Documentary tells Hanford story

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 9, 2013 

Hanford workers pose in 1944.


The history of the Hanford nuclear reservation is traced in a new documentary that takes viewers back to World War II with archival film footage and photographs.

The hourlong documentary, a project of Oregon Public Broadcasting for its Oregon Experience program, will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Richland Public Library, 955 Northgate Drive. Executive producer Nadine Jelsing will take questions after the screening.

The program will air on public TV stations KTNW and KWSU at 7 p.m. Monday and repeat at 9 p.m. the same night.

Jelsing started thinking about a documentary after she took the Department of Energy public tour of Hanford and Hanford's B Reactor, she said.

She had heard of Hanford, but really did not understand what it was or how big it was, she said. The nuclear reservation covers 586 square miles.

"After I took the tour, I was just amazed," she said.

Hanford frequently is in the news as the nation spends about $2 billion annually on environmental cleanup of contamination left from the past plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons program. But Jelsing wanted to focus on its history.

The combination of WWII and Cold War history and the secretiveness of the Hanford project made the documentary one of the most fascinating shows she has worked on since Oregon Experience was launched in 2006, Jelsing said.

The video includes recent footage shot at Hanford and inside Hanford's historic B Reactor and T Plant. But it also depends heavily on historic films, photos and Dupus Boomer cartoons collected by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jelsing spent about six months on the film, figuring out how to tell the story of how the United States quickly and secretly built a complex in the desert with 50,000 workers to produce plutonium on a production scale for the first time. She also wanted to incorporate enough science to explain the engineering feat pulled off by wartime workers.

In the film, early Hanford workers and area residents, historian Michele Gerber and current Hanford officials tell the story of Hanford from World War II through the arms buildup of the Cold War.

"It was the biggest, most highly classified project of World War II," says Gerber at the start of the film. "It was more classified than the Normandy invasion."

After the remote location was selected, a meeting was called at one of the grange halls in 1943. Farmers were told they needed to be gone in three weeks to make way for a war effort project, Claude Rawlins said in the film.

"People were angry," said Rawlins, whose parents farmed on land that would become part of Hanford. "They were upset that their whole lives were being turned upside down. And there was no cash offer. We didn't get paid until years after."

From March to September 1943, about 10,000 people a month were hired for what was the largest construction project in the world at the time, according to the film.

Fewer than a tenth of 1 percent of the work force knew what they were making. Workers were moved around work sites so they could not learn enough about a facility to piece together information, said Russ Fabre, B Reactor tour manager.

The secret was revealed Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States released an atomic bomb powered by uranium over Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, an atomic bomb powered by Hanford plutonium was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

"We won the race of discovery against Germany," President Truman said, revealing there was a place called Hanford.

Hanford didn't close after the war ended. "It got bigger," Gerber said in the film.

Russia essentially had stolen the nuclear technology used at Hanford, said Steve Buckingham, a retired Hanford worker. Hanford produced increasing quantities of plutonium as military tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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