Our Town

Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World's Largest Atomic Complex

by Paul Loeb
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 255 pp., $13.95

Cities and towns in the dry West always look as if they have dropped there arbitrarily. The landscape is so big, and often so barren, that human activity seems messy, aimless, marginal. Plains, mountains, endless wind, huge sky, and then—Butte, or Denver, or Casper seems wrongly placed even after one learns why it is there. Of all the dry western cities I know, none gives this impression so strongly as Richland-Kennewick-Pasco in Washington, the “Tri-Cities” that came into existence when the Hanford atomic works was built to manufacture the plutonium that went into the first atomic bombs.

The topography is at once starker and more beautiful than many places in the dry West. The Columbia River cuts between steep cliffs as it moves through central Washington, then runs through empty flatland just before the Snake River flows into it and the enlarged river makes a horseshoe turn toward the Pacific. Annual rainfall is around ten inches. The soil is largely volcanic, so that while in its “natural” state nothing grows for lack of water, irrigation makes it wonderful for growing fruits and vegetables.

There were good reasons for choosing Hanford as a site for plutonium manufacture. It is isolated, and relatively few people were displaced when the Army Corps of Engineers moved in. The Columbia provides ample water for cooling. Pasco is on a transcontinental rail line. So the Tri-Cities were built up, especially Richland, nearest Hanford and, forty years later, still almost entirely a bedroom community for Hanford workers. Its lush lawns and wide streets look proud and unreal in the midst of desert. From the edge of Richland, through Kennewick and into the older and more depressed Pasco, strips and malls dominate, everything seems franchised. Houses line the drab streets, the automobile is indispensable and none of the Chinese elms is big enough for people to hide their affections from the winds. The place strikes a visitor as both powerful and formless, affluent and banal.

If Hanford were not a nuclear plant, Tri-Cities people would still be proud—“We built all this from nothing”—and defensive—“Can’t you see how much we’ve done?” Being a nuclear plant exaggerates both the pride and the defensiveness. The people came here to make the US militarily strong and, later on, free of energy worries. This gave them a sense of purpose that workers in aluminum plants further down the Columbia River could not feel. Richland was once named an “all-American city”—it seemed close to the post-World War II ideal society of hard-working husbands and their often-pregnant wives surrounded by the latest in consumer devices. The high-school uniforms displayed a picture of a mushroom cloud, and the teams are still called the Bombers.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the defensiveness inherent in such pride became more marked with the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, a growing and increasingly regulating federal bureaucracy, a gradual disenchantment with nuclear energy as America’s lifesaver, a fear of nuclear energy as America’s doom, and, finally, a colossally mismanaged nuclear…

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