Hanford History

Two UW history profs explore the Tri-Cities in Atomic Frontier Days

During the Second World War, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the banks of the Columbia River in south central Washington state attracted thousands of workers to the desolate and sparsely populated area. Few of the workers knew the aim of the Hanford project until an atomic bomb fueled with Hanford-produced plutonium incinerated the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and hastened the end of the war.

After the war — and a brief hiatus — Hanford resumed creating material for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. By the late 1980s, however, as the Cold War waned and fear of nuclear contamination and disease mounted, Hanford stopped producing plutonium and shifted its mission to environmental cleanup and restoration. The site continues to make news as scientists, lawyers, activists and politicians joust over its controversial past and uncertain future.

Most books on Hanford tend to either present a triumphalist story of a new nuclear technology that won wars hot and cold or a sobering antinuclear tale of contamination and human illness.

But University of Washington history professors John Findlay and Bruce Hevly found a more complicated and nuanced story. In their new book, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (University of Washington Press), they illuminate modern American Western history by focusing on Hanford and the story of the communities that grew from the mammoth project there — the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

Findlay, a specialist in urban and social history, and Hevly, an expert in the history of science and technology, chronicle the legacy of the atom and how the citizens of this unique region coped with war, economic and ecological challenges, and dependence on federal largesse and corporate power.

The authors concede that they cannot resolve contemporary controversies over nuclear weapons or the environmental and health effects of Hanford, but they seek to “recapture the contours of past interactions between the federal presence in the West, the communities dependent on it, and the ways in which a broader regional polity variously supported, opposed and ignored it.”

Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay reading • Fri, April 27 at 7 pm • Auntie’s Bookstore • 402 W. Main Ave.