambridge, Mass

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