Manhattan Project Proposal

Nagasaki bomb Plans are underway for a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a joint effort of the Department of Energy and Department of the Interior to link the three sites that developed the atomic bomb during World War II: Hanford, WA; Los Alamos, NM; and Oak Ridge, TN. The two federal agencies are consulting with local political and tribal leaders and community members as they work toward a December 19, 2015, deadline to formally establish the park and present a joint plan for its operation. A draft agreement is open for public review and comment here through August 28, 2015. That makes it a good time to review the project, its historical context, consequences, and justification for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Thousands of miles apart, the three Manhattan Project facilities were established in 1943: Oak Ridge consisted of key facilities for uranium enrichment and production; the Los Alamos facility designed, built, and tested the bombs; and Hanford produced the plutonium for nuclear bombs. Today all three remain active nuclear sites where access was, is, and will be restricted, and all currently provide selective site tours and interpretive facilities. Of the three locations slated for the joint historical project, I know more about the Hanford site since it is located in southeastern Washington State, has been the focus of regional scrutiny for many decades, and because my grandfather worked there.

The decision to use Hanford for the top-secret Manhattan Project generated abrupt orders in early 1943 for evacuation of the agricultural towns of Hanford and White Bluffs and abandonment of farms and ranches. Depopulation was quickly accomplished with little compensation for removal of residents. Workers flooded into the region to build camps and the massive facilities and reactors for the site. Ultimately 51,000 were employed at Hanford, though only a tiny fraction knew what the project was for. From 1943 to 1945 they built production reactors, storage tanks, and processing facilities for extracting plutonium from uranium rods to build the atomic bombs. B reactor produced the plutonium for the 1945 test bomb at Alamogordo, NM, and for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and the B reactor walk-through tour is the most popular of the three Hanford tours currently offered.

My grandfather, Harry B. Olson, having narrowly escaped the fate of his son and co-workers on Wake Island in December 1941, was the general superintendent of Hanford’s storage tank construction in 1943-44. Morrison-Knudsen Company, which sponsored the prewar Wake Island project for CPNAB, held the Hanford tank contract with W. A. Bechtel Co. and another consortium, and M-K also built and operated a full-service camp near Hanford for its hundreds of workers. It is possible that Olson was within that “tiny fraction” that knew what they were building, but he couldn’t have known that his work would contribute to a massive bomb targeted for the very Japanese city where his own POW son slaved away in the steel mills. (On August 9, 1945, the primary target for the plutonium bomb “Fat Boy” was Kokura Arsenal and city, where the Yawata steel works were, but thick haze obscured visibility and a reserve fuel pump failed on the B-29, forcing diversion to the alternate target: Nagasaki.)

On August 6, 1945, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed some 120,000 people, the destruction intensified by the topography of surrounding hills. The August 9 bombing of Nagasaki killed about 70,000 (estimates are all the more appalling for varying by the thousands). The decision to drop atomic bombs on densely populated Japanese cities was President Harry Truman’s call. The generally accepted justification for the decision was and still is that these unprecedented weapons ended the war with Japan, saving thousands more American lives by making a land invasion against a fanatic foe unnecessary. If that is how NPS intends to interpret the Manhattan Project Park, it will be a disservice to history. If NPS intends to honestly probe the complicated factors that surrounded the decision, it will open a Pandora’s Box.

The Japanese government had realized the war was lost months before and was pursuing mediation and acceptable surrender terms through the Soviet Union, with which it had a neutrality pact. Retention of the Emperor as an institution was the primary Japanese goal, though it ran counter to the Allies’ demand of “unconditional surrender” at Potsdam. The Soviets were the wild card: the U. S. might need their help to bring Japan down, but did not want to share command of the occupation. When the Soviet Union unexpectedly declared war on Japan August 8, two days after Hiroshima, and the Red Army poured into Manchuria and Korea, all bets were off. While there is no hard evidence that the Nagasaki bomb was deployed on August 9 to deter the Soviets, there’s really no valid reason for the dropping bomb at all, or the devastating barrage of conventional bombs that Allied planes and ships continued to deliver over the next five days.

A lot more comes flying out of Pandora’s Box (though not ALL the evils of the world), including faulty intelligence, fear of communism, the heady momentum of wartime technological advancement, vengeance for Pearl Harbor, national hubris, a new and insecure president at the helm, loss of moral compass, and plenty more. But one factor particularly draws my attention. The combined cost of the Manhattan Project was a staggering $2 billion, the largest government project in American history to that time. The project had produced enough fissionable uranium for one bomb (Hiroshima) and enough plutonium for two, one of which had gone off in test, one waiting to be used. The cost justified the use.

After the war the Hanford site was ramped up for the Cold War. Between 1947 and 1987 additional reactors were constructed to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons, feeding the voracious arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. But after the last operational reactor was shut down, Hanford faced a new challenge: the gargantuan environmental cleanup job. Plutonium production had generated millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste. The cleanup effort is a “whole nother story.”

It is difficult to see how the mission of the National Park Service, to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” will be furthered by a Manhattan Project park. I vote no.