From nuclear medicine to “nuke-ing” your leftovers in the microwave, aspects of the atomic age still radiate out from every corner of our culture. Over the years, the phrase “Manhattan Project” itself has become synonymous with an all-out, failure-is-not-an-option approach to what appears to be an insurmountable problem that needs to be solved immediately. We need a Manhattan Project for renewable energy. Breast cancer. Childhood obesity. And, most recently, a Covid-19 vaccine.
Yet despite the ubiquity of this language, and the still-present possibility of nuclear warfare, the story of the Manhattan Project is one that is rarely, if ever, widely shared. How to tell that story — an unwieldy tale that continues to unfold to this very day — is a question of perspective and vision. In “The Apocalypse Factory,” Steve Olson offers readers another angle on this evolving global saga.
In south-central Washington State, outside a small rural town called Hanford, a top-secret outpost was created that reshaped not only that sparsely populated region, but ultimately the world. Olson writes that it was growing up in nearby Othello, Wash., in the 1950s and ’60s, that led him to contend with Hanford’s history and write this book. It’s a lucky bit of happenstance, since he doubts he would have otherwise turned his attention to this little-known chapter of the Manhattan Project.
While the majority of words dedicated to the nation’s nuclear ambitions have thus far focused on the two other principal Manhattan Project sites — Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. — the Hanford nuclear reservation is, Olson argues, “the single most important site of the nuclear age.” The first full-scale nuclear reactor was at Hanford. The first ever nuclear test, detonated near Alamogordo, N.M. (the 75th anniversary of which was this past July 16), used plutonium fuel from Hanford, as did the last atomic bomb used in warfare, which devastated Nagasaki. In 1966, when Hanford’s nuclear plant produced electricity, it was the largest power reactor in the world. Olson buttresses his argument for Hanford’s significance with historic facts such as these, but also with personal anecdotes and present-day insights.
Those familiar with the history of the United States’ nuclear program will recognize many names, locations and story twists: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gen. Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, Leona Woods, Niels Bohr, Ernest Lawrence and others. Glenn Seaborg, the oft-credited “discoverer” of plutonium (though Olson rightly points out that there are almost always several cooks in any scientist’s kitchen lab), is given a fair amount of well-deserved ink here. Of his actual discovery, Seaborg later told an Associated Press reporter, “I didn’t think, ‘My God, we’ve changed the history of the world.’”
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But of course he and his colleagues had. However, Olson’s story does not halt at the patrolled gates of World War II Hanford. He illuminates Hanford’s role in the world-shaking history that has played out over decades, extending from that shrub-steppe land of his corner of Washington to the desert of New Mexico, the skies above Japan and farther still.
For readers coming fresh to the history, or diving more deeply into it for the first time, Olson provides enough back story of the key players to give a flavor of the disparate — and sometimes clashing — personalities that made the project tick. And though the book is perhaps not for the scientifically faint-of-heart, Olson is a crisp writer who brings clarity to complex subject matter.
There is a lot of ground to cover: Cold War, arms race, the promises and perils of nuclear energy, and the legacy that accompanies all of it. Part of that legacy is cleanup — for radioactive and run-of-the-mill industrial sites alike. Years ago, 177 auditorium-size underground tanks were built to house high-level radioactive waste. With a life span of roughly 20 years, it was assumed a better solution for the waste problem would be devised before their time ran out. “More than three-quarters of a century later,” Olson writes, “the wastes continue to sit in their tanks beneath the desert sands.” The Department of Energy estimates cleanup will cost between $300 billion and $600 billion.
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The scale, speed and secrecy surrounding the nuclear program remain remarkable today. From Hanford’s selection through the building of the construction camp — the largest ever assembled in the nation’s history — and into debates over how the bomb should or should not be used, we watch the World War II and Manhattan Project drama unfold, its characters hurtling toward the war’s finale. Olson writes that after the war General Groves said President Truman “was like a boy on a toboggan.” Momentum: Defined within a physics context, it is measured as a product of mass and velocity, used to quantify a body’s motion. The mass of resources — money, people, brainpower, materials — and the velocity with which those resources came together represents a momentum virtually unparalleled since.
Though the author could have provided the story greater intimacy by describing more of his own experience growing up in the area, the book still offers the personal insights of individuals whose lives were impacted, for good or ill, by the Hanford site. Olson includes not just those on the receiving end of accolades and Nobel Prizes, but individuals from more anonymous walks of life, to provide a relatable and often heartbreaking layer to the narrative. Scientists and ironworkers, machinists and millwrights, poets and farmers. We are in the cockpit with the pilots delivering a deadly payload, and in the hospital with a Japanese surgeon grappling with its aftermath.
By training his lens on Hanford, Olson offers the biography of a town. It has experienced booms and hardship, changing tack amid the shifting winds of the nuclear age, a region that has seen the ebb and flow of farming and fishing, nuclear reactors and wineries.
In December 2014, when President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, it included provisions establishing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a joint endeavor between the Department of Energy and the National Park Service to share, and ideally contextualize, the story of the nation’s nuclear program. Watching the often fraught relationships at the intersection of science, government and industry in a time of crisis proves that it is eerily germane to our pandemic reality.
Before moving forward and shaping our nuclear future, we must first seek to understand its past, to shine light into all of its dark corners. Olson scapegoats no one, but proffers uncomfortable truths and poses challenging — if open-ended — questions: What if, at their 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to dispose of their respective nuclear arsenals? What if some of the astronomical sums spent on the creation, maintenance and cleanup related to nuclear weapons had gone to health care or education?
Olson employs “apocalypse” in the biblical sense, meaning a “revelation — literally an uncovering — about the future that is meant to provide hope in a time of uncertainty and fear.” Though he does not always offer answers to the questions he poses, he does offer hope based on his faith in human brilliance, tenacity and ingenuity to meet our challenges — the kind of traits and talents that made the Manhattan Project possible in the first place.