mark the perimeter fence around the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation in south-central Washington on March 29,
2016. Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan
Project, the site is now a National Historical Park.
The plutonium produced in the decommissioned
reactors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was used
in the nuclear bombs
our last family road trip to the Pacific Northwest, my
wife and I drove a big loop with our daughter, then 6. We
hit Seattle and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia
and Alberta. On the way south toward Portland, we stopped
at Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. Nice people,
no point did I think, "Wait! We’re only two hours
from the cradle of the atomic bomb!"
now that I’ve spent a few days nosing around the Hanford
Site of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park
— and now that my daughter is nearly 12 — I think
like to do that drive again and add the Hanford B Reactor
(100 miles west of Walla Walla) to the itinerary. This is
the reactor that made the plutonium that powered the bomb
the U.S. dropped in 1945 on Nagasaki, Japan. The National
Park Service and Department of Energy are working together
now to reinvent the site as a sort of classroom, a place
that will get families talking about World War II, the
Cold War, physics, teamwork, politics, morality and
some readers may be tempted to say. If this is a national
park unit, shouldn’t there be a waterfall somewhere?
no. Alongside its dozens of vast beauty spots, the
National Park Service operates a growing number of parks
and monuments that are more about education than
one of the agency’s Civil War battlefields raises
questions just as grave as those found at Hanford. Then
there’s the national monument at Pearl Harbor, where
Japan’s attack forced this country into World War II,
and Manzanar National Historic Site, where the U.S.
confined Japanese Americans for the duration of that war.
help us understand troubles of more recent vintage, there’s
Pennsylvania’s Flight 93 National Memorial, where the
park service opened a visitor center in September.
no easy job, teaching American history. But it’s a
responsibility the park service claimed decades ago, with
backing from Congress and several presidents. And for
parents whose kids are ready to start confronting the
world’s complexities, these historical parks are a
chance to do that together.
brings me back to southern Washington. I wouldn’t make
it the centerpiece of a vacation. But as a side trip? Yes.
a pleasure to race the tumbleweeds across the wide plains
near Richland, Paso and Kennewick, Wash., to scan the
vineyards on the rolling hills and see the sun glinting
off the Columbia River. And if I had the whole family
along, I’d be sure to remind them that just a few miles
away, cleanup workers are coping with tons of radioactive
waste, the byproduct of Hanford’s atomic era.
author Blaine Harden writes in "A River Lost,"
this stretch of the Columbia is "a fine place to see
an eagle hunt, deer graze, or fish spawn. But best not to
drink the groundwater for a quarter million years."
the floor of the B Reactor, a docent would tell us about
physics, logistics and the vast power of the atomic
weapon. And I would throw some grown-up questions at my
you drop a bomb that could kill 150,000 people? What if it
might save 300,000 others? How about 3 million others?
if you learned after the fact that you had helped build
the first atomic weapons? What if you built deadly weapons
that led to a delicate global balance that has lasted
decades? Would that make them instruments of peace?
to now at Hanford, thorny questions about casualties and
ethics haven’t been encouraged by the Department of
Energy, which owns the site and will continue to share
responsibilities here. On my visit in March, I heard park
service interpretive specialists nudging Hanford’s
docents (many of them retired Hanford scientists and
engineers) to reach beyond the protons and neutrons —
and still avoid personal opinions.
was fascinating to hear. Then within days of my return
from Washington, Shigeko Sasamori gave me her perspective
on Hanford — a ground-zero perspective.
was a 13-year-old in Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. As
she recalls it, she spotted the American bomber in the
morning sky and was pointing it out to a friend when the
bomb called "Little Boy" detonated.
friend was killed — one of an estimated 140,000 people
who died in the short term. Sasamori suffered burns on
more than 25 percent of her body. She endured dozens of
skin grafts, some paid for by charity campaigns in the
eventually became a nurse, mother, grandmother and peace
activist in the U.S.
83, she lives in Los Angeles. She told me that she likes
the idea of a Manhattan Project historical park —
"if they make people understand how dangerous
radiation is." But if the tours focus only on physics
and American teamwork, she said, "that’s a horrible
message Sasamori would deliver? "Evil weapons made
here. So don’t make any more."
got me thinking. What if guides in the U.S., Hiroshima and
Nagasaki teamed up to tell stories together, or to build
electronic links between locations? What if rangers
rotated between Hanford and Pearl Harbor?
hope for programming that provocative. Although I know the
Manhattan Project park will never match the attendance at
the parks with epic mountains and charismatic beasts, it’s
a great American opportunity to visit a place like this,
stretch beyond our usual horizons and perhaps even learn
what it’s like to stand at both ends of an atomic
family can fit a day like that into a week of sixth-grade
vacation, why not? On the way back south, Yosemite will
still be there.