The Atomic Age pioneers who built Hanford and advanced nuclear science there have a story that should be told to generations to come, said speakers Monday at a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project.
About 120 people -- including six men who worked at Hanford's historic B Reactor -- gathered at the Richland Library to remember the past and look to the future when B Reactor could become part of a new Manhattan Project Historical National Park.
There is every indication that bills should be passed by the full House and full Senate with strong bipartisan support this year, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who sponsored the House legislation and is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
Proposed legislation would give the interior secretary and the energy secretary one year to work out an agreement on what roles each of their agencies would play, and then the park automatically would be formed.
That should be plenty of time, considering that B Reactor was built in 11 months, Hastings said.
A Manhattan Project park "would help honor the history, scientific contributions and enormous sacrifices made by those who worked on the project and changed the course of history," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who could not attend the event but issued a statement. She is a lead sponsor of the Senate legislation.
The sacrifice started with the 2,000 people who owned the property and lived on the more than 500 square miles that the government took over to build a secret nuclear reservation during World War II, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.
"The U.S. was at war with Germany and Japan," he said. "There was a very real fear that the Germans were developing atomic weapons, as stated by Albert Einstein in a letter to President Roosevelt."
Residents of what would become Hanford would be given two weeks to three months to vacate their homes, businesses and farms, allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the site. When an order was signed creating the Manhattan Project on Aug. 13, 1942, the Corps was put in charge because it had experience running large projects and could maintain the secrecy needed, said Maj. Rodney Baker of the Corps.
"An incredible thing happened," Petersen said. "Fifty thousand individuals from all over the United States and some scientists and engineers from foreign countries were brought together to build what had never been built before."
First they constructed what would be the fourth-largest city in the state to house and feed workers at Hanford, code named "Site W."
Then they built B Reactor, the world's first production-scale reactor, in 11 months without the aid of any computer, Petersen said. It would produce plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
Three years and one day after the creation of the Manhattan Project, World War II ended, Petersen said.
More than half the workers who came to Hanford during the war were 38 or older, said Maynard Plahuta, president of the B Reactor Museum Association. Most of those who were younger were ineligible for the draft, and some were deferred because of the importance of Hanford to the war effort.
Worker turnover was high, not just because of the frequent sand and dust storms, the isolation and the initially miserable living conditions, but because workers wanted to contribute to the war effort, Plahuta said. Few knew what they were building or its importance to the war effort until Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was revealed.
Conditions were similar to other construction sites. The Hanford Patrol was kept busy with drunkenness, and they also responded to gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, rape and murder, although no more than for cities of similar size, Plahuta said.
He remembered the late Larry Denton, who arrived at Hanford in 1943 at age 19, being asked a few years ago if working on a nuclear project scared him. No, he replied, but going to the bars in the site's early years could be frightening.
The saying at Hanford used to be that cowards quit Hanford to go to war, Plahuta said.
But there also was camaraderie, with everyone a newcomer and a collaboration among scientists and engineers as they pioneered a new field of science.
It's a story of innovation, patriotism and scientific achievement, said Matt McCormick, manager of the DOE Richland Hanford Operations Office.
Today, 20 percent of the nation's power comes from nuclear plants, Petersen said. Lives are routinely saved thanks to radioisotopes, X-rays and CAT scans. And as the Curiosity rover explores Mars, it is powered with the heat from radioactive material, possibly produced at Hanford, Petersen said.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com