Born Violent: e Origins of Nuclear Power
This article traces the history of the development and construction of the first
prototypes and operating nuclear power plants, all as part of the Manhattan Project.
Beginning with CP-1, the rst self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in 1942, it details
subsequent Manhattan Project reactors and then examines the construction and
operation of the rst modern nuclear power plants built at Hanford, Washington.
These were built for the sole purpose of manufacturing plutonium for nuclear
weapons. e article argues that nuclear power was born violent: it was invented as
part of the manufacturing process of nuclear weaponry. is argument goes beyond
previous historiography focusing on the technological development of nuclear power
to emphasize the purpose of its development, the mass and indiscriminate killing of
Keywords nuclear power, nuclear weapons, plutonium, Hanford, CP-1
Introduction: Born to Kill
On December 2, 1942 at the University of Chicago, a group of scientists and
engineers produced an amazing technological achievement: a sustained nuclear
chain reaction. Nuclear power was intentionally released in a controlled manner,
adjusted, and then turned off. This experiment opened the doors for human
beings to develop both nuclear power plants and nuclear weaponry. Indeed, both
outcomes were a part of our world less than three years aer that cold December
The team, working under Enrico Fermi, was confident that they would
be able to effectively control the nuclear chain-reaction. However, they did
take rudimentary safety precautions in case the reaction became uncontrolled,
having neutron absorbing materials at the ready. Three million people lived in
Chicago in December of 1942, and they had no idea history was being made that
Wednesday in a rackets court under the stands of Stagg Field, the university’s
football stadium (rackets was an indoor sport popular in the United Kingdom
that diminished in popularity aer World War Two). Fortunately for all of them,
Asian Journal of Peacebuilding Vol. 7 No. 1 (2019): 9-29 Special Issue – Research Article
© 2019 e Institute for Peace and Unication Studies, Seoul National University
ISSN 2288-2693 Print, ISSN 2288-2707 Online
10 Robert Jacobs
the experiment proceeded as designed and these safety measures were unneeded.
Within a year of the success of the experimental reactor, dubbed CP-1 for “Chicago
Pile 1,” the rst model full reactor had been built and gone critical in Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, and within two years the rst industrial reactors built to mass produce
plutonium—or plutonium production reactors—had been built at Hanford,
Washington. Ultimately nine nuclear reactors would be built at Hanford which
would manufacture the bulk of the plutonium found in the cores of America’s
Cold War nuclear arsenal.
All of these efforts were part of the Manhattan Engineering District, or
as it came to be known: the Manhattan Project. While the specific scientific
discoveries that had opened the door to releasing the energy held within the
nuclei of atoms were achieved by small research teams working at universities,
the large-scale engineering required to harness that energy was funded entirely
by the U.S. military, with the sole purpose of building nuclear weapons. The
nuclear power plants built at Hanford would operate for four decades, and were
used almost exclusively to manufacture plutonium for weapons. It would be more
than ten years from the initial criticality of Manhattan Project nuclear reactors
before nuclear power plants would be used to manufacture electricity for use by
the general public in any country. Generating electricity is a secondary purpose
for this technology; it was invented to make nuclear weapons.
This article traces the origins of nuclear power technology as it was
specifically developed to produce nuclear weapons for use against a civilian
population in war. It will explore the scientic and industrial steps taken from the
initial experiments in Germany and under the stands of Stagg Field in Chicago
to develop the theoretical basis of nuclear energy production and subsequently
of plutonium production, and then the industrial establishment of large nuclear
power plants built at Hanford, Washington as a primary site of the sprawling
Manhattan Project. It will trace numerous radiological disasters during the
production history of the Hanford reactor eet and at other military plutonium
production reactor sites during the early Cold War. It will describe the later
emergence of the nuclear power production industry which used nuclear reactors
to also produce energy for civilian use and the history of partial and full nuclear
fuel meltdowns that accompanied that industry.
The very first history of CP-1 and Hanford was the official history of the
Manhattan Project published by Henry DeWolf Smyth (1945). Subsequent
histories of the Manhattan Project described the experimental and production
reactors as part of the story of the project, but with little focus beyond describing
their role in the project. Scholarship about CP-1 has primarily been focused
on the scientific basis and organization of the experiment. The best work on
the technical aspects of these sites, and the Manhattan Project as a whole, is
Critical Assembly written by Lillian Hoddeson and co-authors (Hoddeson et al.
2004). Since the end of the Cold War, site specific works on Hanford begin to
Born Violent 11
be published, including On the Homefront by Michele Gerber (1992), Atomic
Frontier Days by Findlay and Hevley (2011) and Atomic Geography by Melvin
Adams (2016). Kate Brown’s powerful comparison of the plutonium production
sites of the United States and USSR at Hanford and Ozersk, respectively,
titled Plutopia is one of the most important works that examines the legacies
of plutonium production through the use of nuclear reactors to date (Brown
2013). Trisha Pritikin, who grew up in Richland, Washington, has written what
will be the definitive history of the legal claims filed by Hanford downwinders
seeking compensation for their loses of health and land from the radiological
contamination inflicted on the downwind communities during the decades of
plutonium production at the site (Pritikin, forthcoming).
ese books do critical work in examining the establishment and operation
of the Hanford site and of the radiological violence exerted on the local
community. However, no work has traced back the fundamental violence of
nuclear power plants: that they were rst invented specically to kill masses of
human beings. Nuclear power plants were born violent.
e Scientic Basis
Scientists had known since the early twentieth century that there was incredible
energy binding the nuclei of atoms together. Subatomic particle physicists would
describe the universe as being made of up four fundamental forces: gravity,
electromagnetism, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction. One of these,
the strong interaction, or strong force as it was originally known, is the powerful
energy that holds the nucleus together (Frisch 1961). Even as the structure of
atoms was being parsed during the first decades of the twentieth century, the
nucleus was seen as impenetrable until 1938 when the nucleus of a uranium
isotope was split by a neutron in the lab of Otto Hahn in Berlin. Hahn had been
conducting experiments with the physicist Lise Meitner, who had fled from
Germany earlier in the year to escape Nazi prosecution. After Hahn and his
assistant Fritz Strassmann obtained unusual results from a series of experiments
Hahn shared these results in a letter with Meitner. Meitner speculated on the lab
results obtained by Hahn and, with her nephew Otto Frisch, theorized that what
had occurred had been the ssioning of the nuclei of some of the uranium atoms
being used (ibid.). What had happened in Hahn’s lab was that by bombarding
uranium atoms with neutrons, the nuclei of some number of the atoms had split,
releasing the energy of the strong force contained within. News of the amazing
discovery quickly spread throughout the physics world.
In the United States, where many prominent scientists from Europe had ed
to escape Nazi persecution, this breakthrough led to a urry of experimentation
to replicate and extend Hahn’s findings. Among the scientists engaged in this
12 Robert Jacobs
work was Hungarian Leo Szilard, working at the time at Columbia University.
Szilard had theorized the possibility of a weapon utilizing the energy locked in
the nucleus while in London in 1933. Upon learning of Hahn’s discovery, Szilard
sought to press upon the U.S. government the risk of such a weapon being
developed by the Nazis. Szilard famously pressed upon his friend Albert Einstein
to convey a letter regarding this possibility to American President Franklin
Roosevelt, and the Manhattan Project was soon initiated (Lanouette 1992).
Among the challenges for the Manhattan Project was how to produce
sucient ssionable material to achieve a nuclear explosion. Subsequent to Hahn’s
work, experiments determined that it was a rare isotope of uranium—235U—that
ssioned. Raw uranium mined from the Earth contains less than 1 percent of this
isotope; other uranium isotopes did not ssion. One possibility to make a bomb
was to enrich uranium until a high concentration of 235U was obtained. Another
possibility was to use plutonium. Plutonium had been “invented” by a team led
by Glenn Seaborg in a laboratory at the University of California in late 1940.1 One
isotope of plutonium, 239Pu, could also ssion if bombarded by neutrons.
Another primary challenge was to determine if a chain-reaction in a
ssionable material was possible. Since the ssioned nuclei of 235U and of 239Pu
gave o from one to three neutrons when ssioned, in was theoretically possible
to split the nucleus of an atom with a neutron, and then when multiple neutrons
were cast o by the reaction, to have more ssionable atoms packed close enough
to the reaction to ssion several more nuclei. eoretically, one could initiate a
process whereby ssioning some atoms, they would ssion even more atoms and
a chain reaction could be obtained. ese challenges would structure some of the
key installations and scientic endeavors of the Manhattan Project. A critical rst
step was to determine if a chain reaction could be achieved.
CP-1: e First Chain Reaction
Scientists at the University of Chicago, working under physicist Enrico Fermi,
achieved the first self-sustaining chain reaction on December 2, 1942. The
experiment consisted of the construction and operation of the rst atomic “pile”
until it had achieved criticality.
e pile itself was constructed of uranium, a material that is embedded in a matrix
of graphite. With sucient uranium in the pile, the few neutrons emitted in a single
ssion that may accidentally occur strike neighboring atoms, which in turn undergo
fission and produce more neutrons.These bombard other atoms and so on at an
increasing rate until the atomic ‘re’ is going full blast.e atomic pile is controlled
and prevented from burning itself to complete destruction by cadmium rods, which
absorb neutrons and stop the bombardment process” (Fermi 1952, 23).
Born Violent 13
The pile was assembled throughout November 1942 in a rackets court
underneath the stands of Stagg Field, a football field on the campus of the
University of Chicago, and was referred to as Chicago Pile 1, or CP-1. Over 400
tons of graphite, 6 tons of uranium metal, and 50 tons of uranium oxide were
configured into a large rectangular structure in a precise pattern designed by
Fermi and his team (Hewlett and Anderson 1962). On December 2 the pile
achieved criticality and was the rst self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction created
by human beings.
e experiment proved that it was possible to control the release of energy
from nuclear sources in a controlled and sustainable manner. e nuclear power
Figure 1. e Only Photograph Taken during the Construction of CP-1
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
14 Robert Jacobs
plants that would follow this event would not simply scale up the CP-1 design,
they would ultimately augment and modify the conguration to more ecient
standards, but it was on December 2, 1942, in that rackets court at Stagg Field,
that human control over nuclear energy was midwifed. Both nuclear power
and nuclear weapons are directly descended from this event, but the goal was
unambiguous to those participating in the experiment. Warren Nyer, a young
physicist on Fermi’s team who would go on to work on reactor development at
the Idaho National Laboratory, remembers of the understanding among those in
the rackets court on that Wednesday: “ere were two things that might follow,
nuclear power for civilian purposes, or, what was really the purpose at that time,
a nuclear weapon” (Argonne 2012).
Following the experiment, CP-1 was disassembled in early 1943 and moved
to the nearby Argonne Forest Preserve, a site that would become Argonne
National Laboratory in 1944, where it was reassembled with modications and
operated under the name CP-2 until it was decommissioned in 1954. Aer the
nuclear material was removed from CP-2, it was buried in the Cook County
Forest Preserve in an area known as Red Gate Woods, where it remains today
(Forest Preserves of Cook County, n.d.).
CP-3 and the X-10 Graphite Reactor
“The immediate objective of building a uranium-graphite pile,” wrote Henry
Smyth in the first official history of the Manhattan Project, “was to prove that
there were conditions under which a chain reaction would occur, but the ultimate
objective of the laboratory was to produce plutonium by a chain reaction”
(Smyth 1945, 99). Several reactor prototypes were subsequently envisioned and
constructed to inform the design of the nuclear power plants that were to be
built at Hanford. ese included CP-3, built at Argonne, and the X-10 Graphite
Reactor, built at the Clinton Engineer Works in Tennessee which would become
Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
CP-3 was the rst heavy water reactor ever built and was “designed and built
as an alternative design for the Hanford project, in case unforeseen difficulties
should arise when the Hanford plant went into operation,” because, “there was
a possibility that graphite moderated nuclear reactors could not produce the
fissionable material required for the Manhattan Project program” (Nuclear
Engineering Division, n.d., 13). The Argonne site, known in the Manhattan
Project as Site A, became the first nuclear reactor site to generate sufficient
radioactive waste to require a disposal site, which became known as Plot M at
Red Gate Woods. “Plot M was a 150-foot by 140-foot area approximately 1,500
feet north of Site A. The 1940s method of nuclear-waste disposal consisted of
digging a 6-foot-deep trench, dumping the waste, and backlling the trench with
Born Violent 15
soil” (USDOE 2017, 2). The most dangerous waste would later be dug up and
shipped on to other U.S. government sites for disposal.
e X-10 graphite reactor, also known as the Clinton Pile, was a variation
of CP-1 and was aimed at determining an efficient design for plutonium
production and extraction. e pile would need large amounts of electricity and
was, in part, sited in Tennessee because of the copious production of electricity
from the Tennessee Valley Authority construction during the New Deal. It was
intended that the X-10 reactor would be used for training and development
purposes to help improve the design and operation of the reactors being built at
Hanford. Along with the graphite reactor, the Clinton Works also contained the
first industrial sized plutonium separation facility. The X-10 reactor achieved
criticality in November 1943, by March 1944 it was producing significant
quantities of plutonium, and by the summer quantities of plutonium were being
shipped to Los Alamos for experimental purposes (Hewlett and Anderson 1962).
Oak Ridge was the location where uranium was enriched suciently for it to be
used in the core of nuclear weapons.
Figure 2. CP-3 Burial Site in Plot M at Red Gates Woods “Site A” of the Forest
Preserves of Cook County
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
16 Robert Jacobs
Hanford during the Manhattan Project
Fermi’s pile in Chicago was an essential step in the achievement of industrial
level nuclear power plants, but such plans did not wait or hinge on its results.
On the day before the success of CP-1, Manhattan Project military head General
Leslie Groves had formally authorized the construction of nuclear reactors for
plutonium production at Hanford (ibid.). The site was originally referred to as
Site W and was eventually known as the Hanford Engineer Works (Sanger 1989).
The specific location was chosen because of the abundance of two essential
ingredients for operating nuclear power plants: water and electricity. e water
came from the nearby Columbia River; Site W was built in the Columbia Basin as
it turned 90 degrees to ow westward towards the Pacic Ocean. e electricity
came from the recently completed Bonneville Dam located further downriver
in the Columbia Gorge (Harvey 2000). e plants were built and operated as a
plutonium production facility by the chemical giant E.I. du Pont de Nemours &
Company on behalf of the U.S. government (Sanger 1989).
e rst nuclear reactor built at Hanford was the B Reactor. Construction
began in March 1943, as did construction of facilities for the workers. Three
reactors would be built and operated during the Manhattan Project period, with
the D Reactor and F Reactor following the B Reactor. All three were graphite
moderated and water-cooled reactors (Gerber 1992).
As the purpose of the entire facility was the production of plutonium, four
Figure 3. Construction of the B Reactor at Hanford, 1944
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
Born Violent 17
chemical separation plants were built during the wartime period to process the
spent fuel rods of the three reactors. e rst shipment of plutonium was nalized
in late January 1945, aer which regular shipments of plutonium were sent from
Hanford to the laboratory in Los Alamos. e plutonium was transported to Los
Alamos by truck, with each shipment accompanied by radio equipped cars lled
with armed guards (Hewlett and Anderson 1962).
The wartime construction of Hanford was unprecedented for a previously
Army engineers and DuPont’s TNX Division, a division created specifically for
HEW [Hanford Engineer Works] construction built over five hundred structures
in addition to those for living requirements. Workers laid 158 miles of railroad and
386 miles of automobile roadway. Over 50 miles of electrical transmission lines and
four step-down substations were constructed. Hundreds of miles of fencing were
emplaced, and 40,000 tons of structural steel and 780,000 cubic yards of concrete were
utilized. During 1944 and early 1945, a peak of about 50,000 construction workers
were housed at a barracks and trailer camp at the old Hanford townsite. e wartime
construction of Hanford cost about $230 million (Gerber 1992, 35-36).
The water consumption for the three reactors operating during the war
would equal the requirements of a city with a population of a million people
(Hewlett and Anderson 1962).
Three cities were built to accommodate the workforce and their families:
Richland for management, Kennewick and Pasco for laborers and support
workers. While originally these towns were assembled as temporary accom-
modations, eventually each became a coherent and independent city, although the
region was and is still known as the Tri-Cities area. DuPont’s internal company
history assessed that over 140,000 workers passed through Hanford during the
Manhattan Project era (Sanger 1989).
e scientists at Los Alamos came up with two dierent designs for nuclear
weapons: the gun design (which was envisioned since the beginning of the
project), and the implosion design. Ultimately both would be built. The gun
design weapon was built with the highly enriched 235U that was manufactured
at Oak Ridge, and was then used in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. e much
more complex implosion design was built with the plutonium manufactured at
Hanford, and was detonated twice in the summer of 1945: rst at the Trinity Test
in New Mexico (the rst nuclear weapon detonation on Earth), and subsequently
in the weapon used in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. Each of the weapons used
in the nuclear attacks would ultimately claim over 100,000 lives, most of these on
the days of the nuclear attacks.
18 Robert Jacobs
Hanford during the Cold War
Aer the end of war, Hanford would come to manufacture most of the plutonium
that would form the cores of the more than 60,000 nuclear weapons built by the
United States during the Cold War, with some additional production coming
from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. As the Cold War intensied, so
too did the work of the nuclear reactors and plutonium separation facilities at
Hanford. e H Reactor would be built in 1949, and four more reactors would
come online in the 1950s. e nal reactor, the N Reactor would be built in 1963.
Five reprocessing plants for plutonium separation would eventually be built in
two locations on the reservation. e four reactors built in haste in the 1950s can
be seen as a direct response to the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1949,
and as an embodiment of the arms race for the United States, which was to a large
extent predicated on levels of plutonium production in the military reactor eets
of both the United States and the Soviet Union.
The fleet of reactors stretched along the bend of the Columbia River
operated continuously, except during brief periods of refueling, for decades.
While ultimately there would be nine nuclear reactors at Hanford, only the nal
reactor, the N Reactor, ever contributed electricity to civilian power usage (the N
Reactor was still primarily a plutonium production reactor). During the height
of the Cold War, from 1961 to 1963, American plutonium production peaked at
7.5 tons per year (Cochran, Arkin, and Norris 1988). In total, Hanford produced
Figure 4. Nuclear Reactors Stretch along the Columbia River at Hanford in 1960
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
Born Violent 19
49.1 metric tons of plutonium in the eight reactors dedicated to weapons grade
plutonium production, and produced another 8.1 metric tons of fuel-grade
plutonium at the N Reactor (Makhijani et al. 1995).
During the Cold War, the United States produced over 60,000 nuclear
weapons, most of them with the plutonium produced at Hanford. is includes
both fission weapons like the one used in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, and
also in thermonuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons were not used in warfare
after 1945, over 2,000 weapons have been detonated in nuclear tests, roughly
half of those (1,054) by the United States. e United States tested 928 nuclear
weapons at the Nevada Test Site, and another 67 at the Pacic Proving Grounds
in the Marshall Islands. Two hundred and sixteen of those tests were in the
atmosphere, which distributed vast quantities of radioactive fallout in heavy
quantities close to the test sites, and also globally when the atmospheric clouds
reached the upper atmosphere. A 2015 article in e Lancet describes how “risk
modelling studies of exposure to ionising radiation from the Nevada Test Site in
the United States suggest that an extra 49,000 (95 percent CI 11 300–212 000)
cases of thyroid cancer would be expected to occur among U.S. residents alive at
the time of the testing—an excess of about 12 percent over the 400,000 cases of
thyroid cancer expected to develop in the absence of fallout” (Simon and Bouville
2015, 407-408). e Marshall Islands had far fewer tests than the Nevada test site,
however the United States tested its thermonuclear weapons exclusively at the
Pacic Proving Ground which resulted in massive amounts of radioactive fallout
affecting the local population and also entering into the Pacific Ocean from
which the radionuclides could disperse throughout the Pacic Rim.
One test, the Bravo test of 1954, which was the largest weapon ever tested by
the United States, created a vast and lethal fallout cloud that engulfed numerous
Marshallese atolls. The entire population of Rongelap Atoll suffered from
radiation sickness aer the Bravo test. e Japanese tuna shing boat the Daigo
Fukuryu Maru, among many others, was also exposed to the fallout cloud. When
it came to port in Yaizu, Japan two weeks aer the test, its crew was hospitalized
for radiation sickness. One crew member, radioman Aikichi Kuboyama, died of
complications from his exposure six months later, even though he was physically
located about 100km from the actual detonation point. All of these illnesses and
deaths can be traced back to the nuclear reactors at Hanford.
During its years of production, Hanford was the site of numerous substantial
radiological releases that endangered the local population as well as those
downwind. Among the most grievous was the notorious Green Run conducted in
late 1949. e Green Run was a planned experiment to facilitate the monitoring
and assessment of the nascent Soviet plutonium production capabilities. While
plutonium production had been rushed during the Manhattan Project, after
the war the spent nuclear fuel was typically “cooled” before the plutonium was
extracted from the fuel rods. “After discharge from the Hanford reactors, the
20 Robert Jacobs
irradiated nuclear fuel was normally stored for many weeks before processing,”
describes a Fact Sheet published by the Technical Steering Panel of the Hanford
Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project. “This ‘cooling the fuel’ delay
allowed short-lived radioactivity to decay. e cooled fuel was dissolved in nitric
acid and the solution processed to separate the plutonium” (Technical Steering
Panel 1992, 1). The practice specifically minimized the distribution of 131I (a
radioactive isotope of iodine) as well as to decrease the risks to the workers from
short-lived radionuclides. is was done, in part, because the United States had
a stockpile of plutonium and did not urgently need the material as it had during
wartime. Once the Soviet Union had built and tested its own nuclear weapons
earlier in the autumn of 1949, the United States became frantic to assess the
plutonium production of the Soviet Union to gauge its capacity to build up a
e Green Run was designed to process a batch of fuel rods for plutonium
extraction before the “cooling” period. Historian Kate Brown (2013, 169) writes,
“The experiment called for processing a ton of twenty-day ‘green’ fuel and
tracking its distribution across the Columbia Basin…If Air Force ocers could
nd out how much short-lived radioactive iodine came out of the ton of green
fuel, they could estimate from monitoring the air on the borders of the USSR
how much plutonium the Soviets were making.” To facilitate the experiment, the
lters in the discharge stacks of the processing plant were turned o. e Green
Run, which a U.S. Government Accounting Office report later described as an
“atomic energy intelligence collection experiment” would ultimately release as
much as 12,000 curies of radioiodine and contaminate a vast area downwind: “aer
the test, radioactive iodine was found on vegetation over large areas of southeast
Washington and Oregon” (Government Accounting Oce 1993, 6-7). Hanford
scientists would later point out that although the Green Run was a radiological
disaster, it distributed signicantly less radioiodine than was routinely released
during the Manhattan Project era, “the amount of material being dissolved
was, I think, smaller than normal. is was just a batch that had been xed up
particularly for them. When the reactors had run originally—when the military
was very, very interested on getting their hands on plutonium—they put out
a lot more than was put out in the Green Run” explained health physicist Carl
Gamertsfelder (Gamertsfelder 1995).
Large releases of radiation into the nearby ecosystem would be routine
during the operation of the Hanford reactors and especially the plutonium
extraction procedures. These activities would leave a disastrous legacy once
the plants were closed. As more and more information became public after
the closure of the site, there was a growing awareness in the community that
exposures to radiation had been far more extensive than previously designed and
had occurred over a long time period. Numerous studies of these impacts were
commissioned by various governmental bodies.
Born Violent 21
In 1986, the Hanford Health Effects Review Panel, convened by the Centers for
Disease Control at the request of the Washington State Nuclear Waste Board and the
Indian Health Service, recommended that potential doses from radioactive releases
at Hanford be reconstructed. e states of Oregon and Washington, representatives
of three regional Indian tribes, and DOE [Department of Energy] agreed that an
independent technical steering panel (TSP) should direct the HEDR Project [Hanford
Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project], which is managed and conducted by
the Pacic Northwest Laboratory (Haerer et al. 1990).
Additionally, a Hanford yroid Disease Study was mandated by Congress
in 1988 (Davis, Kopecky, and Hamilton 2002). These studies would document
broad public exposure to radiation resulting from the operation of the Hanford
site over many decades, extending far beyond the borders of the facility and the
specic personnel employed there.
The B Reactor was decommissioned in 1968; other reactors were
decommissioned during the next two decades with the final reactor, the N
Reactor, being decommissioned in 1987.
Hanford’s Radiological Legacy
In 1989, two years after the decommission of the last of the Hanford nuclear
plants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identied between 1,200 and
1,500 sites where toxic materials had been dumped on the Hanford reservation
(Schneider 1989). Very few of these have been monitored. A dramatic example
is the PUREX tunnels, where a signicant collapse occurred in 2017. During its
normal operation, spent fuel rods were transported from reactors to chemical
separation facilities by rail cars that were operated remotely because of the
intensely high levels of gamma radiation coming from the rods. When production
ceased, the highly radioactive rail cars that had performed this task were loaded
with contaminated equipment and buried in tunnels, the PUREX tunnels. ese
were then abandoned and had little ongoing monitoring, as the radiation was
largely inert, coming from the irradiated equipment, and posed little threat of
migration. In May 2017, one of the PUREX tunnels collapsed. The day of the
collapse is uncertain as there was no ongoing monitoring of the tunnels; it was
discovered by workers on May 7 (Cary 2017).
Far more vexing than the abandoned waste dumping sites is the Tank Farm, a
site encompassing 177 underground tanks containing a mix of highly radioactive
waste and toxic chemicals. One hundred and forty-nine of the tanks were single-
shelled, having only one wall containing the waste, and twenty-eight later tanks
were double-shelled (Edgemon et al. 2009). The tanks are actively monitored
twenty-four hours a day, and toxic fumes leaking from the tanks has resulted in
the hospitalization of over seventy workers per year for the past several years.
22 Robert Jacobs
The tanks contain over 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemically toxic
waste, and a substantial number of the tanks have been leaking for decades. e
U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the site, estimates that over 1 million
gallons of waste has leaked from the tanks and is migrating underground towards
the nearby Columbia River (Committee on Remediation of Buried and Tank
Today, seventy-five years since production began at Hanford, and over
thirty years aer production ceased, the site is a maze of ecological disasters and
mismanagement. Vast quantities of waste await the development of technologies
that are envisioned to contain them. The worst of this waste is being actively
managed but not efficiently contained, and even the workforce that is engaged
in these eorts is at risk. e budgets required to strategize and approach these
challenges are being slashed from administration to administration. Politics
is hardly adequate to grapple with millennia long risks. A proposal by the U.S.
Department of Energy, which oversees the legacy waste clean-up of the U.S.
nuclear weapon complex—including Hanford—envisioned reclassifying some
high-level waste as low-level waste in December 2018. This would include the
waste in the Tank Farm at Hanford. If such a policy were implemented the waste
in the tanks would no longer have to be removed from the leaking tanks and
permanently contained; it could simply be capped with concrete and le in the
tanks to leak. A USDOE spokesperson explained “the change could save the
federal government $40 billion in cleanup costs across the nation’s entire nuclear
Figure 5. Construction of Nuclear Waste Storage Tanks at Hanford, 1943
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
Born Violent 23
weapons complex, which includes the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina
and Idaho National Laboratory” (Geranios 2018).
Historical Disasters at Plutonium Production Sites
Hanford did not suer a major fuel meltdown or catastrophic re. However, all
other nuclear weapon states have also operated multiple plutonium production
reactors and the rst two large-scale nuclear disasters occurred in such reactor
complexes, happening within two weeks of each other.
On September 29, 1957, writes Kate Brown, as a soccer game was being
played in a stadium in Ozersk, in the Chelyabinsk Oblast near the Ural Mountains
in Central Russia, where the Mayak Production Association was located, a loud
explosion was heard nearby.
e source of the blast was an underground storage tank holding highly radioactive
waste that overheated and blew, belching up a 160-ton cement cap buried twenty-four
feet below the ground and tossing it seventy-ve feet in the air. e blast smashed
windows in the nearby barracks and tore the metal gates o the perimeter fence. A
column of radioactive dust and smoke rocketed skyward a half mile (Brown 2013,
e explosion and subsequent radiological disaster, known as the Kyshtym
Disaster, occurred just eight years and one month aer the detonation of the rst
Soviet nuclear weapon made with plutonium produced at Mayak, the plutonium
production that was the target of surveillance motivating the Green Run at
The radioactive cloud from the explosion, “settled over an area of 20,000
square kilometers, home to 270,000 people” (Rabl 2012). e Soviet authorities
were slow to react to the crisis. “A week aer the explosion,” writes Brown, who
did extensive eldwork in the region as well as at Hanford, “radiologists followed
the cloud to the downwind villages, where they found people living normally,
children playing barefoot. They measured the ground, farm tools, animals and
people. The levels of radioactivity were astonishingly high” (Brown 2013, 239-
240). The contaminated area would eventually be known as the East Urals
Radioactive Trace (Ichikawa 2015).
Eleven days later a re ignited in one of the reactors at the Windscale Works,
the plutonium production site of the United Kingdom located in Cumbria in
Northwest England. The fire burned inside of the reactor for three days and
released massive amounts of radiation blanketing surrounding communities and
downwind areas. “While the authorities denied large releases of radioactivity
at the time, this was not a correct portrayal of the situation…On 12 October,
24 Robert Jacobs
authorities stopped the distribution of milk originating from seventeen area
farms. However, just three days later, milk from a far wider area (200 square miles
compared to the previous 80) was restricted” (Makhijani et al. 1995, 418). Fallout
from the accident was detected in Ireland, and the conscated milk was dumped
into the Irish Sea (Bertell 1985).
e Establishment of Commercial Nuclear Power
While the promise of commercial nuclear power was promoted to the public
immediately aer World War Two, it would not happen for almost a decade. e
first experimental plant to actually produce a miniscule quantity of electricity
was the X-10 reactor at Oak Ridge in 1948. However, the Experimental Breeder
Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory produced enough electricity to
illuminate four light bulbs in 1951. The first nuclear power plant to contribute
electricity to the grid for public usage was built in the former Soviet Union. In
1954, the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, in the city of Obninsk southwest of
Moscow, came online for power generation purposes, and not for plutonium
production. In 1956, Calder Hall-A came online in the United Kingdom,
operating alongside the two plutonium production reactors located at
Windscale. In 1957, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station on the Ohio River
in Pennsylvania achieved criticality and began to feed power into the U.S. grid.
Commercial plants would follow in France (1962) and Canada (1968); ultimately
450 commercial nuclear power plants would be operating in 31 countries by 2016
(European Nuclear Society, n.d.).
Many of these plants would experience occasional leaks or releases of
radiation into their local ecosystems. Several would have catastrophic nuclear
accidents. In addition to the accidents at plutonium production reactors cited
above, partial core meltdowns would occur at Santa Susana in Simi Valley,
California (1957), Fermi-1 in Detroit, Michigan (1966), the Lucens reactor in
Vaud, Switzerland (1969), Leningrad-1 in Leningrad, USSR (1975), and Three
Mile Island-2 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (1979). A full, catastrophic nuclear
meltdown occurred at Chernobyl-4 (1986) and three full meltdowns occurred at
Fukushima 1-2-3 in 2011.
In addition to these dire nuclear accidents, the spent fuel from normal
operations at nuclear power plants pose a vexing problem for tens of thousands
of generations. These spent fuel rods will need to be effectively contained for
millennia as they will remain highly dangerous for over 10,000 years, and
seriously dangerous for over 100,000 years. Almost all of this spent fuel, millions
of tons, sit in temporary or intermediate storage on the grounds of the reactors
where the fuel was burned. Finland will be the very first nation to attempt to
permanently store the spent fuel from its very limited nuclear power program
Born Violent 25
in deep geological storage at the Onkalo site on the Baltic Sea, beginning in the
2020s. All of the spent nuclear fuel from the long history of operation at Hanford
still sits in temporary storage, some of it for over seventy years now (Defense
Nuclear Facilities Safety Board 1997). The challenges of containing this highly
toxic waste for millennia and insuring that the sites are not damaged by geological
forces or breached by future human societies is speculative at best. e ongoing
capacity of nuclear power to damage the health of human beings and other
creatures for millennia, through the risks posed by this waste, means that we can
never adequately grasp the full violence that will result from its production (Jacobs
2018). To date, over seventy years aer the successful operation of CP-1, not one
spent fuel rod has been placed in “permanent” storage anywhere on the planet.
All nuclear weapon states begin their weapon programs by building and
operating nuclear power plants. Any nation with nuclear power can proceed
towards building nuclear weapons; if they have not pursued weapons it is because
they have taken a political decision, for whatever reason, not to build them. It is
possible to operate nuclear power plants without building nuclear weapons, but
no nation has yet manufactured such weapons without first operating nuclear
Figure 6. Calder Hall #1 at the Windscale Site in Cumbria, UK
Source: U.S. Department of Energy
26 Robert Jacobs
Whatever its history was to become, however it was later utilized, the very
rst nuclear power plant was built specically to kill 100,000 people—a goal that
was eciently and fully realized. Nuclear power was born violent: it was born as
a fundamental element of a program designed to manufacture weapons of mass
destruction. The expanded plutonium production sites of the nuclear weapon
states sustained an ongoing potential through nuclear weapon arsenals to kill
hundreds of millions more during the Cold War and beyond.
The violence of nuclear power plants is not limited to their use in
manufacturing nuclear weapons. Nuclear meltdowns have caused the early deaths
and the illness of untold thousands more. e number of deaths resulting from
the Chernobyl disaster alone are bitterly contested, in part, because illnesses
caused by internalized radionuclides rarely lead to direct and provable causation.
Any visit to the communities surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion zone in both
Belarus and the Ukraine makes the public health impacts obvious. The health
impact of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi continues to unfold before
Beyond the visible, nuclear waste may kill and harm for tens of thousands
of years to come. Hundreds of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel rods will
remain deadly for over 100,000 years and must be successfully contained for
that entire period of time to protect the health of thousands of generations of
humans and other creatures yet unborn. Nuclear power will remain violent long
past the generation of any electricity that will benet any being. e legacy waste
of operating nuclear power plants—for weapons or for electricity—will remain
Figure 7. Chinzei Middle School, Nagasaki 1945
Source: United States Strategic Bombing Survey
Born Violent 27
dangerous for longer than human civilization has so far existed.
1. I bracket the term “invented” since plutonium does exist in nature—in the miniscule
amount of 235U that has ssioned naturally—but it was unknown to humans at the time it
was isolated in the lab by Seaborg.
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Robert (Bo) Jacobs is a historian of nuclear technologies and radiation technopolitics. He is a
professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and Graduate School of Peace Studies of Hiroshima City
University. He has published multiple books and articles, including: e dragon’s tail: Americans face
the atomic age (2010; Japanese translation, 2013), Filling the hole in the nuclear future: art and popular
culture respond to the bomb (2010), Images of rupture in civilization between East and West: the
iconography of Auschwitz and Hiroshima in Eastern European arts and media (2016), and Reimagining
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: nuclear humanities in the post-Cold War (2017). Jacobs has conducted
extensive eldwork on the human and social impacts of nuclear technologies and radiation exposures.
His recent work has also focused on the problems posed by the long-term storage of high level nuclear
waste. He is a project leader of the Global Hibakusha Project, which works to link radiation-aected
communities around the globe.
Submitted: November 28, 2018; Revised: March 20, 2019; Accepted: April 2, 2019