Mitsugi Moriguchi, 81, is the first Nagasaki survivor known to have visited the Hanford reactor — now part of a national park — that produced plutonium for the World War II bomb detonated over that Japanese city. “There was nothing — nothing about the suffering,” he said.
RICHLAND, Benton County — Mitsugi Moriguchi was 8 when the atomic bomb detonated over his home city of Nagasaki, and he has spent much of his life telling the story of the aftermath.
The retired schoolteacher speaks in classrooms and at conferences, and he helped to edit a book of survivors’ testimonials. Last week, he came to Richland to talk about what happened — but also to learn as he visited the shuttered Hanford B Reactor — now part of a U.S. national park — that produced the plutonium fuel for that bomb.
He asked a tour guide about the workings of aluminum tubes that held the uranium fuel. He took a seat in the control room, fingering knobs where workers once monitored the operation. He surveyed the photo exhibits hanging on the walls of the building that houses the B Reactor and a park visitor center in Richland.
He left impressed by this formidable wartime scientific accomplishment. But he struggled to understand why the park did not include some reflection of the destruction wrought on his hometown.
“There was nothing — nothing about the suffering, the damages that were caused,” Moriguchi said. “I felt that eyes were closed to this part of it.”
Moriguchi, 81, is the first Nagasaki hibakusha — Japanese atomic bomb survivor — known to have toured the B Reactor, which opened for tours in 2009. His mother took him out of the city before the bomb dropped on Aug. 9, 1945, and he returned several days later to a city where he witnessed firsthand the power of the plutonium produced at Hanford.
The reactor tour was a highlight of Moriguchi’s trip to Central Washington that also included a visit to Richland High School, where he gave the principal a copy of the testimonial book he helped to edit, and met with downwinders — people who lived in the path of Hanford radioactive releases first disclosed in 1986.
A new national park
The B Reactor, under a 2014 act of Congress, became part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that also includes other sites at Hanford as well as Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Park Service manages this park in an unusual partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Park officials are charged with telling the history of the secret Manhattan Project at the dawn of the Atomic Age. They have said they want exhibits to explore not only the high-stakes push to produce the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and three days later on Nagasaki — but also the human costs on the homefront and in Japan, as well as the historical debate over the decision to unleash them.
“From the very beginning, we made a commitment that this would be a complete story, not only of the (bombs’) development but also their deployment,” said Jonathan Jarvis, who served as Park Service director when the park was created, in an interview last year with The Seattle Times. “There were some who thought that this was going to be a glorification of nuclear weapons. We wanted to … disabuse anybody of thinking that was our intent.”
They also want to delve into other parts of the Manhattan Project’s history, such as the segregation of African Americans who came to work at Hanford.
Developing new exhibits is typically a yearslong process, and the Manhattan Project park work has been slowed still further by a lack of funding.
“This year, I was hoping to get money to start our interpretive planning but we did not. I will put in for the money for next year,” said Kris Kirby, the Denver-based superintendent of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Last fall, the Park Service put its first manager in place at the Hanford site, where the visitors center developed by the federal Energy Department has already drawn people from all over the world during a tour season that begins in April.
At the start-off point for tours, photo panels on the walls show some of the early history of the Hanford site.
There also is a video that ends with the mushroom cloud and an announcer declaring it “one of the marvels of the 20th century” and a “testament to the human spirit.” The video was not shown during Moriguchi’s specially arranged tour.
The park’s Hanford site manager, Becky Burghart, says she does not expect to make wholesale changes in the tour, yet will “definitely be embracing a broader story.” So far that has not included the modest but — in the Richland area — still controversial step of adding exhibit information about Nagasaki.
Mushroom cloud as school emblem
In Japan, the Manhattan Project park has drawn both interest and scrutiny. In 2015, the mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima sent a letter to Jarvis offering artifacts, photos and other materials, saying it is essential to “fully describe what happened to the people under the mushroom clouds.”
The city of Nagasaki also contributed $5,000 to help fund Moriguchi’s weeklong visit.
His schedule was arranged by downwinders and other activists who formed a nonprofit called Consequences of Radiation Exposure, and they have pushed for their stories to also be told in the national park.
After speaking at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Moriguchi traveled to Richland, which during World War II became a restricted community open only to the families of those who worked at the 586-square-mile Hanford site.
Today the focus at Hanford is a massive cleanup of nuclear and chemical waste. But its role in helping to build the bomb remains a source of community pride, reflected in the mushroom-cloud emblem Moriguchi found displayed on the outside walls, gymnasium banners and many other spots around Richland High School.
“I personally like it,” said Lili Glodo, a senior and third-generation member of her family to attend Richland High. “It starts a conversation, and lets us know that it happened. It helps us remember history and make sure that Nagasaki is not forgotten.”
Moriguchi summed up his reaction as “shock.” He was particularly offended by finding the emblem painted on the hallway floor.
“We were underneath that cloud,” Moriguchi said. “To see it being stepped on was excruciating. It was as if the mothers and children who died underneath that cloud were being stepped on.”
Tears on a tour
Moriguchi had six siblings, none of whom died during the initial attack. But five later died of cancer, which he attributes to the aftereffects of exposure to the bomb’s radioactive materials.
His Nagasaki experiences have made a wary critic of all things nuclear, and he opted to don a white Tyvek suit and protective mask for his visit to the reactor. He also carried a handheld radiation monitor, and as he first entered the building he noticed an uptick and stopped to point it out to the tour guide — 90-year-old John Fox, the former Richland mayor who spent more than four decades working at Hanford.
If a person were to stand in this spot for more than a year, the exposure would exceed international safety standards, Moriguchi said.
“We won’t keep you here for a year,” Fox said.
Then they launched into the tour, with Fox responding to all sorts of questions about the reactor operations.
Finally, in the control room, the talk turned personal.
Fox said the atomic bomb, dropped when he was 18, helped end the war and saved him from getting drafted into an Army preparing for a difficult invasion of Japan.
Moriguchi said the bomb killed his family. His eyes filled with tears.
He wondered whether he had been too outspoken. But when he looked at Fox, he found tears coming from this man who spent so much of his life working at Hanford.
As the tour ended, the two men hugged.