Perspectives on Hanford History

Most people agree on the facts about the history of the Hanford Site. What these facts mean is more complicated. There have traditionally been two common ways of arranging the facts about Hanford—in effect, two different stories. These stories are the means by which people understand what the Hanford Site is, its place in history, and its relevance to their city, region, or country.

The first story begins in March of 1943, when the engineers of the Manhattan Project began laying the groundwork at the site for the construction of a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for the war effort. It tells of the heroism of the thousands of workers who left their old lives behind to move to the desert and work on a project that none of them knew anything about except that it was important to their country. It also tells of the tremendous scientific and engineering achievement represented by that reactor—how the Manhattan Project as a whole remains one of the most remarkable accomplishments in modern history, and how Hanford had a significant role. Often this story concludes with the use of the plutonium produced at the Hanford Engineer Works in the bomb that was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki during World War II. Maybe that bomb ended the war.

The second story begins much earlier, with the people who planted orchards and farms and built towns in the 670-square-mile area which later became the Hanford Site, all of whom were made to leave their homes. Sometimes it begins even earlier than that, with the Native Americans who hunted, fished, and built small villages in the area long before the first white settlers came, and who were also removed in 1943. This version might point out other social or governmental problems like the racial segregation of Hanford workers. It contains the message that along with the plutonium for the bomb came a very high cost to the environment, with nuclear waste often untreated, uncontained, or contained poorly. More often than not this story takes the position that the bomb didn’t need to be dropped on Nagasaki at all, and that the Japanese would have surrendered without it. The story never ends with that bomb and the conclusion of World War II; it follows the course of Hanford through the Cold War, as more reactors were built and more radioactive and chemical waste was produced.

The first story is of unprecedented scientific achievement, brilliant engineering, and the heroism of hard-working Americans. The second is of a dangerous military program that became America's largest nuclear waste problem. These and other perspectives on Hanford history continue to shape public opinion and influence public involvement. Interpreting them is part of understanding the history of the Hanford Site.

Hanford_workersHanford workers awaiting paychecks at the Western Union office. Source: Hanford Declassified Document Retrial System