Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Hanford: A gateway to nuclear weapons

Author says plutonium production is 'the second most interesting thing that's ever happened in Washington State'

By Scott Jackson

Thursday, 22 March, 2018

Award-winning author and science writer Steve Olson presented his upcoming book about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on Wednesday at Washington State University.

A Washington native, Olson grew up in Othello, just downwind from Hanford - where the plutonium inside the atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki in 1945 was developed.

Olson said he had always wanted to write about science, which led him to take a job with the National Academy of Sciences as a consultant science and technology policy writer.

"I started doing that in 1979, and I always thought that it was a job that I would do just for, you know, three or four years, until I got a real job," Olson said. "I'm still doing it 40 years later."

When he and his wife moved back to the Pacific Northwest about 10 years ago, Olson said he used the move as an opportunity to start writing about his home state.

For his first project, he settled on what he thought was the most interesting thing to ever happen to Washington - the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

"Then I said, 'OK, I'm done with that book, what's the second most interesting thing that's ever happened in Washington State?'" Olson said. "It's the production of plutonium at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation."

Olson said Hanford's story began in 1938, when three German scientists discovered they could create an immense explosive force by splitting uranium atoms into two smaller atoms, or "nuclear fission." Nine months later, World War II and a race to build some of the most destructive weapons in history were kick-started.

Olson said fears that Germany would develop nuclear capabilities drove scientists in both Britain and the U.S. to greatly expand investments into nuclear research.

"It still took a while for momentum to get built up in the United States, but it accelerated - especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when the United States entered into World War II," Olson said.

He said early methods for creating nuclear bombs relied on uranium ore, which changed once plutonium was discovered a few years later.

Plutonium was much easier to process, Olson said.

"The problem is that plutonium doesn't exist in nature," Olson said. "It has to be manufactured atom by atom, and the only way to manufacture it is in a nuclear reactor," - like those at Hanford.

Olson said a deal had already been struck with chemical giant DuPont to build full-scale nuclear reactors. He said there were six criteria for identifying a potential site to manufacture plutonium, including access to cold water, energy and railway infrastructure. The town of Hanford, nestled in a bend of the Columbia River and receiving energy from the recently completed Grand Coulee Dam, was a natural choice.

"I mean, the site was just perfect," Olson said.

He said the three reactors built during WWII were later joined by five more production reactors during the Cold War to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"By the 1980s, we had all the plutonium we will ever need and they were shut down," Olson said.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the decommissioned reactor today, Olson said, is the cleanup.

"Far more money has been spent to clean up Hanford than was spent to build the facility," Olson said.

He said cleanup efforts at the site are ongoing and still have the potential to release harmful substances into nearby communities and ecosystems - including his hometown.

Olson doesn't know what clean up at the site entails.

"I don't have a short, concise answer for that right now," Olson said. "It's a multifaceted, multibillion dollar effort."

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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