Book review

On the list of self-inflicted threats to humanity that we shove to the side in order to preserve our sanity, nuclear disaster — along with climate change — ranks at the top. And in Washington state, the toxic legacy of the Hanford nuclear reservation is the chief reminder of that threat.

Hanford produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 — 75 years ago this Sunday. It also supplied the plutonium for most of the thousands of American nuclear weapons manufactured since then. But in the popular imagination, Hanford looms less prominently than Los Alamos when it comes to stories about the dawn of the nuclear age.

In “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age,” Seattle writer Steve Olson — who grew up in the small town of Othello, roughly 25 miles northeast of Hanford — capably fills in the gap.

As a young writer, Olson studied with John Hersey — the author of the 1946 book “Hiroshima” — so it’s fitting that “The Apocalypse Factory” includes an expansive, Hersey-like chapter on the horrific consequences of the Nagasaki bombing, drawn from Japanese eyewitness accounts. Nagasaki residents, of course, didn’t know what had hit them and were confounded by the “atomic bomb sickness” that killed people who initially appeared to be uninjured.

The book also encompasses the political and military strategies of the period, along with the “fiendishly difficult” challenges of producing plutonium in a way that wouldn’t kill its makers. Olson writes lucidly, making even the most recondite details of the science involved clear to a nonscientist. And he’s eloquent in his chronicling of the lives affected — and sometimes destroyed — by the invention and use of the world’s most deadly weapon.

“Hanford,” he acknowledges, “represents one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements; it also embodies a moral blindness that could destroy us all.”

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The book opens with Franklin Matthias, a young colonel with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, flying near the Columbia River in 1942, searching for a site large enough and isolated enough to accommodate plutonium-producing facilities. It closes with Olson’s thread of hope that the multibillion-dollar cleanup of Hanford, “if done persistently and well, could provide an object lesson in making the Earth whole again.”

The initial reason to build the bomb, of course, was the fear that Nazi Germany was about to build one and would have no scruples about using it. American scientists knew what they were unleashing. “[T]here was very little doubt in my mind,” Hungarian-Jewish scientist Leo Szilard later wrote, “that the world was headed for grief.” But the alternative — letting the Nazis get there first — was unthinkable.

The challenges of building the bomb weren’t just technical. Trying to keep the project secret when it was bigger in scale than the building of the Grand Coulee Dam was tricky. In nearby Richland, where many Hanford workers lived, even the phone book was classified.

Obtaining government funds for a colossally expensive project when you weren’t at liberty to say what it was, exactly, was challenging too. Then there was the question of how to protect workers who had no idea they were working around radiation.

Tensions among scientists, engineers and the military sometimes led to comical results. General Leslie Groves, in charge of the project, insisted on putting Szilard under surveillance because of his thick Germanic accent. “Szilard would sometimes lead his tails on chaotic walks through the cities he visited,” Olson writes. “Other times, he took pity on the agents and invited them to join him for a taxi ride or cup of coffee.”

Another funny/scary anecdote: The first shipment of Hanford plutonium was personally carried in a small wooden box by Matthias via passenger train from Portland to Los Angeles. There, he handed it over to a security officer from Los Alamos, after first insisting that the officer book a locked compartment for his trip back to New Mexico. The plutonium had cost $350 million to make, Matthias noted, and a regular sleeping-car berth wouldn’t do.

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The secrecy surrounding the bomb didn’t end with World War II. Censorship of details about Nagasaki’s destruction and vital info on what radiation sickness could do to humans continued for years. A story by one Chicago Tribune reporter who wangled his way to Nagasaki wasn’t just censored but destroyed. The carbon copy he kept only came to light 60 years later.

Initial jubilation at Japanese surrender was soon tempered by a realization among scientists of just how nightmarish the bombs’ effects were. Decades later, the radioactive pollution at Hanford likewise became impossible to ignore.

“The leaders of the Manhattan Project,” Olson concludes, “did not devote much thought to the mess they were creating.”

In this deft, informative, sometimes terrifying book, that sentence reads like a stinging understatement.

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The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age” by Steve Olson, Norton, 336 pp., $27.95