Friday, February 24, 2012

The House that Fermi Built

by Tim Hill, Office of the Columbia River

History and place have always been a passion of mine. I’ve spent a good part of life trudging through brush and fields to find where Peo-peo-mox-mox was brutally killed or where Ranald MacDonald settled down after being freed from a Japanese prison.

I search out these places to feel what I call an “historical moment.” It’s hard to describe what that is exactly other than to say it’s an intense feeling of a sense of history. It’s as if the ghosts of those who once inhabited the site gather around me to share their joys, their fears, and their stories.

Sometimes, the historical moment feels so strong, I am overcome with emotion. The first time that happened was at Dover Green. I hadn’t really sought out that site—I was just killing time while my wife was interviewing for a job with the Delaware Department of Education. All of a sudden, I visualized farmers, storekeepers, millers, and tavern keeps, mustering as minutemen. I could feel their fear, their anger, and their yearning for self-determination. It shook me.

It happened again when I stood in the basement of the U.S. Supreme Court looking at the Brown v. the Board of Education decision. That document demonstrated that the system could work, that government can be a great force for good, that even the most evil, institutionalized injustices could be righted. It demonstrated that Langston Hughes’s America, the one that never was, could be the America of which he dreamed.

B Reactor

The last place I was overwhelmed by an historical moment was at B Reactor on the Hanford Site near Richland. As I entered the control room, I visualized Enrico Fermi hunched over blueprints at the small table in the back, creating something that had never been done at such a scale before. B Reactor is truly a monument to American ingenuity and what is often called the “can-do” spirit. In a few short months, the “greatest generation” turned a remote piece of shrub-steppe into the site of one of the greatest technological accomplishments of all time.

But as I entered into where the reactor is housed, I was reminded that B Reactor is also a monument to one of the greatest horrors of all time. The plutonium that was used in “Fat Man,” the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, was produced here. I thought about the more than 73,000 people who were killed by the bomb blast and the thousands more resulting deaths over subsequent decades. Opinions about the bombing of Nagasaki range from “horrible but necessary” to “horrible and shameful,” but no matter what one thinks about it, horror is part of the equation. A small part of that horror sliced through me as I stood there contemplating the victims.

Hanford’s Environmental Legacy

Later, as we visited the huge plutonium processing facilities, I thought about the piece of Hanford’s legacy we are dealing with today. About 56 million gallons of highly toxic,chemical and radioactive waste remains in aging underground tanks there, and the massive $12 billion facility being built to treat this waste is still years away from completion. Meanwhile. tritium, strontium-90, and technetium-99 plumes mix with the groundwater, threatening the health of the Columbia River.

Thankfully, the old B Reactor ingenuity and can-do spirit is being put to work on the environmental cleanup. It’s hard work and will take decades to complete, but with adequate funding from the federal government and continued vigorous oversight by EPA and Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, it will get done. Maybe someday, my great-grandchildren will have an historical moment while strolling down a Hanford greenway trail.

Another round of Hanford Site tours is set to begin in April. Registration starts at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, March 6. Historically, slots for these tours fill up within minutes, so you’ll want to be ready to register at the moment the registration site opens.


One Life said...

Wonderful post. Please, give us more.

I know several who read this blog, but so few comment. I want to let you know that you aren't just lobbing things out into space with no one listening. Keep up the good work. It's always illuminating to understand that agencies like yours are so much more than rules and regulations.

Tim Hill, OCR said...

Thank you, One Life. It was nice to free up my work-related writing.

It's important to provide technical information to the public--an informed citizenry is a critical component of a democracy. But I think it's also good to show the human side of government occasionally. I'm glad you agree.

Thanks again.