The legacy of the nuclear bomb dropped 70 years ago Sunday on Nagasaki, Japan, still shows on the streets of Richland.
There’s Atomic Ale Brewpub and Atomic Bowl and streets called Nuclear and Proton lanes. And most famously, the mushroom cloud logo of the Richland High School Bombers.
The town grew from a secret government mission that drew thousands of people nearly overnight to the Eastern Washington desert to create the nation’s first large-scale nuclear reactor and produce the plutonium for the Nagasaki weapon, Fat Man.
The Mid-Columbia’s role in history was made clear by polls at the end of the 20th century, showing the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the most important events in 100 years.
“When you think about the invention of the automobile, the invention of the computer, the invention of television, it really means that our community will be remembered in international history books as far as any of us can see,” said Michele Gerber, who retired in 2011 as Hanford’s official historian.
The bombing of Nagasaki, which came three days after Hiroshima, killed 70,000 people initially, though total fatalities eventually climbed to more than 100,000. Japan surrendered five days later, ending the war that had taken about 60 million lives.
“The atomic bombs changed our world,” Gerber said. “We know they exist and are capable of such terrible destruction. It will make us all think twice in the future about the decisions we make.”
This marks the first time the anniversary of the bombings has passed since President Barack Obama signed legislation last year to create the Manhattan Project National Historic Park, which will preserve Hanford’s B Reactor, as well as sites at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., that helped create the nuclear weapons.
The bombing still draws attention, and controversy, even in the Mid-Columbia. But many remain proud of Hanford’s role in ending the war.
A group of friends who hang out at the Richland airport recently spent nine months to build a full-scale replica, bringing it out in May for public display in West Richland.
“I think it’s a pretty important issue. It’s also a sensitive issue to some people,” said Terry Klute of Richland, one of the builders. “We want to kind of remind people that this is history. It’s why Richland is here. It’s why Hanford is here. It played a massive role in ending World War II, which was a horrific thing and that needs to be acknowledged.”
Others are concerned about what the future holds for nuclear weapons and want to use the bombing anniversary as an opportunity to spread awareness of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
The public is invited to the Atomic Cities Peace Memorial at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Howard Amon Park in Richland. The 34th annual event was started by World Citizens for Peace in response to a nuclear weapons buildup proposed by President Ronald Reagan.
The issue is still relevant considering that the United States still has 9,000 nuclear warheads, said Jim Stoffels, a founder of the local group.
“In our ceremony, we remember the past with hope for the future,” he said. “Right now, there’s not much to give hope for in the future because the nuclear powers are not disarming.”
The hourlong event at Lee Landing will include songs, speeches and prayer. The Bell of Peace model sent by Nagasaki’s mayor in 1985 will be rung in memory of the Americans who died at Pearl Harbor and the Japanese who died at Nagasaki.
Gerber said more needs to be done to talk about the atomic bombings, their effects and the work that went into them at all levels of education.
“I really find many people don’t know anything about it,” she said.
One group offering education on the atomic bombings is the Washington, D.C.-based Atomic Heritage Foundation, which posts on its Voices of the Manhattan Project site interviews from people involved in producing and dropping the bombs.
Owen Pagano, program manager with the foundation, calls the day he learned about the bomb in his high school history class in 2008 as the most memorable day of the class.
Students who normally didn’t participate in the class became part of the debate, he said.
“I think it’s even more important today, with the issues with Iran and North Korea and non-proliferation,” he said. “I think it’s important people know how it all began.”
Some young people who come to the Reach museum in Richland are completely unaware of the atomic bomb, said Executive Director Lisa Toomey.
“They can’t imagine how any decision to drop a nuclear weapon would have been accepted,” she said.
Students and adults have been coming to center for the past year to see its 1,500-square-foot Manhattan Project Exhibit that tells about the Hanford Engineering Works. The exhibit features a detailed, full-size wall model of Fat Man.
The exhibit is presented impartially, Toomey said.
Those from the Mid-Columbia typically don’t react too strongly because they worked at Hanford or are familiar with its story, Toomey said.
“When you get visitors from other parts of the country or the Seattle area, it’s a little different response,” she said. “I think they are shocked by the sheer size of the model that we have. I think they are surprised by the breadth and depth of the Manhattan Project.”