KENNEWICK -- Perhaps the economic fortunes of the Tri-Cities could be bolstered by atomic tourism and new high-tech industries that would take advantage of the scientific and technical expertise in the community.
That's the conclusion of a federal government report issued almost 50 years ago, according to Seattle historians John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly in their new book Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West.
The information-packed book, published by the University of Washington Press, traces the economic and political fortunes of Hanford and the Tri-Cities from World War II as the federal government established the nuclear reservation and nearby company town to produce plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
It lays out the roller-coaster of boom and bust cycles as Hanford struggled to stay relevant and the community attempted to maintain a solid economic footing -- a process that continues today as increasing tourism and recruiting high-tech industries are looked to to decrease the Tri-Cities' dependence on federal dollars spent at Hanford.
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Findlay and Hevly will be discussing the book today at 7 p.m. at the Kennewick Branch of the Mid-Columbia Libraries, 1620 S. Union St.
They set out to write a book that gave a more balanced account of Hanford than the two types of books typically available about the nuclear reservation, Findlay said.
They believed there was a neutral account to be written between the upbeat books that described a story of triumph as the United States ended World War II and a second generation of books that focused on personal stories blaming Hanford contamination for illnesses.
Findlay became interested in writing about Hanford after he took a tour with historians about two decades ago and couldn't stop thinking about the simplistic anti-nuclear attitude of some on the tour and also the complexity of what he had seen.
"(Hanford) needed to be explained," he said.
He also said that while the Hanford story was unusual, it also reflected the 20th century themes of huge federal investment in development and the rise of big government in the American West.
His expertise is in urban history, accounting for his interest in the communities surrounding Hanford, and he teamed up with Hevly, who specializes in the history of science and technology. Both teach at the UW Department of History.
Findlay was surprised to learn how quickly Hanford's plutonium-production reactors were considered obsolete, he said. By 1950, Savannah River, S.C., began building multipurpose reactors that used a newer design and broke Hanford's U.S. monopoly on plutonium production.
Hanford also had the disadvantage compared to some other Manhattan Project sites of being largely an industrial site focused on the large-scale production of plutonium rather than a center of scientific thinking.
However, the authors were impressed by the way engineers, despite a lack of technology that was still cutting edge, kept finding ways to perfect and tweak equipment and the production cycle to keep Hanford making plutonium through the Cold War.
That might not have happened without the dogged determinism of Tri-City people and leaders. Once Richland residents bought the houses and other buildings that formerly had belonged to the federal government, they knew that diversification and continuing work for Hanford were essential to maintain the value of their investments.
But economic diversification proceeded with nearly as many failures as successes, despite the Tri-Cities increasing political clout, as outlined by the authors. N Reactor's commercial power production, the Washington Public Power Supply System's plan to build five nuclear reactors and the Fast Flux Test Facility all were at best, short-term successes in diversification from plutonium production.
When Hanford competed for large government projects, such as a particle accelerator, it faced the disadvantage of being considered remote and provincial and lacking a four-year university.
A 1965 attempt to produce a commercial plant for producing radioisotopes from Hanford waste failed, and the next diversification effort required by the federal government of a Hanford contractor produced Richland's Hanford House hotel, a cattle feed yard and a meat-packing plant -- hardly the high-tech diversification the community had envisioned, the authors wrote.
The book stops short of the current year as Hanford again faces a tough round of job reductions this fall, but Findlay said he does see some encouraging signs for economic diversification.
The environmental cleanup of Hanford is expected to continue for decades to come. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory provides a scientific nucleus for the community, and Washington State University Tri-Cities has become a four-year school.
The wine industry is thriving, drawing tourism, and the recommendation that Hanford's B Reactor become part of a Manhattan Project National Park also should boost the region's appeal to tourists.
During the two decades that Findlay and Hevly wrote Atomic Frontier Days in fits and starts, Findlay said he became a fan of the Tri-Cities, enjoying the increasingly sophisticated food and wine and access to its three rivers.
"It was captivating in ways I didn't expect," he said.
If you go
What: Authors of Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West to speak
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Kennewick branch of Mid-Columbia Libraries, 1620 S. Union St.
Cost: Free. A Nook Touch, set of the authors' books to be given away.