June 22, 2011
Historians team up for UW Press book ‘Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West
After Bruce Hevly had agreed to accept a faculty position in the UWs Department of History in 1989, his new colleague John Findlay wrote to him and asked if hed like to collaborate on a history project on Hanford. Hevly said yes, and now the two have written a book, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West, just published by UW Press.
The book didnt take 22 years to write; there were several steps and shorter publications along the road before the two began it. But they did sift through massive amounts of material in order to distill the story down to 271 pages (excluding appendices and notes).
Hanford is, of course, the Central Washington facility built by the federal government during World War II to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons. Plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki came from Hanford. After the war the site was retained as the Cold War raged and the country wanted to keep nuclear weapons in its arsenal. During that period, a massive amount of waste from the manufacture piled up so that by the 1990s, Hevly and Findlay write, the sites mission was “cleaning up and managing the wastes produced during World War II and the Cold War.” Hanford is, by some accounts, the most polluted place in the United States.
Not surprisingly, this isnt the first account of Hanfords history. In fact, Findlay and Hevly wrote a narrative history of Hanford under a grant from the Department of Energy. The grant enabled them to travel to archives all over the country that held material on the facility and to write a “pretty substantial narrative history,” Hevly said. That history was used by the department as part of an assessment of the historical significance of the structures on the site.
But there have also been other books on the subject published, many of which have an axe to grind.
“There have been histories of Hanford that have been triumphalist,” Findlay said. “They say, ‘We made the bomb, it was dropped, we won the war and we armed for the Cold War. Then there are accounts that are accusatory. Hanford caused this problem, it caused that problem. I think we see ours as an attempt to get past those polarized accounts.”
Instead, the two adopt what they call in the book a “middle way.” The books chapters take up different themes: Chapter one focuses on Hanford as an enclave of the federal government, chapter two on the communities around Hanford, chapter three on politics and chapter four on the economy and the environment.
In all of these, Findlay and Hevly attempt to place Hanford in the context of its time and place. For example, some accounts have said that the federal government forced the Hanford facility on the state and the state suffered as a result. Findlay said thats too simplistic.
“While its largely true the government did foist Hanford on Washington, people here used political means to shape the resource so that they got some things they wanted from it as well,” he said. “After the war, state interests were able to get the federal government to invest more in Hanford than it otherwise would have done.”
Findlay and Hevly bring particular interests to their work on Hanford. Hevly is a historian of science and technology, and found it fascinating the way the engineers and technicians at Hanford were able to adapt the technology for their needs.
“Hanford wasnt encouraged to develop new reactor designs,” Hevly said. “What they did was to keep a kind of idiosyncratic reactor design that was first built during the war operating at a very high level of output for decades by this sort of great technological creativity. The federal government hoped to shut down Hanford fairly quickly after World War II because the site was too close to the Soviet Union and impossible to defend, but whenever national circumstances created a demand for more plutonium, Hanford was able to deliver it, so the site went on and on and on almost despite the federal government.”
Findlay works in the area of urban history and was very interested in the communities around Hanford, especially the Tri-Cities. In the ‘50s, he said, local business interests began to emerge fighting for diversification in industries there.
“The government warned people in Washington that too much farming right next to Hanford isnt a good idea,” Findlay said. “But people in the state pressed and pressed and pressed and got the federal government to back off and yield the claims to some of the land that was a buffer zone around Hanford.”
Meanwhile, they maneuvered to keep the spigot of federal money flowing to the Tri-Cities, recruiting Henry Jackson to their cause even before he ran his first statewide race for senator in 1952.
These days, many people are suspicious of nuclear power, but for many years, Findlay and Hevly say, local boosters touted nuclear plants as a way to build up the “underdeveloped” West. In fact, among the two historians first forays into research on Hanford was a conference they helped plan called “The Atomic West,” which produced a book of essays with the same title.
“In certain decades people — governors, politicians — were even arguing for the importation of nuclear waste to the state because it was seen as an economic opportunity and part of the expertise here,” Findlay said.
So Hanford is not a case of the evil government vs. powerless individuals.
And Hevly said he and Findlay “wound up reacting against the idea that historians can serve as judges, that we can resolve all the issues about the past, that we can decide who was rig
ht and who was wrong and who was noble and who was base.”
Findlay added, “No matter how right we are in what we say, people have already staked out opinions about Hanford and Im not sure what we say will change those opinions.”
Nonetheless, the two believe the subject is still a vital one.
“Its not as if Hanford is ever going to go away,” Hevly said. “Even if the feds decide to bury everything and cover it with dirt and plant sagebrush over it and walk away from it, it will still be there because there will still be all kinds of stuff underground.
“One of my students whos done work on Hanford himself reminded me that at the end of the regulatory process the federal government will declare that theyve cleaned up Hanford and theyre done. The state will be responsible from that time forward. So in the end it will come back to be a regional issue.”