The Nemesis of the Bomb in the Hanford Nuclear Wasteland

A picture containing smoke, weapon, coming, darkDescription automatically generated

The “Trinity” atomic bomb exploding in Trinity, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. US Department of Energy. Public Domain

The Bomb

The PBS documentary on the history of atomic and nuclear weapons, The bomb, is unforgettable. It brings to light the megalomania for absolute power. We learn that from the “accidental” splitting of the nucleus of the Uranium atom in the late 1930s by German chemists, and the armies of physicists pursuing atomic fission for the development of a powerful bomb, we ended with the real McCoy. This was the atomic bomb “Trinity” the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incinerating the Japanese by the tens of thousands and smashing the cities into dust – in 1945.

The PBS documentary concluded that “The Bomb” “started as a simple scientific curiosity, ultimately resulted in a weapon capable of ending civilization.” Its invention, says historian Richard Rhodes, “Was a millennial change in human history: for the first time, we were now capable of our own destruction.”

I don’t think the bomb started as an experiment, much less as a simple scientific curiosity. The years in the 1930s were toxic. The Germans worked furiously to invent destruction against their European and American enemies. Chemistry and physics were weaponized science, and not merely among the Germans. WWII accelerated this hatred, with the result the manufacture of the most hideous and almighty weapon ever, the atomic bomb. The Americans blasted the Japanese with this new monster bomb because the Japanese were inflicting real punishment on the American troops fighting them. The Hiroshima decision did, in fact, bring about an even more deadly civilization-threatening weapon, the nuclear bomb.

The PBS documentary also highlighted the politics of the use and misuse of this horrific weapon. The Air Force competed with the Navy for dominance. With large amounts of public money, the armed forces created fleets of giant aircraft, submarines, and land bases with forces for the testing, manufacture, and deployment of the bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who supervised the creation of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was humiliated because he had second thoughts about going forward for the nuclear superweapon.

Americans, meanwhile, were bombarded by propaganda on the “benefits” of atomic/nuclear power. Thousands of them were downwind of the mining of uranium and factories constructing thousands of deadly weapons.

The Hanford Plutonium Factory

The natural world did not fare any better. The place where all these ecocidal and anthropocidal (man-killing effects) have been manifesting themselves in a grand fashion is the 586-square mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State close to the Columbia River.

Joshua Frank, managing editor at Counterpunch, has studied this plutonium dump site at Hanford. His book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (Haymarket Books, 2022), is insightful and telling of how far America compromised its own democracy and safety in order to arm itself to the teeth with these extraterrestrial weapons.

I call the atomic and nuclear weapons extraterrestrial because that’s what they are. They don’t belong on this small vulnerable planet and, more than that, these weapons may obliterate humans and civilization. Humans are incapable of understanding the nature of the power these weapons represent. In other words, humans and nuclear weapons cannot coexist. One of them has to disappear. Let’s hope it is the bomb.

Frank defines Hanford as a “Chernobyl-like disaster-in-waiting.” His definition suggests why the bomb was a very bad idea. Hanford alone has been tyrannizing America, threatening the Columbia River and millions of Americans with extinction. He says:

“Hanford was home to the US government’s gargantuan plutonium operation. The site churned out nearly all of the radioactive fuel that was used in the country’s nuclear arsenal. Like a ceaseless conveyer belt, Hanford generated plutonium for nearly four long decades, reaching maximum production during the height of the Cold War. Now, however, [in the third decade of the twenty-first century] Hanford no longer produces plutonium. Instead, it’s a sprawling wasteland of radioactive and chemical sewage, a landmass three times larger than Lake Tahoe. It’s also the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet.”

Frank visited Hanford and did his best to discover what hundreds of scientists and engineers, misused workers, and lavishly funded contractors do. He said the city of Richland, a stone’s throw from the plutonium site, has per capita the largest concentration of PhDs in the country, a legacy of the government’s lavish funding of the bomb. But no matter how one examines Hanford, the inescapable conclusion is about the consequence of uranium mining, the accumulated radioactive waste and the people that do the dirty work to keep the factory going. These things, Frank says, “have a close, symbiotic relationship that is connected at a molecular level. One cannot have an honest discussion about the potential of nuclear power without fully acknowledging the ravages of the Hanford project. This would be tantamount to debating the future of our dying oceans without bringing up the topic of fish.”

In addition, trying to clean up and keep safe what lasts for centuries and thousands of years is not possible, much less cheap. Are we assuming America will last for centuries? Or whatever government survives the coming climate Cyclops will have plutonium in mind?

Frank says, the “vast Hanford Nuclear Site [is] one of the most radioactive wastelands on earth and the costliest environmental remediation in world history, with a soaring price tag of $677 billion.”

Despite the impossibility of guaranteeing that the enormous amounts of plutonium waste at Hanford will not explode or sink to groundwater, the current danger of Hanford is vast. Frank speaks of a potential nuclear accident that “could decimate the Columbia River and poison the land and people from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.” He concludes that the main lesson of Hanford is “that nuclear technology, in all its forms, is a clear and present danger to all living things.”

I must admit that Frank is publishing my articles at Counterpunch. Yet I find no ethical problem in reviewing his book, which I really value. Read it. It’s an eye opener. It’s a riveting story of deceit, corruption, and danger. It highlights the mania of the United States to absorb nuclear technology and the bomb, no matter the effects on nature and society. This important and necessary book is shedding light on a vast and almost secret empire of radioactivity and profits and destruction of indigenous people of the State of Washington.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.