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American Greatness

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I will admit it is not a typical vacation choice for the average American, but I had an incredible experience last week while on vacation.  I toured the B reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Site in eastern Washington State.  For the uninitiated, the Hanford Nuclear Site is a massive bit of land that was taken by the federal government in WWII and used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and that continued in such use until the 1990s.  Reactor B is the first reactor ever built there and it produced the plutonium for both the Trinity test bomb and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  (The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium weapon with a different fuel and design.)

The Hanford site actually housed three process – one to prepare uranium ore for the reactors, the operation of the reactors themselves and one to process the material removed from the reactors into plutonium of sufficient purity to power a bomb.  There are multiple complexes within the site for each of these processes.  The various complexes of each type are distinguished by the development of the technology and improvements in their operations.  For detail on the early days of the site, both the technology and the history, I strongly recommend the book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes.  The book won a Pulitzer and is the best book I have ever read on American technological history.

The Hanford site closed for weapons production decades ago (there is still a power producing reactor there) and is undergoing a massive clean-up.  While there is some clean-up for radioactive materials the vast majority of it is for common industrial materials and the contamination is resultant of typical industrial practice at the time the facility was constructed and operated.  Only Reactor B is open to the public, the rest of the site is either too contaminated for public access, or is under active remediation and it is therefore not safe for the public, as would be true for any active construction site.  The site will eventually have a vitrification plant for the reduction and encapsulation of the nuclear wastes and a few of the buildings will remain as low-level waste repositories, and therefore be inaccessible in perpetuity, but the intention is to return the vast majority of the site to public use.

If one is capable of setting aside the moral questions and emotional baggage that comes with nuclear technology generally, and nuclear weapons specifically, one must acknowledge that the Hanford site is a monument and testament to American greatness.  Having read the Rhodes book years ago, I had an excellent idea of what to expect.  I knew the reactor design, even reread about it before I went.  Being a technological professional I understood very well everything around me.  Yet the scale of Reactor B alone and the site generally absolutely blew me away.  When one considers it was but one site of several related to the Manhattan Project, one must conclude that that project, regardless of its emotional or moral content, is perhaps America’s greatest undertaking – ranking above even the space program.

I struggle to find the words to convey what I saw, and pictures simply cannot capture the scale.  Bear in mind – I am no rookie when it comes to visiting important nuclear sites.  I visited Chernobyl in 1991, when the Soviet Union still existed.  Which brings to mind the other thing that is truly awe-inspiring about Hanford.  The Chernobyl power production facility housed 4 reactors in its heyday and three of them continued to produce power long after the accident, but it was tiny compared to Hanford.  (The post accident exclusion zone is roughly twice the size of the total Hanford reserve; however. the scale of industrial activity at Hanford is far more massive.)  But Chernobyl is remarkable for its screw-up – Hanford, particularly given its scale, is utterly remarkable in its complete lack of screw-ups.  There was NEVER a case of acute radioactive poisoning at Hanford – Chernobyl killed dozens from that very thing.

Now that scale, and that safety record, become even more remarkable when you consider it was a mere two years from groundbreaking to turning on reactor B at the site.  This includes much of the detailed design work!  In other words, it was a rush job.  To build on that scale, that massively, with that safety record borders on the miraculous.  Other great and massive American projects – the TVA, Hoover Dam, even the moon shot – begin to pale in comparison.

I cannot help but reflect on human ingenuity.  God’s first recorded act was to create.  Things like the space program or the Manhattan Project are, while technological in nature, creative acts.  When we do them, we are reflecting God’s creative nature.  When one considers the scale of such undertakings on the part of the creatures, one simply must reflect on the ultimate Creator, and gain some understanding of His incomprehensible scale.  Given the safety distinctions between America’s nuclear developments and the Soviet Union’s one must consider that America, even in the rush of war, is somehow superior to its enemies.  Finally one must consider that it is not the creative activity that produces bad results, but humanity’s fallen nature.

Too often now we stifle our technological, creative impulses because we fear the consequences.  That is the wrong way to look at it.  Those impulses reflect God.  We simply have to come closer to God so that we can follow those impulses properly.


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