Guest Opinions

Guest column: Richland’s mushroom cloud is again getting attention

By Renee Lewis

Should Richland High School retire the mushroom cloud logo?
Should Richland High School retire the mushroom cloud logo?

National news outlets reported on more than just the tunnel collapse at the Hanford nuclear site this month — they reported on us.

“An Atomic Town Revels in its Plutonium Past as Tunnel Collapse Raises Contamination Concerns,” the Washington Post headline read.

“The Richland High School mascot is the Bomber, and a mushroom cloud is painted on the gymnasium floor,” the article said.

The significance of that is not lost on those who know that Hanford produced the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 — vaporizing tens of thousands of people.

For people not from here, “the cloud” is more than just a little weird.

To us, it’s just “kitschy” — right?

Of course, national news reports on the cloud almost every time something bad happens at Hanford.

So why hasn’t it sunk in here yet? Why are we still professing to be “proud of the cloud”?

My grandma worked in an office job at Hanford during the war. I often thought about how she had taken the job “to support the war effort” with no idea of the top-secret reason for the project.

Did she ever feel guilty for her unconscious role in creating the 10,000-pound “Fat Man” bomb?

She said she was surprised, like most workers at the site, when they were told it was Hanford that produced the bomb that exploded in a huge mushroom cloud — ending the war but killing up to 80,000 people, most of them civilians.

But she didn’t feel any guilt.

“We didn’t know what they were working on,” she said.

Like my grandma and the vast majority of the other Hanford workers, we didn’t choose our nuclear heritage. And we don’t have to feel guilty for it.

At the same time, we don’t need to celebrate it “with chilling flippancy,” as one article put it, either.

It’s more than just a little politically incorrect to have a mushroom cloud as a high school mascot in the city that built the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The Tri-Cities as a community should reevaluate whether we want to continue exposing new generations to this mentality.

I’m not saying I’m holier than thou. I was as conditioned to the symbol as anyone else who grew up in the Tri-Cities.

It was only after I told friends not from here that I truly realized how wrong that looked. They were shocked to hear about the cloud, and some even thought it was a bad joke.

My aunt recently attended her Richland High School class reunion and they gave out wine glasses with the mushroom cloud etched into them. She wouldn’t even keep the glass because she wasn’t “proud of the cloud.”

I’m not either. Are any of us, really?

The high school changed its mascot from the Beavers to the Bombers amid the international media frenzy after the bomb was dropped.

And it can be changed again.

Let’s have a conversation about this Tri-Cities!

Renee Lewis is a Tri-Cities resident, grew up in Richland and attended Hanford High School. She has worked as a journalist in the Middle East for Al Jazeera English and in NYC for Al Jazeera America. She is now a freelance reporter focusing on climate change.