Washington state nuclear site forever linked to Cold War

The Hanford site was quite simply a "battlefield of the Cold War," America's most prolific arsenal of plutonium defense materials for 40 of the 44 years (1947-1991) that most historians delineate as the Cold War.

The Cold War was the longest war that ever engaged the United States, and the most expensive in terms of dollars. In addition, its cost in human health was not insignificant. Producing materials for the Cold War helped change nearly every aspect of American society from where Americans lived, to whether wives worked, to the nature of communities. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States did the Cold War come home in the lives of employees and communities as dramatically as it did at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities.

The hectic World War II years at the Hanford Engineer Works (the WWII name for the Hanford site) were followed by a production lull and period of uncertainty. Many at HEW and in the region thought the facilities would be dismantled and the pre-war plan for the land to become part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project (CBIP) would be implemented. HEW's operations work force fell by half - from 10,000 to 5,000 - between war's end and December 1946.

Perhaps some HEW workers saw the Cold War coming when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill journeyed to Fulton, Mo., in March 1946 and stated that "an iron curtain has descended across the continent" of Europe. A "dark shadow" of "tyranny" was being cast, he said, by an expansionist Soviet Union. In March 1947, Hanford workers, now employed by a contractor working for the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) sensed a renewed urgency in their work when President Harry Truman "declared" the Cold War in the Truman Doctrine. Our nation would give not only economic, but also military aid, he said, to countries struggling against Soviet destabilization and domination.

However, workers and residents didn't know for sure that their world would change until the Richland Villager newspaper announced in blazing headlines on Aug. 14 of that year: "Village faces Boom with Plant Expansion." The "enlargement," as it was known, would soon become so huge it required a new trailer city to be built north of Richland, where part of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus sits today.

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