28 July – Mattawa, WA

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.

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“When Hanford took over, it wasn’t good”
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“They give us badges, badges to go and do what we have to do”
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“Hanford was a great loss to me and my people”
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“[The Land is] very rich. It has the marks and scars of the bomb being made, but in time we will reclaim it.”
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“When Hanford hit, that was when the mindset came… The prophecies and visions started to become real. That is when they started to think about future generations, they thought ahead, the effects made them realize times are going to change.”
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“We need to be here because this is where the creator put us to take care of this land”

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“We don’t own it [the land] but we have got to take care of it”
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26 July – Tri-Cities, WA

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.

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The Columbia flood basalts are an important part of Hanford’s natural history.
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We’re reminded of the Cold War.
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A map of Hanford Reach, the national monument, created out of the buffers at the plutonium production site.
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A lamentful bomb, made of fine paper with Japanese calligraphy, remembering the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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A triumphant bomb – Fat Man, powered with Hanford plutonium.
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The standard “radiation is all around us” chart.

19 July – Idaho Falls, ID

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.

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The ubiquitous yellow sign.

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1950’s reactor control deck.
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A strong claim about the nuclear fuel cycle.
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Another strong claim!
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Radiation monitoring badges are placed liberally around the old reactor.

 

 

15 July – Arvada, CO

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.

14 July – Albuquerque, NM

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.

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Luminaries of atomic history greet visitors as they enter the museum.
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The medical display could perhaps be updated, but shows the importance of nuclear medicine.
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So many missiles and bombs.
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Here a mock Fat Man sits next to a Boeing Superfortress, like the ones that delivered the bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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The final exhibit invites visitors to think about future energy needs and nuclear energy’s potential role as a power source.

11 July – Los Alamos, New Mexico

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!

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Robert Oppenheimer, lab director during the war, greets visitors as they walk into the history exhibit.
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A number of workers, wives, children, and local residents from the 1940s are commemorated in very tasteful pictures.
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The Trinity fireball continues to light up the New Mexican sky.
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There is an exhibit that gives a nod to environmental issues on the lab.

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Fat Man, because every atomic museum needs a mock up of the bomb.

9 & 10 July – Grand Canyon and the Colorado

The US West is in many ways a patchwork quilt of federal administration. I’m surely not the first to note this, the West’s weft and warp have been well thought out in the historical literature. University of Washington historians Bruce Hevly and John Findlay call the land “hypercompartmentalized,” an apt description indeed.

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.

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The Grand Canyon captivated the US public after John Wesley Powell made his descent down the Colorado. Preservation by the National Park Service came naturally to this landscape.

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Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation saw fit to harness the Colorado’s power at Glen Canyon Dam, flooding what Edward Abbey called “a portion of Earth’s original paradise.”
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The Feds don’t want us to graffiti the scenic overlook, but in asking the public not to, they became masters of irony.

8 July – St. George, Utah

St. George, in far southwest Utah, was the largest community downwind from the Nevada Test Site during the years of atmospheric nuclear testing. The town received an significant amount of fallout from the bomb tests. Local ranchers were the first to raise the alarm when their livestock began to suffer.

Today, five decades after atmospheric testing was stopped by the Limited Test Ban Treaty, St. George portrays itself as a scenic outdoor wonderland.   IMG_3112

7 July – Las Vegas, Nevada

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.