A review of "Made in Hanford — The Bomb that Changed the World," by former Seattle Times science writer Hill Williams.
‘Made in Hanford — The Bomb that Changed the World’
by Hill Williams
Washington State University Press, 208 pp., $22.95
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Hill Williams was a senior at Pasco High School when a lieutenant colonel walked into the Pasco Herald and made an unprecedented request of Williams’ father, the editor of the newspaper.
The date was Feb. 26, 1943, and construction would not start for another month on the Hanford nuclear reservation, which would produce plutonium for atomic bombs and usher in the atomic age. But Lt. Col. Franklin Matthias was there to stop any news of the top secret project before work began.
He asked Hill Williams Sr. not to publish any news of the project — an agreement that the Pasco editor kept until August 1945, when he published a midweek “extra” with the headline “IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS!”
That’s the scene that Hill Williams uses to start his new book published by Washington State University Press, “Made in Hanford — The Bomb that Changed the World.”
There might be no surprise in the way the story ends, but the book creates suspense as scientists and engineers work against the clock to create the world’s first atomic explosion and then the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Would element 94, as plutonium first was known, turn out to be fissionable? Could enough plutonium be separated from irradiated fuel? And how could a bomb be made from it?
Several times it appeared U.S. efforts to develop an atomic bomb would be dropped as impossible.
In July 1944, an emergency meeting was called in Chicago as scientists and engineers feared the proposed plutonium atomic bomb would detonate with more of a fizzle than an explosion.
A colonel at the meeting said that if the project had not been so secret, Congress surely would have killed it, Williams wrote. But based only on some preliminary work to use conventional explosives to compress a sphere of plutonium into a critical mass, the project continued.
The book draws on Williams’ experience as a longtime science writer for The Seattle Times (he retired from the paper in 1991), providing accessible accounts of research advances, including how scientists learned to split the atom and isolate plutonium.
For much of the narrative, he relied on the memoirs and other written accounts of those involved in the Manhattan Project. Although an official version of Matthias’ diary exists, Williams obtained a copy of the version Matthias kept for himself, unedited by wartime officials.
But the book also is structured around the personal accounts of the many times that Williams’ or his editor father’s lives intertwined with the start of the atomic age.
“This book had been bothering me for quite a few years, almost an itch to get it written,” Williams wrote in the book’s introduction. He lived through, and occasionally witnessed, important events at the beginning of the atomic age, he wrote.
“It was something I wanted to share,” he wrote.
Not only was Hill Williams Sr. asked to sit on the biggest news story of his life, but he also was asked to open his home to strangers working on the Manhattan Project, his son wrote.
Housing was in short supply in what now is the Tri-Cities as Hanford brought thousands of people to the area, and the family reluctantly agreed to the request if the visitors were “nice people,” Williams wrote.
When Williams joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school, his bedroom was given to the Manhattan Project official responsible for keeping Hanford speculation out of newspapers.
After Williams graduated from the University of Washington, he returned to the Tri-Cities, and by October 1948 was reporting for the Tri-City Herald.
On April 22, 1952, less than a decade after the first shovel of dirt was turned at Hanford, he stood at the Nevada Test Site as a young Herald reporter to watch a nuclear explosion.
“I saw a fiery ball which almost instantaneously was flanked by two horizontal sheets of flame,” he wrote on a typewriter sitting under the desert sun that day. “At the same instant a wave of heat struck my face.
“The heat was frightening; I hadn’t expected it. It was as definite as if you opened a hot oven and stuck your face right up to the door,” he wrote.
Later he would cover the intense nuclear testing that continued for a decade after the war in the Marshall Islands.
“I saw the devastated islands where people had once lived, the deep craters where islands had been blown out of existence by American super bombs,” he wrote in the introduction to his book.
He traveled with the exiled residents of the Bikini Atoll when elders were allowed to make the first visit to their former home in 22 years.
Although he hadn’t thought about those people who lived on the atolls as he reported the nation’s nuclear testing campaign, he later came to see the enormous impact that the bomb “made in Hanford” had on their lives, he wrote.