Book Review:
Atomic Geography: A Personal History of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

  • Posted 6/02/2017
  • Essay 20373

By Melvin R. Adams
Washington State University Press, 2016
Paperback, 139 pages
ISBN 978-0-87422-341-5
Photographs, illustrations, references, index

In 1942, the United States Army, after secret reconnaissance visits across Washington, Oregon, and California, chose a swath of land along the Columbia River in Eastern Washington as the site to produce the plutonium that was used in the first atomic bomb. There were two small towns in the area, White Bluffs and Hanford, whose residents included Native Americans and farmers. They were all removed, some 1,500 people, with the government using the power of eminent domain to obtain the property, and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (later referred to as the Hanford Site) was established. The B Reactor at Hanford was the first on the planet built and operated to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.

Thousands of people from around the country came to work at Hanford. To house them, the government took over the village of Richland and built "alphabet houses," with each floor plan identified by a letter. From 1943 to 1951 a total of more than 1,600 homes using plans from A to H were built. The streets were named for engineers and notable West Point graduates. In the late 1950s the government sold the town and houses of Richland and it became an independent city.

Hanford produced not only plutonium but also quantities of radioactive and chemical waste. The Hanford Site now has the largest accumulation of radioactive waste in the Western Hemisphere. Today approximately $2.2 billion a year is spent to manage and remediate the contamination and the work is expected to continue until 2090.

Melvin Adams is an environmental scientist intimately involved in the containment of contaminated waste. He arrived at the Hanford Site in the 1970s during the Cold War and at a time of growing concern about chemical contamination. Many pages of his "personal history" of the nuclear reservation are devoted to describing the engineering of barriers to stabilize soil contamination and the creation of markings to identify buried waste sites for future generations.

But he also weaves poetry and beauty into this otherwise cautionary narrative. He writes tenderly of the wildlife and plants that are flourishing in the Hanford Reach, the area that was declared off-limits to the public and that buffered the nuclear-production site:

"It is a profound paradox to me that a site devoted to the idea of atomic destruction has become a museum, a national park and a national monument with a large unspoiled wildlife refuge, native flowers, and an elk herd. This, after all, is probably the highest and best use of most of Hanford -- an apotheosis of the human spirit operating in a difficult geographic and historical setting."

Atomic Geography will be embraced by engineers, scientists, and environmentalists, and the average reader will be rewarded with a history and description of Hanford, a valuable addition to Washington history bookshelves.

Mary T. Henry, June 2, 2017

Submitted: 6/02/2017

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