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Edition: 50 Years from Trinity

AN HISTORIAN'S PERSPECTIVE

IMAGE: The fully active plant in black and white, with smokestacks smoking.
The historic B Reactor at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the source of plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb, was closed in 1968. This photo was taken in the late 1940's, when the plant was in full production.

BY BILL DIETRICH
Seattle Times staff reporter

   HANFORD - If I were to pick one place in Washington state to send visitors it would not be the Olympic Coast, the Pike Place Market, Mount Rainier or Grand Coulee Dam.
   Rather I'd suggest what in scenery is one of the bleaker and plainer stretches of our landscape: a line of gray, hulking, abandoned nuclear reactors strung along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.
   Unfortunately, the nuclear reservation is still one place tourists can't go. Before they can, the Energy Department is tentatively planning to tear down this legacy of the Cold War, trucking the radioactive reactor cores uphill for burial.
   Yet no place in Washington better captures the genius and folly of our strange, tormented species: the feverish building for Armageddon, the earth cribs of discharged waste, the free-flowing Columbia undammed here because of the radioactive remains, and the gravel bar depressions of ancient Indian pit houses.
   In the aftermath of the Cold War, there is a dream-like quality to the psychology that ruled here. A hundred bombs would have been enough to pulverize the Soviet Union. Our best and brightest built 30,000 of them.
   David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Museum, thinks the Hanford story is the state's most important since the fur trade. Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian employed by Westinghouse, thinks the future importance of the site will be its lessons.
   "If plutonium is no longer a product of value," she said, "to me the value of what happened here is the learning _ 52 years of learning."
   "People need to see this," Gov. Mike Lowry once told her.
   The reservation's first reactor is on the historic register but tours have been sharply curtailed and its long-range future is uncertain.
   Gerber, who has written a book called "On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site," started her research as a post-'60s activist, wound up working for a Hanford contractor, and now reflects a middle-of-the-road appreciation and regret for what happened here that has drawn praise and criticism from all sides.
   Her father, 78, served at Guadalcanal. "You are the historian," he told her. "It's your job to speak for us, people my age. We didn't start the war."
   Nobody worried about garbage when Hanford started, she reminds. Littering was commonplace. Garbage dumps were open and stinking, smoldering with fires and thronged with gulls. People put paper in burn barrels, not recycling bins. DDT was considered a beneficial miracle.
   Scientists warned of the dangers of nuclear defense waste practices as early as 1948 and wrote a waste plan for Hanford as early as 1958. Eventually the file of Hanford waste plans grew 4 feet thick, but they were never implemented. Production seemed more important.
   "Always the budget would be promised, and deferred," Gerber said. "The nation was pushing the mission at us. Hanford never once asked for more weapons work. In the grand tradition of the frontier, they sent the dirty jobs out West."
   Certainly the waste should have been handled more carefully and the environmental secrecy ended, she said. Gerber grew up in the 1950s and believes the era "imposed a kind of false discipline: that the goal was so noble you gave up other freedoms for it."
   Could the Cold War madness somehow have been avoided? That question is ultimately as unknowable as whether it was necessary to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
   "At the time it was the lack of other choices, the inability to reach through the Soviet system to talk to anyone," she said. "But I don't think we should have gone all out on the arms race without spending an equal amount sending in emissaries trying to open up a dialogue. When you look at the secret documents of the time, you don't find that. You don't find that effort to talk."
   

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