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May 8, 2012

ATOMIC FISSION : “IS THERE NO BALM IN GILEAD?”

by profbartling1

May 8, 2012

An article in the summer 2012 Washington State University Magazine titled The Atomic Landscape arrested my attention. Discussed is the WWII Manhattan Project and the development of atomic bombs.  Hanford Nuclear Reservation in South-Eastern Washington on the Columbia River is where successful atomic fission  resulted in building  atom bombs.  Hanford is in close proximity of river towns Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. Interesting for me is that some students I served as campus chaplain (1952-1958)  at Washington State University,  a rather short distance from Hanford, were raised in the Hanford environs. They were children during the  Manhattan Project period. Their student years paralleled the early Cold War phase.  Those  years witnessed the start of the nuclear arms race with Soviet Russia.

Vivid in memory is the announcement on August 6th, 1945 that a bomb equal to 20,000 tons had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan flattening the city.  Just having turned eighteen that summer I read the headline while engaged in a summer job loading boxcars at the Milwaukee Soo Line railroad freight house.  Duly impressed one anticipated the defeat of Japan rather soon. Typically true there was generally little understanding of the implications of an atomic bombing.  Over the next year those implications became clearer.  A growing sense of fear , foreboding, angst, and pervading anxiety arose regarding the danger of radiation and  potential world cataclysm.  School year 1946 as a college freshman I wrote an essay for an english class titled:  Is There No Balm in Gilead?  The major theme, I seem to recall, was questioning as to the future of mankind and where hope might be found. More particulars are not recalled. What is illustrated, however, was a pervasive unease for many as to the future and what answer was possible for the theat to mankind living  under an “atomic cloud”  My essay title was a quote from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (chapter 8 vs.22).  Just as the prophet queried whether there was healing for the wounds of Judah so  the essay asked whether there was healing for the human family. (balm, or balsam,   was an aromatic gum from resinous plants used for healing and soothing. Gilead was at a center of trade in spices and medicinal herbs)

The Atomic Landscape article has as sub-title Seven decades later, we consider our plutonium legacy. That Hanford landscape history has three eras, namely, “the Indian history, the pioneer history or pre-atomic era, and the history that begins with the Manhattan  Project:.  It is difficult, it is observed,  to integrate or combine these histories.  The atomic era cultural legacy  is the pride of the role in the accomplishment in WWII and the Cold War. Hanford workers were seen as war heroes with “the national spotlight on Hanford, its people, and its secret wartime mission”. The landscape changed overnight with a facilities building boom and an influx of  25,000 workers, and 51,00 people.

Hanford’s atomic landscape history has, as well, a “toxic legacy”.  The rush to circumvent Hitler’s supposed nuclear advance lead to “the revolutionary science involved,  to the toxic hangover of a landscape dedicated to producing bombs with insufficient caution and foresight.”  Involved was the creation of the B-Reactor that produced plutonium for Fat Man, “the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 – through the development of and resulting waste of an additional eight reactors during the Cold War”.  The article notes that nuclear waste would still be problematic if  demand for plutonium ended with Fat Man.  Storage problems of volumes of nuclear waste not anticipated in 1945  increased dramatically with the “combined production of eight reactors during the Cold War years”.   Tank waste leaks into “Hanford’s dry soil drifting towards the (Columbia) river .  . .  underlying a stark and transformed terrain with a legacy against which we seem powerless.”

The questioned posed in a young man’s essay sixty-seven years ago,  Is There No  Balm in Gilead (?) , appears relevant today.  Questions regarding the dangers of radiation from nuclear plants remain a concern. The shutting down this very week of the last of forty Japanese reactors speaks eloquently to this fear.  Non-proliferation treaties seemingly do not deter Iran or North Korea from nuclear bomb development.  Is there no balm from the fear of nuclear fission?

Addendum  (Google Search) 5-18-2012: Manhattan Project, 1942-1946.  Sharp in memory are the firebombing and resulting “firestorms” of German and Japanese cities in the spring of 1945.  The context for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lies in the subsequent surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. This averted the necessity of carrying out the plans for the invasion of Japan. Codename for invasion Operation Downfall had two parts, Operation Olympic set for Oct. 1945 invasion of Kyushu Island, and  Operation Coronet in spring 1946 of the Kanto Plain near Tokyo on Honshu Island with air support from captured airbases on Kyushu. Allied casualties estimated as possible one million or more and those of Japanese several times that.  Events in immediate context making invasion unnecessary resulted from the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945  demanding Japanese surrender or experience “prompt and utter destruction”.  Failure of the ultimatum resulted in the atomic fission uranium-237 Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6.  Several days later on Aug. 9  a nuclear fission uranium transmuted into Plutonium (PU -239) bomb leveled Nagasaki. Plutonium fissionable material was created at Hanford, Washington  and sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico where J. Robert Oppenheimer developed a workable plutonium bomb. A successful test of a plutonium bomb occurred at the Trinity Test Site at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 15, 1945.

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