PULLMAN, Wash.—Award-winning former Seattle Times science writer Hill Williams has written Made in Hanford: The Bomb that Changed the World. Other books offer scant coverage of the facility’s role in the Manhattan Project, but as the title implies, Hanford is the heart of Williams’ book. He recounts the extraordinary scientific and engineering efforts that led to the plutonium bomb. He describes post-World War II nuclear testing in the Pacific and its effects on the island people. Throughout it all, he conveys his own recurring connections with the story.
Williams was a senior at Pasco High School when a small plane carrying Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias and two DuPont engineers flew over three farming communities in eastern Washington. The passengers agreed. The isolated location near the powerful Columbia River was the ideal site for a plutonium factory. Soon, the Williams family had workers staying in their spare room, and within two years, Hanford was operational. The amazingly complex plant was built with a speed and secrecy unheard of today, but on August 9, 1945, its purpose was finally revealed. Williams’ father, the editor of the Pasco Herald, published a special edition. The headline, set in the largest available type, read, “IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS!”
Additional real-life narrative touches come from an extraordinary source. Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias, World War II Army commander at Hanford, kept a diary that theoretically was checked at Manhattan headquarters. But Matthias kept his own, unedited copy, and when he loaned it to a professor many years later, Williams was fortunate to gain access.
Williams traces nuclear physics back to the discovery of neutrons in 1932, and to the eve of World War II, when news of an astonishing breakthrough filtered out of Germany. Scientists there had split uranium atoms, sending physicists in the United States scrambling to verify results and further investigate this new science. Ominously, they soon recognized its potential to fuel the ultimate weapon—one able to release the energy of an uncontrolled chain reaction. With growing fears that the Nazis were on the verge of harnessing nuclear power, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gambled on the program that eventually became the Manhattan Project. The objective was to research and produce uranium for military use. By 1941, experiments led to the identification of plutonium, but laboratory work generated the new element in amounts far too small to be useful. To generate sufficient quantities, a facility capable of large-scale manufacture—Hanford—was required.
The plant produced plutonium throughout the Cold War, fueling atomic weapons and exploration. In 1946, the United States began conducting nuclear tests halfway around the world, dropping bombs on the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. The Marshall Islands people were forced to relocate, forever altering their way of life.
Hanford also continued to touch Williams’ life. At the Nevada Test Site in April, 1952, he felt the heat, and through dark goggles, witnessed the intense flash of an atomic bomb detonation. Seconds later, he was rocked by the shock wave. He was also present for an emotional homecoming when, in September, 1968, nine Bikini elders returned to their ancestral island for the first time since the exile.