There’s A Job for You at Hanford
The Hanford nuclear site in the arid expanse of southeastern Washington State was home to the world’s first full-scale plutonium production facility. The frigid waters of the mighty Columbia River and the isolation of this vast desert region drove Lt. Col. Franklin Matthias  to target the area as the future location of a secret atomic city—part of the Manhattan Project launched in 1942 to develop and build atomic bombs .
Hanford needed thousands of workers in order to succeed in this immense, top-secret effort. Government recruiters went across the country  offering high salaries, free transportation, and promotional stories of the “beauty” of the Hanford region, home to immense dust storms and desert extremes. Notices were posted in union halls and community centers across the country stating “There’s a job for you at Hanford.” Thousands of workers responded to the recruiting effort, including my father.
My dad was a highly patriotic U.S. Navy survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor and graduate of UC Berkeley in mechanical engineering. He was drawn to Richland—the town nearest to the Hanford facility—eager to get in on the new science of the atom. In 1947 he moved his family into one of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) alphabet-lettered homes, built to house engineers, physi- cists, chemists, and a smattering of pathologists who came to inhabit Richland and work at the Hanford nuclear site .
Richland was a peaceful town when the fierce desert sandstorms were at bay. As a child, I recall attending countless productions of South Pacific at the Richland community theater and coming away singing childlike renditions of “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.” My parents and many of our neighbors spent weekend evenings tuned in to Don Ho’s Hawaii Calls, dreaming that they could recreate a little corner of Hawaii and the Pacific in the desert heat of southeastern Washington State. My favorite childhood haunt at the time was the Tahitian Room at the Uptown Mall, where tropical paradise came in the form of plastic palm trees and birds of paradise. The Uptown Mall, to this day, sports its original atomic symbol, rising proudly above store roofs. My City of the Atom expressed its pride through businesses such as “Atomic Bowling,” “Atomic Foods,” “Atomic Lawn Care,” and a high school athletics team called the “Bombers,” represented by an “R” outlined by a mushroom cloud. One writer noted that the people of Richland were “so proud of being citizens of America’s ‘atomic city’ that when Richland finally became an independent municipality, the town fathers included a mock atomic explosion in the celebration” .
Hanford’s gigantic nuclear reactors produced fissionable, man-made plutonium, a basic component of nuclear weapons. Hanford’s location was far from other communities, so that, in case of reactor malfunction, any resulting accident would expose only a limited number of people to potentially massive radiation releases . A declassified AEC memo referred to populations around nuclear weapons production sites like Hanford as “. . . low use segment[s] of the population” . The towns of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, built to house project scientists, construction crews, and their families, would be the only nearby communities within the radiation contamination zone. Those of us who lived in this “sacrifice zone” would have had no chance of escape had one of the reactors malfunctioned. It is truly tortuous to understand now that the tranquil rows of government homes with their picket fences and well-manicured lawns of my hometown could have become killing grounds at any time, radiation-contaminated for decades to come.
1. Lt. Col. Matthias had been sent from the East Coast by Gen Leslie Groves, who took command of the US secret atomic weapons project in September of 1942. D’Antonio, M. 1993. Atomic harvest: Hanford and the lethal toll of America’s nuclear arsenal. New York: Crown.
2. The Manhattan Project took its name from the fact that the first headquarters of the Corps of Engineers district in charge of bomb work was located in Manhattan. The Manhattan Project encompassed research and scientific projects in 37 facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada, but the key to the project was the creation of three “top secret” atomic cities, Los Alamos (Site Y), the Clinton Engineer Works (later called Oak Ridge) (Site X), and Hanford (Site W). Sanger, S. L. 1995. Working on the bomb: An oral history of WWII Hanford. Portland, OR: Portland State University.
3. Except to the Pacific Northwest, New Mexico, and Tennessee.
4. There were 22 house plans available, mostly entitled with letters of the alphabet, in the later 1940s and 1950s. Many of these houses still stand in Richland, with minor modifications made by owners. See http://hanford.houses.tripod.com/
5. D’Antonio, M. 1993. Atomic harvest: Hanford and the lethal toll of America’s nuclear arsenal. New York: Crown.
6. Groves, L. R. 1962, 1983. Now it can be told: The story of the Manhattan Project.
New York: Da Capo.
7. Gallagher, C. 1993. American ground zero: The secret nuclear war, xxiii and 109ff.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.