Speak Your Piece: The Manhattan Project’s Rural Connection

The atomic age began largely in rural America. Now the Department of Energy wants to transport unneeded atomic waste across the country.

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If the U.S. turned the multiple sites of the 1942-45 Manhattan Project into a series of national parks, it would help visitors grasp the horror of the development of the atomic bomb.  

Once enough people had a sober close-up look inside labs, factories and artifacts of the nuclear age, maybe the nation would stop careening into wars — wars that are costing us trillions of dollars to fight.

Last month’s anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb went by quietly.

“August is a great month for celebrating human stupidity,” K.C. Cole wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “On Aug. 6, 1945, we all but disappeared Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb, and then did it again, three days later, at Nagasaki. And now we barely seem to care.

“The sad truth is, we are incapable of understanding exactly what these seemingly ancient events mean.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced Senate Bill 3300 on June 14. It would “establish a national historical park at the three sites where much of the critical scientific activity associated with the Manhattan Project occurred,” according to his web site.  

The three are Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington.

It’s bipartisan, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) among the co-sponsors.

The bill went to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Bingaman chairs.

“It’s going well and we are guardedly optimistic,” said Cynthia C. Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation of Washington, D.C. She is watching the bill’s progress on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Kelly is the author of the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s new paperback series that appeared in June and is entitled “A Guide to the Manhattan Project.” It’s an essential resource for every U.S. science class. 

This book is written in everyday language and is easy to read. I hope my great-nephew, who was born three weeks ago in a hospital in Manhattan (and then went home with his parents to the borough of Brooklyn), gets to study this series.

The Manhattan Project was moved to rural areas because it was easier to keep a secret. Here is the front gate at the facility in Hanford, Washington, in the 1940s.

It includes volumes tracing the work in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington state, among other locales including the Woolworth Building in New York City. The introduction to the volumes is by journalist and historian Richard Rhodes. His 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in ‘88.

“What began as a desperate effort of defense – inventing an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany got there first – became a major new force of human affairs,” Rhodes writes.

Meanwhile, in the Rural U.S…

Last month the Department of Energy released its 938-page Draft Surplus Plutonium Distribution Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This is in preparation for a new round of public meetings, including one tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 11, in Chattanooga, Tenn., near my home in North Carolina.

The DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration are “evaluating the potential environmental impacts at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina of disposition pathways for surplus weapons-usable plutonium originally planned for immobilization,” according to the draft supplemental EIS foreword.

As I read these documents, I was struck by the fact that the rural United States, with its patriotism (and disproportionate number of volunteers for military service) still is bearing the brunt of the Manhattan Project.

Were surplus plutonium to travel between SRS to one of 14 locations listed in the draft supplemental EIS, transport trucks would move the former component of nuclear warheads 3,372 kilometers, mostly over rural roads.

The routes generally to be used to move the surplus plutonium.

An “affected population for route characterization and incident-free dose calculation includes all persons living within 800 meters (0.5 miles),” according to the public record.  Within this range, there live millions of people. 

Rural America became the locale for the Manhattan Project sites because its sparse population meant as few people as possible would die in case there were a terrible accident (none occurred), and rural project sites would be harder for spies to infiltrate (they could and they did).

Nuclear Comes to the Country

Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aug. 2, 1939 and warned that Germany was “probably working to produce an extremely powerful bomb.”

The Manhattan Project took shape in deepest secrecy. Roosevelt met with Sen. Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee in the Spring of 1942.  “How can we hide two billion dollars in the appropriations bill for this project to win the war?” the president asked.

“Where in Tennessee are we going to build it?” Sen. McKellar replied.

The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The U.S. acquired 56,000 acres in east Tennessee. The farm communities there named Wheat, Elza, Scarboro and New Hope dated to the settlement of the area by Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 1700s.  All that remains of farming is Wheat’s George Jones Baptist Church, site of annual homecomings. A temporary town grew into the modern city of Oak Ridge.

The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico was selected as a Manhattan Project site because Berkeley’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the new atomic works, had spent a summer at the ranch as an 18-year-old recovering from dysentery.

The town of Hanford with a population of about 300 was taken over by the U.S. government and grew to be the third largest city in Washington state.

“Most residents… were given 90 days’ notice to abandon their homes. Homeowners were compensated based on the appraised value… Most of the buildings were demolished and orchards cut down, leaving fields studded with stumps. They are haunting reminders of the pre-war settlements,” according to Cynthia Kelly.

For seven years, 1942-49, Oak Ridge was not on any map. That level of security was necessary to make an atomic bomb first so that no Axis power could do so and use it against the U.S. without consequence.

About five thousand babies born in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project had only “P.O. Box 1663” for an address on their birth certificates. (Think carefully, you five thousand, about running for public office. You could face a birther controversy.)

Living by Manhattan Project Rules

In remote rural areas around the Manhattan Project sites, like here in far western North Carolina where I live, there was an unfortunate result of the Manhattan Project: The overarching government control over what anyone could say or write affected generations of rural folk.  

The sites being considered for disposal of the surplus plutonium.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act, reluctantly signed by President Johnson at his Texas ranch in 1966 and the open records and open meetings laws in each state were won by citizens and the press as they fought the lingering view that “there are things we just cannot know.” There are not and a vigorously open and transparent society works best.

The next DOE public meeting about disposal of surplus plutonium, including at nuclear power plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is Sept. 11 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

I go out upon no limb when I say the center will be large enough. The last time one of these was held there, I counted 38 persons in attendance. 

World war embroiled the planet until nuclear bombs killed 90,000 to 160,000 at Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 at Nagasaki, 67 years ago last week.

Yet I saw how only 38 people turned out for a public meeting on how to dispose of the detritus of our nation skittering to the edge of Armageddon.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman.

 

 

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