Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” has focused new attention on the legacies of the Manhattan Project – the World War II program to develop nuclear weapons. As the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, approach, it’s a timely moment to look further at dilemmas wrought by the creation of the atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Project spawned a trinity of interconnected legacies. It initiated a global arms race that threatens the survival of humanity and the planet as we know it. It also led to widespread public health and environmental damage from nuclear weapons production and testing. And it generated a culture of governmental secrecy with troubling political consequences.
Hanford is less well known than Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists designed the first atomic weapons, but it was also crucial to the Manhattan Project. There, an enormous, secret industrial facility produced the plutonium fuel for the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, and the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki a few weeks later. (The Hiroshima bomb was fueled by uranium produced in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at another of the principal Manhattan Project sites.)
Later, workers at Hanford made most of the plutonium used in the U.S. nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. In the process, Hanford became one of the most contaminated places on Earth. Total cleanup costs are projected to reach up to US$640 billion, and the job won’t be completed for decades, if ever.
Victims of nuclear tests
Nuclear weapons production and testing have harmed public health and the environment in multiple ways. For example, a new study released in preprint form in July 2023 while awaiting scientific peer review finds that fallout from the Trinity nuclear test reached 46 U.S. states and parts of Canada and Mexico.
Dozens of families who lived near the site – many of them Hispanic or Indigenous – were unknowingly exposed to radioactive contamination. So far, they have not been included in the federal program to compensate uranium miners and “downwinders” who developed radiation-linked illnesses after exposure to later atmospheric nuclear tests.
The largest above-ground U.S. tests, along with tests conducted underwater, took place in the Pacific islands. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and other nations conducted their own testing programs. Globally through 2017, nuclear-armed nations exploded 528 weapons above ground or underwater, and an additional 1,528 underground.
Extracting plutonium from the irradiated fuel, an activity called reprocessing, generated 56 million gallons of liquid waste laced with radioactive and chemical poisons. The wastes were stored in underground tanks designed to last 25 years, based on an assumption that a disposal solution would be developed later.
Now, officials are considering mixing some radioactive sludges with concrete grout and shipping them elsewhere for disposal – or perhaps leaving them in the tanks. Critics regard those proposals as risky compromises. Meanwhile, an estimated 1 million gallons of liquid waste have leaked from some tanks into the ground, threatening the Columbia River, a backbone of the Pacific Northwest’s economy and ecology.
As the movie “Oppenheimer” shows, government secrecy has shrouded nuclear weapons activities from their inception. Clearly, the science and technology of those weapons have dangerous potential and require careful safeguarding. But as I’ve argued previously, the principle of secrecy quickly expanded more broadly. Here again, Hanford provides an example.
Hanford’s reactor fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its most-highly radioactive isotopes had time to decay. In the 1940s and 1950s, managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmlands and pastures downwind. Some releases supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By tracking deliberate emissions from Hanford, scientists learned better how to spot and evaluate Soviet nuclear tests.
In the mid-1980s, local residents grew suspicious about an apparent excess of illnesses and deaths in their community. Initially, strict secrecy – reinforced by the region’s economic dependence on the Hanford site – made it hard for concerned citizens to get information.
Once the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from area residents and journalists, public outrage prompted two major health effects studies that engendered fierce controversy. By the close of the decade, more than 3,500 “downwinders” had filed lawsuits related to illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge finally dismissed the case in 2016 after awarding limited compensation to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal anguish.
As Nolan’s film recounts, J. Robert Oppenheimer and many other Manhattan Project scientists had deep concerns about how their work might create unprecedented dangers. Looking at the legacies of the Trinity test, I wonder whether any of them imagined the scale and scope of those outcomes.
This is an update of an article originally published March 5, 2018.
William Kinsella served with the citizen advisory board for the Hanford site cleanup from 2000-2005, representing the public interest group Hanford Watch.