HANFORD Millions of lives had been lost as war paralyzed the world. More than 50,000 workers arrived on an Eastern Washington desert in 1943 to race Nazi Germany for the atomic bomb.

Part of the top secret “Manhattan Project,” Hanford Engineer Works emerged from the tumbleweeds against long odds. Only a handful of workers understood their true mission. In a world pre-dating computers, engineers finalized designs using slide rules. Scientists perfected calculations in record time.

The world’s first full scale nuclear production reactor produced a powerful new element. Hanford plutonium helped end World War II and ushered in the Atomic Age.

“If the Germans had got it before we did, I don’t know what would have happened to the world. Something different.”
- Leona Marshall Libby, a scientist

On August 9, 1945, “Fat Man” exploded over Nagasaki with the power of 20,000 tons of TNT. The explosion spewed a ball of fire and a towering mushroom cloud. Trees snapped. Concrete buildings toppled. More than 60,000 people died.

“I realize the tragic significance of the atom bomb, [but we] have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” - Harry Truman

Among survivors and environmentalists, the bomb and ensuing plutonium production at Hanford remain controversial. For many Americans, however, the B Reactor stands as a landmark to lives saved. Development of the atomic bomb also resulted in Yttrium 90, a medical isotope used to treat cancer.

Main background image: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. Image of bomb: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

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“It was perhaps unforgiveable, but in fact at the time I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was just too much, too enormous to absorb.”

- Yosuke Yamahata, Nagasaki survivor

Approximately 8,500 workers at Hanford clean up waste from 40 years worth of weapons materials production for the nation’s defense. They tear down contaminated buildings, seal old reactors and treat contaminated groundwater. Courtesy Department of Energy

“My sister, nephew and I were playing inside the shelter when there was a sudden, brilliant flash of light. I remember nothing else. We were spared the heat rays generated by the explosion but everything went dark and I fell unconscious. I do not know how much time had elapsed when someone shook me and brought me back to my senses. When my vision cleared, I could not believe the sights before my eyes.”

– Sakue Shimohira, 10 when the Nagasaki bomb dropped

“I’ve never held any grudge against the Americans, but I don’t want any more bombs. I want peace for the whole world.”

- Dr. Toshiko Ito


Celebrated scientists built Hanford’s plutonium-producing reactors. Among them was John Wheeler. The “father of modern general relativity” earned a Ph.D. by 21 and coined the term “black hole.” Wheeler unraveled the mystery when the world’s first reactor died after startup. He discovered a buildup of xenon 135, a byproduct of the nuclear fission process.

The legend marveled at Hanford, a scientific frontier. “There was a sense of adventure about it. I associate it with pioneering. I would think it was like the first steamship. … Hanford is a song that hasn’t been sung properly.”