History lessons at the Hanford Site

May 2, 2016

Signs 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

On 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, pleasant wineries.

At no point did I think, "Wait! We’re only two hours from the cradle of the atomic bomb!"

But 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 differently.

I’d 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 perspective.

Wait, some readers may be tempted to say. If this is a national park unit, shouldn’t there be a waterfall somewhere?

Actually, 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 recreation.

Every 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.

To 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.

It’s 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.

Which brings me back to southern Washington. I wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of a vacation. But as a side trip? Yes.

It’s 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.

As 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."

On 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 daughter:

Would you drop a bomb that could kill 150,000 people? What if it might save 300,000 others? How about 3 million others?

What 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?

Up 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.

It was fascinating to hear. Then within days of my return from Washington, Shigeko Sasamori gave me her perspective on Hanford — a ground-zero perspective.

Sasamori 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.

Her 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 U.S.

She eventually became a nurse, mother, grandmother and peace activist in the U.S.

Now 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 thing."

The message Sasamori would deliver? "Evil weapons made here. So don’t make any more."

This 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?

I’ll 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 bombing mission.

If a 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.

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