A Forgotten Town at the Center of the Manhattan Project

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The scale, speed and secrecy surrounding the nuclear program remain remarkable today. From Hanford’s selection through the building of the construction camp — the largest ever assembled in the nation’s history — and into debates over how the bomb should or should not be used, we watch the World War II and Manhattan Project drama unfold, its characters hurtling toward the war’s finale. Olson writes that after the war General Groves said President Truman “was like a boy on a toboggan.” Momentum: Defined within a physics context, it is measured as a product of mass and velocity, used to quantify a body’s motion. The mass of resources — money, people, brainpower, materials — and the velocity with which those resources came together represents a momentum virtually unparalleled since.

Though the author could have provided the story greater intimacy by describing more of his own experience growing up in the area, the book still offers the personal insights of individuals whose lives were impacted, for good or ill, by the Hanford site. Olson includes not just those on the receiving end of accolades and Nobel Prizes, but individuals from more anonymous walks of life, to provide a relatable and often heartbreaking layer to the narrative. Scientists and ironworkers, machinists and millwrights, poets and farmers. We are in the cockpit with the pilots delivering a deadly payload, and in the hospital with a Japanese surgeon grappling with its aftermath.

By training his lens on Hanford, Olson offers the biography of a town. It has experienced booms and hardship, changing tack amid the shifting winds of the nuclear age, a region that has seen the ebb and flow of farming and fishing, nuclear reactors and wineries.

In December 2014, when President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, it included provisions establishing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a joint endeavor between the Department of Energy and the National Park Service to share, and ideally contextualize, the story of the nation’s nuclear program. Watching the often fraught relationships at the intersection of science, government and industry in a time of crisis proves that it is eerily germane to our pandemic reality.

Before moving forward and shaping our nuclear future, we must first seek to understand its past, to shine light into all of its dark corners. Olson scapegoats no one, but proffers uncomfortable truths and poses challenging — if open-ended — questions: What if, at their 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to dispose of their respective nuclear arsenals? What if some of the astronomical sums spent on the creation, maintenance and cleanup related to nuclear weapons had gone to health care or education?

Olson employs “apocalypse” in the biblical sense, meaning a “revelation — literally an uncovering — about the future that is meant to provide hope in a time of uncertainty and fear.” Though he does not always offer answers to the questions he poses, he does offer hope based on his faith in human brilliance, tenacity and ingenuity to meet our challenges — the kind of traits and talents that made the Manhattan Project possible in the first place.

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