The Wanapum Heritage Center, located astride the Priest Rapids Dam, documents the history of the only non-treaty Tribe in central Washington. The Wanapum maintained their language and traditional ways of living well into the 1950s, after they were removed from the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River by Manhattan Project officials. Today, they maintain a special agreement with the Grant County Public Utilities District (PUD), who built Priest Rapids Dam.
Past the main gallery, the Wanapum ask that no pictures be taken in the heritage center. To give a sense of the place, I’ve interspersed quotes from the exhibits with pictures taken outside the center.
This reflective post is, appropriately, the last from this long trip.
The Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewich, Pasco) line the Columbia River directly south of the Hanford Site. On this huge plot of shrub-steppe, the United States produced the bulk of its weapons-grade plutonium. Now that the reactors and sundry other plants at the site have been shuttered, it is home to the nation’s most disastrous toxic waste cleanup site.
But the Tri-Cities are also home to lots of memories and hopes. Memories of a bustling atomic past and hopes for a sustainable future. The Reach in Kennewick is a local, and locally run, museum that holds together a variety of memories and hopes. The museum’s name refers to the Hanford Reach, the undammed stretch of the Columbia that flows through Hanford and the cities.
The museum ultimately tells a story of plutonium production. Though, it does so in a very expansive way. Natural history and social history all point to the atomic past.
Idaho Falls is home of the Idaho National Lab, formerly named the National Reactor Testing Station. The locals affectionately call it “Argonne,” after the original administrators. Today, the national lab maintains the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1 (EBR-I) as a museum. EBR-I was the first power producing reactor in the United States. It lit up the Idaho steppe in 1951, a full six years before the very first commercial nuclear power plant opened in Shippingport, PA. At EBR-I, the displays and the tour guides are very proud of the site’s role in the peaceful use of atomic energy.
Arvada, a northwest suburb of Denver, is home to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Preserve. Amid the preserve’s rolling, grass-covered hills, the Department of Energy also runs the National Wind Technology Center. But Rocky Flat’s history is neither bucolic nor green. Rocky Flats was the primary site for the weaponization of plutonium for the US nuclear weapons arsenal. In 1969 a terrible fire roared through the facility. In 1989, the FBI raided the site amid accusations of environmental malfeasance on behalf of the Department of Energy and its civilian contractor.
Today, the plutonium disaster is fading out of memory. New tract homes are being built directly along the site’s southern border. Next year, the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to open a visitor center and build hiking trails for local residents.
Today I am at Sandia National Laboratory, which is home to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Sandia Lab, named after the mountains that rise north of Albuquerque, historically was an important site for nuclear weapons development. As such, their museum wins the award for most mock-ups of the bomb. The museum has a gaggle of them representing each decade of the atomic era. There is also an aeroplane boneyard which visitors can explore.
Los Alamos! Mecca for those who are interested in the physics of the bomb and who revel in the wartime accomplishments of the Manhattan Engineer District. The city still houses, and in many ways only exists, because of a national lab. The residents are also proud of their atomic heritage. The bus service is called the Atomic City Transit and has a clever atom logo.
Below are pictures from the Bradbury Science Museum. It is named after Norris Bradbury, the lab’s first peacetime director, and admission is free!
The many hours I’ve already had on the road (I’ve driven 1,247 miles as of this post!) has given me a lot of time to wonder at how the many and various federal agencies have decided that some landscapes are good for nuking, some good for preserving, and some good for other kinds of development, like flooding.
Here are some photos from the National Atomic Testing Museum. The museum runs the gamut of topics, from physics to social history to the environment. Overall, the story of the Nevada Test Site is told positively, but there are exhibits that acknowledge radiological blunders. I was most surprised by the exhibit’s ending, which is a tribute to 9/11. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the Nevada National Security Site now hosts a variety of counter-terrorism training activities.
The highlight of the museum visit was my guide. He had worked at the NTS for four decades but was also friends with the folks who organized the “Lenten Desert Experience” – when anti-nuclear protesters would trespass on the site and be arrested on Good Friday. Thanks Sam, a story spoken with passion is worth a million pictures.