On September 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) participates in groundbreaking ceremonies for the construction of a dual-purpose reactor -- designated the N Reactor -- at the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Washington. The reactor was the ninth to be built at Hanford but the first designed to produce both weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs and electricity for commercial and domestic use. Kennedy's visit commemorated both the start of plutonium production at the facility and the beginning of construction of its power-generating component.
His appearance was part of a 10,000-mile, 11-state, five-day journey through the West. It was billed by the White House as a nonpolitical review of the region's natural resources, but as William W. Prochnau, political reporter for The Seattle Times, pointed out, the itinerary took Kennedy into areas that had generally spurned him in the 1960 presidential election.
Waiting for the President
The 400,000-acre "Hanford Atomic Works" had never before been opened to the general public. The site, on the Columbia River in a remote part of south-central Washington, had been developed in 1943 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Its B Reactor had produced the plutonium used in the world's first atomic bombs.
Kennedy's visit was hosted by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a consortium of public power utilities that was building and planned to operate the electrical generators at the N Reactor. Officials were given just three weeks to prepare. They hurriedly cleared a 130-acre tract of sagebrush and weeds to accommodate the crowd; fenced it; and paved a landing pad for the helicopter that was to fly the president from a military base at Moses Lake to Hanford.
Kennedy was scheduled to arrive at 3 p.m. People began streaming into the site hours earlier. The backup of cars and buses stretched, bumper to bumper, for almost 15 miles on the two-lane road outside the main gate. Early arrivals put up folding chairs and umbrellas. Latecomers stood, some of them for hours. Temperatures were in the high-80s. Officials said later that about 70 people were given first aid, mostly because of the heat. Still, the scene was festive. Schools in Richland were dismissed at 11 a.m. so that children could go with their families to see and hear the president. High school bands from Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, and Prosser entertained the crowds.
More than 30,000 people crammed into a newly cleared and fenced field to await the president. A roped-off area was reserved for 1,500 dignitaries. According to the Tri-City Herald, so many people asked, cajoled, and insisted on being allowed to sit with the president on the speakers' stand, that organizers joked about having the speakers and the audience switch places. When the president's helicopter finally landed, it kicked up a huge cloud of dust that landed mostly on the dignitaries. The helicopter backwash also knocked down the flagpole that had been placed next to the speakers' stand, sending the flag into the dust with a loud crack. A Boy Scout quickly picked it up and held it aloft while the president spoke.
"A Dreadful Age"
Kennedy began his 12-minute speech with a cautionary note about the power of the atom. "The atomic age is a dreadful age," he said. "No one can say here what the future will bring. No one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries." Just three days earlier, the Senate had ratified an international treaty limiting the testing of nuclear weapons in the air and water. Kennedy pointed out that he had "strongly supported" the treaty, calling it a step "on the long road to peace" ("Remarks").
Kennedy made several references to peace in his brief speech. He described Hanford, "where so much has been done to build the military strength of the United States," as a place that would now have "a chance to strike a blow for peace." He noted that Tri-City leaders and members of Washington’s congressional delegation had fought for more than five years to get the N Reactor approved for dual use. Adding electric generating capability to the reactor was a "new breakthrough" that would contribute, "in a very large sense, to the peace of the world." He called the facility "the largest nuclear power reactor for peaceful purposes in the world" and "a great national asset" ("Remarks").
Kennedy also said it was important to "hasten the development of low-cost atomic power." He assured his audience that the N Reactor would be maintained as a power source even if the U.S. reduced its production of atomic weapons. He predicted that nuclear energy would provide half the nation's electricity by the turn of the century. That outlook proved to be wildly optimistic. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear sources accounted for less than 10 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 2000, a percentage that has declined slightly in recent years. As for the N Reactor, it was permanently shut down in 1987.
The president's appearance ended with a bit of showmanship orchestrated by WPPSS. Gerald Tape (1915-2005), a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, handed Kennedy a pointer that he said was tipped with a piece of uranium from the first reactor built at Hanford. "Mr. President, I think it is indeed fitting that the breaking of ground for this particular power facility should be initiated through the use of the atom," he said ("Kennedy Speaks").
Kennedy waved the "atomic wand" over a Geiger counter, which ticked rapidly and loudly while a 60-foot clamshell crane, off in the distance, lumbered into motion. A scoop on the crane opened and dumped out a load of dirt. "I assume this is wholly on the level and there is no one over there working it," he joked (Cary).
With that, Kennedy shook a few hands, waved goodbye to the crowd, and flew off to Salt Lake City for another speech. He darted back to Washington state for another appearance the next day, in Tacoma, and from there went on to Oregon and California.
The wand, the podium where the president spoke, and the chair he sat in ended up in the possession of Energy Northwest, successor to WWPPS.
Dust, Tumbleweeds, and Hats
It took nearly four hours for all the cars to clear the parking area at Hanford. Some families passed the time by listening to the president's speech in Salt Lake City on their car radios while they inched their way home.
Fifty years later, a writer for the Tri-City Herald interviewed a number of people who had been there. Jeff Curtis, a Boy Scout who was assigned to help direct parking, remembered looking out over the crowd and seeing a sea of triangular paper hats, made from commemorative programs and used as partial shade against the hot sun. He said it looked like "some kind of low budget Water Buffalo Lodge meeting" (Cary). Paper hats filled the air, along with dust and tumbleweeds, when the president's helicopter landed.
Kathryn Fox, whose husband, John Fox, was an engineer at Hanford (and later mayor of Richland) had never been to the site. But it was the president who impressed her, not Hanford. He was "very handsome and beautifully suntanned," she said (Cary).
Seven-year-old Mike Wingfield was struck by the number of helicopters he saw flying around. His father told him some of them were decoys so the president would not be killed. "I thought ‘Why would anyone kill the president?’" Wingfield said (Cary).
Kennedy would be assassinated just two months later, on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.