The Manhattan Project’s Hanford Site Yields Difficult Questions

A family took a road trip to the Pacific Northwest. It was a father, mother and six-year-old daughter that traveled to Seattle and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. While heading south toward Portland, OR, they stopped at Walla Walla in southeastern Washington, where they found nice people and pleasant wineries. It never crossed the parents’ minds that they were only two hours from the cradle of the atomic bomb.

The daughter is now 12 years old. After a few days of looking around the Hanford Site of the new Manhattan Project National Historic Park, the father thinks quite differently. The family wants to do the drive again, but this time, they want to add Hanford B Reactor (100 miles west of Walla Walla) to their schedule.

The reactor in Washington is the one that manufactured the plutonium used to power the bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. The National Park Service and Department of Energy are working in tandem to turn the site into more of a classroom. The goal is to make the place a spot for families to get together to talk about World War II, the Cold War, physics, teamwork, politics, morality, and perspective.

Although there are dozens of vast beauty vistas at the site, the National Park Service has been operating more and more of its parks and monuments with the focus more on education than recreation. Teaching American history is a difficult job the park service took on many decades ago, and it has received the support of Congress and several presidents. The historical parks aid children who are starting to contemplate the world’s myriad complexities and give families a chance to get together.

The Civil War battlefields raise as many questions just as serious as those found in Hartford. Pearl Harbor, where the Japan orchestrated a surprise attack on the United States that propelled it into World War II, is also home to a national monument.

As a result of the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S government rounded up many Japanese American citizens and placed them in camps where they were confined for the duration of the war; the Manzanar National Historic Site commemorates the Japanese American experience of internment. The Pennsylvania Flight 93 National Memorial sheds light on more recent troubles on American soil. The park service opened a visitor center in September 2015 to remember those who died in that plane crash.

Southern Washington may not be the ideal choice to build an entire vacation around, but it certainly is a great candidate for a side trip.

The author Blaine Harden wrote in “A River Lost,” that this part of Columbia is, “A fine place to see an eagle hunt, deer graze, or fish spawn. But best not to drink the groundwater for a quarter million years.”

Standing on the floor of the Hanford B reactor is quite an experience. Learning about the physics, logistics and the vast power of the atomic weapon is a unique opportunity. So is the chance to contemplate the larger questions of atomic power. Would you give the order to drop a bomb that you knew would kill 150,000 people?

What if dropping it could also save 300,000 other people? How about 3 million others? What if you realized you aided in building the first atomic bomb, but only after the fact? How would you feel about building deadly weapons that ensured a delicate balance of powers in the world over the course of decades? Would that make them instruments of peace?

Difficult questions about casualties and ethics are still not encouraged by the Department of Energy at Hanford. It owns the site and continues to share operating responsibility. When the father visited in March, he overheard park service interpretive specialists pushing for Hanford’s docents (many of them retired Hanford scientists and engineers) to dig deeper than the technical details of how the bombs were made.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE