Seven decades later, we consider our plutonium legacy 

Works considered in this article:

Kathleen Flenniken
University of Washington Press 2012

Made in Hanford: The Bomb that Changed the World
Hill Williams
Washington State University Press 2011

Making Plutonium, Re-Making Richland: Atomic Heritage and Community Identity, Richland, Washington, 1943-1963
Lee Ann Powell
Thesis, Department of History, Washington State University 2007


Reactor B From State Route 24 east of Vernita Bridge (Photo Zach Mazur)


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead for the Manhattan Project, he set in motion an extraordinary collaboration amongst scientists and the military to develop an atomic bomb, driven by fears of Hitler’s creating one first. Whether or not the eventual dropping of the bombs on Japan was necessary to end the war in the Pacific will probably never be resolved. But the bomb undoubtedly changed the world, as well as the cultural, historical, and physical landscape of southeastern Washington.

On the afternoon of February 26, 1943, Lt. Col. Franklin Matthias appeared in the office of the Pasco Herald and asked to talk with the editor. The editor, Hill Williams ’16, invited him in.

After asking that the door be closed for privacy, “Matthias told him a secret project of utmost importance to the war effort would be built nearby,” writes Williams’s son Hill in Made in Hanford. “He gave no hint as to the nature of the project but said it would be huge and stressed again its importance to the war effort and the necessary secrecy.”

Having undoubtedly commanded Williams’s full attention, Matthias then made his request, that Williams not publish anything about the top-secret project.

Twenty years later, a young Kathleen (Dillon) Flenniken sits on her father’s shoulders as they watch President Kennedy dedicate a ninth production reactor at Hanford, as Flenniken ’83 now recalls in her volume of poetry Plume:

Somewhere in that sea of crisp white shirts
I’m sitting on my father’s shoulders
as you dedicate our new reactor and praise us

for shaping history. The helicopter that set you down
in our proudest moment
waits camera right, ready to whisk you away.

A half century later, I click play again and again
for proof you approve—
but the nuclear age is complicated.

—Excerpt from “My Earliest Memory Preserved on Film”

Because Hanford is so complicated, poetry might be an apt way to contemplate it.

“I wrote the book so I could figure out what I thought,” says Flenniken.

For anyone interested in understanding the atomic legacy of both Washington and the nation—which I would urge you to do, not out of moral obligation or such, but simply because it is so fascinating—an excellent way to start would be to combine Flenniken’s work with Williams’s book and other notable texts.

Although Hanford might be a classic example of how history gets made and remade, as WSU Tri-Cities historian Robert Bauman puts it, the area has yet to produce a big, definitive book about itself. Michele Stenehjem Gerber’s excellent history of the area’s toxic legacy, On the Homefront (University of Nebraska, 2002), follows a timeline from the creation of the B Reactor—the reactor that produced the plutonium for Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945—through the development of and resulting waste of an additional eight reactors during the Cold War. But it does not attempt to encompass the complexity of identity and emotion that the Hanford phenomenon has produced.

Other works, including the fine oral history, Making the Bomb (S.L. Sanger, Portland State University Continuing Education Press, 1995), present a fascinating and sweeping account of the era. But to get a sense of the time, from the urgency of the scientists rushing to head off Hitler’s presumed nuclear progress to the revolutionary science involved, to the toxic hangover of a landscape dedicated to producing bombs with insufficient caution and foresight, these three slim and very approachable works lend concise history and insight to our understanding.

True to his newspaper sensibility, Hill Williams, who was science writer for The Seattle Times for 35 years, has produced a volume about as succinct as can possibly be, considering the scope of his work runs from Leo Szilard’s realization in 1933 of how a nuclear chain reaction might be feasible to the author’s visit as a journalist to Runit Island in the Bikini Atoll in 1964.

The original plan for the Manhattan Project was for the plutonium to be produced in Tennessee. But given the risk and uncertainty of the endeavor, the idea was abandoned, as Knoxville was a mere 15 miles from the proposed plant.

So the planners set their sights west. The frontier. Wide open spaces with few people. Southeast Washington’s apparent desolation, the Columbia, for cooling water, and the Grand Coulee project, for the huge amounts of electricity required, coalesced to produce plutonium.

…Our families all came from elsewhere,
and regarded the desert as empty,

and ugly, which gave us permission
to savage the land. …

—Excerpt from “Rattlesnake Mountain”

What Williams recounts as a journalist, Flenniken tries to make sense of.

Flenniken’s Plume is a remarkable volume of poetry that presents a vivid and gripping blend of documentary and her emotional history of Cold War Hanford. Flenniken’s father, a doctoral chemist, started working at the “area” in 1951. As with many of Richland’s scientists and engineers, the actual nature of R.L. Dillon’s job was shielded from his children by Cold War secrecy. Although she found a few references to her father’s work in technical papers, all she originally knew about it, primarily in the site’s 100 Area, was his description of himself as a “manager.”

You’re eighteen. It’s August brim to brim
and your father is at the wheel. He points proudly
at distant reactors and spires, sun-baked highway

and barbed wire, and offers them to you.
You’ve waited all your life.
A gate patrolman waves you across the threshold

into the Cold War world. …

—Excerpt from “Self-Portrait with Father as Tour Guide”

Flenniken’s parents would tell the story that sometimes in the middle of the night, her father would get a phone call from a security guard, who had found a filing cabinet open. He would drive the 50 miles to his office to lock the cabinet, then drive back.

After graduating in civil engineering from WSU in 1982, Flenniken herself took a job, in hydrology, in the 200 Area, rising each morning at 5:30 to catch a bus for the 45-minute ride to her laboratory.

Perhaps the key to understanding the cultural history of Richland is its intense pride over its accomplishments in both WWII and the Cold War. But Flenniken suggests the emotional part of Hanford is as complicated as the science behind fission.

As Richland native Lee Ann (Hall) Powell recounts in her thesis, Hanford workers were considered war heroes:

“Almost immediately after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, the national spotlight focused on Hanford, its people, and its secret wartime mission. The government and the nation recognized HEW [Hanford Engineering Works] workers as war heroes … by helping to make the bomb they had won the peace. General Groves reinforced this identity when in October 1945 he visited the Village to congratulate HEW workers and present all of them with the Army-Navy ‘E’ award, the highest civilian production commendation of World War II.”

Powell discusses three eras of Richland history: “the Indian history, the pioneer history or pre-atomic era, and the history that begins with the Manhattan Project. Synthesizing these parts is difficult.” The combined histories of the region are “wonderfully rich but fragmented.”

Throughout the Cold War, residents transformed that sense of historic accomplishment to a patriotic certitude. Part of the area’s creation myth, as historians refer to it, involved a distinct separation. A souvenir program from the 1948 Atomic Frontier Days noted that “the old farming center of Richland was evacuated and transformed into a modern community.”

Indeed, the transformation accompanying that accomplishment was so dramatic, it required a disassociation with the region’s past.

“The impact of the Hanford project on a relatively undeveloped central Washington, even while land was still being acquired,” writes Williams, “seemed astounding to those whose memories of the Great Depression were vivid.” The Hanford landscape changed almost literally overnight. In April 1943 work began on facilities for an estimated 25,000 workers. By July 1944, some 1,200 buildings had been erected and nearly 51,000 people were living in the construction camp. At its peak, the construction camp was the third most populous town in Washington state, and Hanford operated a fleet of more than 900 buses, bigger than Chicago’s.

Hardly anyone knew what was being produced at Hanford except that it was part of the war effort. Since DuPont was the civilian contractor, some guessed that nylon stockings would be one eventual product.

Regardless, because the project progressed so unbelievably quickly, the secrecy was also short-lived. The elder Hill Williams was at the press conference hurriedly organized on August 6, 1945, by Colonel Matthias following the startling announcement by President Truman that an American plane had dropped a bomb on Hiroshima with “more power than 20,000 tons of TNT … an atomic bomb … a harnessing of the power of the universe.”

The next issue of the Pasco Herald headlined the biggest type that Williams owned: IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS!

On August 9, the bomb containing plutonium produced at Hanford was dropped on Nagasaki. Shortly after, but before Japan surrendered, the “Smyth Report” was released. Written by physicist Henry D. Smyth, the report had been commissioned by the director of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie Groves, to explain to the public the general science involved in the bomb. Williams believes it is the first time the word “plutonium” was used publicly.


That sense of purpose and pride in its role toward winning the war and changing the world became as integral to the cultural landscape as Rattlesnake Mountain is to the geographic landscape:

On the morning I got plucked out of third grade
by Principal Wellman because I’d written on command
an impassioned letter for the life of our nuclear plants
that the government threatened to shut down
and I put on my rabbit-trimmed green plaid coat
because it was cold and I’d be on the televised news
overseeing delivery of several hundred pounds of mail
onto an airplane bound for Washington DC addressed
to President Nixon who obviously didn’t care about your job

—Excerpt from “To Carolyn’s Father”

But that cultural pride also included a set of blinders.

Prior to the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb, which finally revealed to all what was actually going on at Hanford, most who worked there had no understanding whatsoever about what they were building. But in the Cold War years, with the destructive power of the area’s plutonium now a matter of history, residents faced another part of the site’s dark side.

“When I was growing up, people just didn’t talk about that part of it,” says Flenniken. “It was never about the actual bombs and what happened. It was more about the race to create it and the amazing feat that people could do under these circumstances, these hardships, come up with this amazing new technology, human miracle.

“The story just ends right there.”

I remember the red phone, and missile codes,
how every movie hinged
on a clock ticking down.

We call it the arms race
and there were two sides.
It was simple.

—Excerpt from “The Cold War”

Although the selection of Hanford to produce plutonium was not a foregone conclusion, it ultimately met the criteria determined essential by Leslie Groves.

B Reactor went critical September 20, 1944. Its criticality began not only a new era and new potential for destruction, but also an entirely new form of pollution.

The B Reactor produced plutonium for the Trinity test in New Mexico and for Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 and, with its predecessor the uranium-fueled Little Boy, which was dropped on Hiroshima, hastened Japan’s surrender.

The B Reactor is an engineering marvel. Built in only 13 months, it was completed less than two years after President Franklin Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project. Enrico Fermi managed the first sustained nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942, then supervised the design of the B Reactor. On February 3, 1945, B Reactor plutonium was delivered to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

According to the Department of Energy’s history division, the reactor core is a 1,200-ton, 28- by 36-foot graphite cylinder, penetrated horizontally by 2,004 aluminum tubes. Two hundred tons of uranium slugs, the size of rolls of quarters, were inserted into the tubes. Cooling the reactor core required water pumped from the Columbia at the rate of 75,000 gallons per minute.

As Williams writes, when that water was first pumped through the reactor core to cool it, it marked the first time large quantities of radioactive material were deliberately released into environment.

The most worrisome byproduct of plutonium production at Hanford was the highly radioactive waste deposited, temporarily, in underground tanks. According to Williams, each ton of uranium slugs produced 10,000 gallons of liquid waste containing, among other products, fission products.

If you visit Richland’s Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science, and Technology (formerly the Hanford Science Museum) and examine the replica cross-section of the storage tanks, your worries about that waste might be temporarily assuaged. Thick concrete is faced with thick plate steel in the single wall tanks. The double wall tanks, with room for inspection, would reassure even the most skeptical—unless of course, as Williams suggests, one thinks too much about the definition of “temporary”:

But military demands for plutonium during the Cold War … took precedence over finding a permanent solution. Hanford ended up with a much greater volume of waste than anyone anticipated in 1945 and temporary storage turned into semi-permanent. Twenty or so years after the end of the war, tank waste was leaking into Hanford’s dry soil and drifting toward the river, causing problems we still face today.

If production had ended with the dropping of Fat Man, the waste would likely still be problematic. But, Williams points out, that initial waste was dwarfed by the combined production of eight reactors during the Cold War years. A plume of radioactive waste moves inexorably toward the Columbia, underlying a stark and transformed terrain with a legacy against which we seem powerless. And a grand plan for turning Hanford’s tank wastes into stable glass has so far been stymied by the complexity of the problem and process, an unfortunate mirror to the fascinating complexity of the area’s landscape.


Web extras

Poem: “Hanford Reservations” by Graham Hutchins

Gallery:  Historical Hanford

Video:  Plume, by Kathleen Flenniken

On the web

Gallery: “Chain Reaction” by Zach Mazur

Department of Energy Hanford Site