Unearthed Secrets From the Atomic Age
The summer release of “Oppenheimer” found Americans newly interested in the history of the atomic bomb and the people who made it. While I have yet to watch the film, the subject has fascinated me for a long time. Shortly after I moved to Seattle, I saw an article in the paper about how workers discovered two previously unknown underground tanks at the Manhattan Project site in Hanford, only three hours away. I was immediately hooked.
While Los Alamos, New Mexico, is the most famous Manhattan Project site, it wasn’t the only one. Los Alamos built bombs; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, manufactured enriched uranium; and Hanford, Washington, was responsible for plutonium. By design, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, and workers at each site were unaware of the others.
Everything about the plan to build a nuclear weapon was incredibly secretive, and even the workers at Hanford didn’t understand what they were making. The designers were too fearful of German espionage to create written plans. That’s what intrigued me about the tank discovery; experts were unsure what was inside, and they were afraid testing might cause a catastrophic explosion.
Hanford is now a national park, but visits are limited. It’s the world’s second most polluted site after Chernobyl, and continued clean up efforts are underway. Potential visitors must enter a lottery for a chance to tour Hanford. I tried my luck for several years before finally winning and seeing the history myself.
I went with another attorney who later led the EPA’s role in the clean-up project. We saw countless fascinating sights that day. We toured the nuclear reactor and learned about the remediation efforts. They’re attempting to store the radioactive waste by turning it into safer-to-store glass. We also saw decommissioned warheads and nuclear submarines. It was like stepping back into a particularly morbid piece of history.
After all, atomic weapons are the most horrific thing humankind has ever created. The bombs might have saved more lives than they cost, but the toll on Japan was tragic. It’s also stunning to think that Chernobyl was an accident, but people intentionally created Hanford. It’s a fascinating but somber experience.
Local residents suffered, too. The military pulled up one day to the sparsely populated area and ordered all residents to evacuate. They had only hours to gather belongings and leave their homes behind forever. The town still stands but is empty. One woman reported returning to her girlhood home and found everything exactly as it was the day they left, though presumably more contaminated by radiation.
As excited as we were for the tour, my friend and I worried whether it was safe. The people working on the nuclear reactor assured us it was and reported bringing their grandchildren to visit. But it still made me nervous, so I brought an extra pair of shoes. The ones I wore on the tour stayed in a Hanford garbage can rather than going home to where my kids live. I decided it was better to be safe than sorry.
While there can be too high a price to pay for inquisitiveness, pursuing knowledge is one of the things that brings me the most fulfillment. My dad always said, “Be curious; what you learn is yours forever.” The fact that I constantly come across new information as an attorney is one of my favorite parts of this work. I love having regular opportunities to allow my curiosity to run wild safely, with only the occasional nuclear diversion.