Mitsugi Moriguchi stepped inside Hanford’s historic B Reactor on Friday, nearly every inch of his body covered in gear designed to protect against radiation.
The memories of 72 years ago still are strong for the resident of Nagasaki, Japan, and he was nervous.
Moriguchi is “hibakusha” — a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Visiting the place that produced the plutonium for those bombs was a somber moment.
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“It was shocking to me to come to B Reactor and see it open to the public as a prideful accomplishment,” he said. “Here the production of plutonium has only one purpose — to destroy human beings.”
Sponsors of his visit, which included a stop at Richland High School, believe it was the first official visit to Hanford and the Tri-Cities by a Nagasaki survivor. The visit, a mission of peace, was paid for in part by the city of Nagasaki and organized by the nonprofit group, Consequences of Radiation Exposure.
Moriguchi came away from the tour of both the reactor and the high school, home of the Bombers, perplexed by local attitudes.
B Reactor, now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, was the world’s first full-scale nuclear production reactor, and produced plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki Aug. 9, 1945. More than 70,000 people were killed and others were sickened by radiation.
Richland students he talked to did not know a lot about World War II, but that’s what he expected. Even in Nagasaki students consider it “ancient history,” he said.
But he was disturbed by what he saw on the floor of the gym: the emblem of the Bombers, a mushroom cloud.
“Everyone walks over it, walks on it,” he said through an interpreter. It’s as if they are stepping on the thousands of people killed by the bomb, he said with a note of distress in his voice.
He broke into the limited English he speaks to ask, “Do you understand my heart?”
A family lost
Among those who were killed or seriously harmed by the cloud were his friends and siblings, he said.
As the Hanford nuclear reservation was producing plutonium, Moriguchi was a child living in Nagasaki.
His mother had worried about the safety of her children as the United States dropped conventional bombs near the family’s home for two nights starting Aug. 1.
His oldest brother was away from home serving in the military. Another brother, a sister and his father could not leave their factory work. Students in middle school and older were forced to work in factories during the war and not allowed to leave the city.
But his mother left home with the three youngest children: 8-year-old Moriguchi, an older sister and younger brother.
She had a location in mind, but when she got there changed her mind and decided to go farther.
Three days later, the Fat Man bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, landing not far from where Moriguchi’s mother had first planned to take her children, he said.
“When my mother saw the mushroom cloud, she instantly decided she had to go back to the city,” Moriguchi said, talking through an interpreter.
People were saying that Nagasaki had been destroyed.
“We begged her, ‘Don’t go. You can’t go back. Please don’t leave us,’ ” Moriguchi said.
She left her three youngest children crying at a train station with all the money she had with her. She told them if she did not come back, to give the money to an acquaintance to help take care of them and feed them, he said.
On the fourth day, his older sister was discussing who to give the money to, when “some apparition came into sight.” Moriguchi said. “It looked like a ghost. But it was my mother.”
With her were the two older children.
All would return to Nagasaki, where they were exposed to more radiation.
His sister, who had been working at the shipyards, would suffer from cancer later in her life and was wracked with pain before her death, Moriguchi said.
The brother who was at a torpedo boat factory married another survivor of the bombing. Just two of their five babies survived to adulthood. Two babies — one severely malformed — died at birth; another without fingers lived just a year.
Moriguchi, who has spoken frequently in Japan and abroad about his experiences, was interested in visiting Hanford since he learned that was where plutonium for Fat Man was made.
A long journey
That’s how he came to be at B Reactor on Friday on a private tour, accompanied by two Chicago-area professors who acted as interpreters.
He had questions about how the reactor operated as former Richland Mayor John Fox, the president of the B Reactor Museum Association, showed him around.
He sat, after some hesitation, in the chair at the controls of the reactor, and asked to have his photo taken.
But throughout the tour he kept his eye on a small radiation detector he carried with him, calling out readings. The Japanese visitors believed they were high enough to be of concern if a person were at the reactor 365 days a year.
Why were the media and others who accompanied him on the tour not wearing protective clothing? he asked. He wore protective coveralls, a hood, gloves and a mask.
He told a university student who came with him from Japan to skip the reactor tour, out of concern she could be exposed to radiation. A Japanese television crew, which shadowed Moriguchi for most of his visit, also skipped the tour.
The Department of Energy and Washington state have carefully monitored the plant since it opened for tours more than a decade ago. They have taken readings from dosimeters hanging in B Reactor for more than a decade and also have air monitors in the building, finding nothing of concern.
“I’m left with a sense of what cruel things human beings do,” he said as he left B Reactor.
“Nuclear cannot bring happiness to humanity,” he said. “I would like people here to stand up with that message.”