RICHLAND – The residents of this town take their mushroom cloud seriously.
It’s emblazoned on Richland High School and proudly worn by fourth-generation kids, the Bombers, who mostly know it only as one of coolest logos around. But that pride is also embedded into the roots of a company town that raised families, paid off government-built homes and now fuels million-dollar mansions above Badger Canyon.
Living on the doorstep of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation – the world’s most toxic nuclear waste site – locals reacted with interest for about an hour Tuesday morning after a 20-foot-long hole was discovered.
The cave-in occurred on the top of a tunnel that covers flat-bed rail cars containing radioactive equipment. That equipment was used in the 1950s and 1960s to produce the plutonium that armed much of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Crews wearing protective suits filled that hole this week with about 50 truckloads of dirt.
While the tunnel collapse made international news, it did little to shake a town full of residents whose collective knowledge, passed among husbands, sisters, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts or cousins, continues to evolve and inform the intriguing, sometimes troubling, living history of “Nuketown, USA.”
“It made the future of the world, really,” said 78-year-old Richland resident Gary Carter, who worked most of his adult life at Hanford.
In 1942, the nation was embroiled in an all-out war in Europe and a desperate naval campaign in the Pacific Ocean, where, still shaken by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it faced an imperialistic Japan.
In the midst of the conflict, the U.S. government began looking for an isolated location to house a major portion of its Manhattan Project, the secret effort to develop atomic bombs. Col. Franklin Mattias and private contractor DuPont surveyed Richland, which then had a population of about 247 farmers.
On March 6, 1943, farm and business owners received letters informing them that they had 30 days to get out because the government had repatriated about 580 square miles of sun-baked, sandy soil and sagebrush along the Columbia River, near the confluence of the Yakima River, for “undisclosed war purposes.”
It is the placement between those two rivers, ironically, that had blunted Richland’s growth compared to the agriculture-based economies of neighboring Pasco and Kennewick, according to a brief history written by former Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Kershner.
But that isolation is exactly what the government needed to begin the world’s first mass plutonium-production facility. With nearly unlimited water available from the Columbia River and power from the newly built Grand Coulee Dam to the north, the work began.
On a scale that is difficult to imagine, and under a heavy veil of secrecy, the government moved in prefabricated houses. They are known as “Alphabet Houses” because each model was given a different letter denoting the type of home and number of bedrooms.
By 1944, the fully owned government town grew to 11,000 people, most of whom had begun working on massive buildings to process the radioactive materials with technology that physicists and engineers essentially developed on the fly.
It wasn’t until August 1945 that most residents understood the deadly purpose of this massive effort. They learned that the plutonium in the second atomic bomb, known as “Fat Man,” had come from Hanford.
“IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS. President Truman Releases Secret of Hanford Product” was the headline of the Pasco Daily Herald on Aug. 6, 1945.
Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. It killed tens of thousands of people and Japan announced its surrender six days later.
The city embraced its new fame and immediately adopted a new slogan, “Richland: The Atom-Bustin’ Village of the West,” with a mushroom cloud logo. Columbia High School, which later changed its name to Richland High School, dropped The Beavers and adopted The Bombers as its new mascot.
But the nuclear legacy of Richland was just beginning. By 1950, the city had doubled its population again, to about 22,000, and it began to dwarf its formerly bigger neighbors, Pasco and Kennewick.
On July 15, 1958, Richland voted to incorporate as a first-class city, with a population of 22,970. It immediately became the state’s 11th-largest city.
Decades of cleanup
The N Reactor, commissioned in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, was the first reactor to both produce plutonium and electricity. The last of its plutonium production was shut down in 1987.
The focus of many of the thousands of employees at Hanford since was to begin the process to dispose of the massive amounts of radioactive material left behind.
That cleanup is now expected to take decadesand cost billions of dollars.
While Hanford provided the punch behind the nation’s nuclear deterrence, it also has a troubled legacy.
Accidents in 1962 and 1976 exposed Hanford workers to harmful levels of radiation. The public, too, has been exposed. During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, Hanford released radioactive iodine into the air. The government has settled some claims that exposure from the release caused cancer and other illnesses.
Hanford’s most lethal liquid wastes are stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked deep into the desert soil. Sixty-seven tanks have leaks, and officials worry the waste could reach the nearby Columbia River.
The latest solution is to converting about 56 million gallons of radioactive liquids, which were the byproducts of plutonium production, into glass through a process called vitrification.
Melting earth into obsidian
Some of the technology at the core of future cleanup came from experiments done by a guy who came to Richland in 1960 on the promise of work.
Gary Carter, 78, marched in straight lines Wednesday through the same yard he’s mowed every summer for the past 55 years. Every muscle and bone in his body is pure company town.
Carter’s grass grows in front of a small house built in the 1940s by the U.S. government in the buildup for plutonium production.
Carter started working at Hanford in 1962, which is the same year he moved into the house he paid $60 a month to rent. He bought it in 1964 for $6,500.
“It’s paid for,” the smiling Carter said. He retired in 1995 after 33 years at Hanford.
In the garage, among the museum-clean array of everyman tools, sits a 1978 Corvette for him and a 2009 Corvette for his wife. On a nearby shelf, Carter grabbed the binders of photographs of his work to help develop some of the first experiments on vitrification.
Carter worked as a technician for contractor Battelle, which is now called Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
They learned that if you stick four electrodes into the ground and pump in 1,380 volts of electricity, it melts the earth into liquid obsidian. If allowed to cool slowly, the slurry turns to stone.
“Earth has all the stuff in it to make glass. You heat it to 2,600 degrees and let it cool and it turns to glass,” he said. If the soil is contaminated with toxic waste “the temperature destroys it. It becomes a non-hazardous waste.”
As Gary worked at Hanford, Joanne raised their children, who both attended Richland High School across the street. The couple will celebrate 59 years of marriage in July.
Both kids were proud Bombers, who are partly named after a B-17 named “Day’s Pay” because it was built in 1944 on the contributions from Hanford employees who donated a day’s wages.
The logo’s mushroom cloud marks Hanford’s contribution to Fat Man, which some credit with ending World War II.
“I think it’s wonderful. We are proud of the mushroom,” Joanne Carter said. “If people make an issue of it, they need to do something else.”
The couple was in Seattle on Tuesday when the tunnel collapsed.
“I met a gal at the mall in Seattle. She said, ‘Oh, you guys glow in the dark.’ I said, ‘Good Lord, no,’” she said. “I don’t know who makes that stuff up. It’s disheartening.”
Hanford “provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for people,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing,”
Don’t tread on the cloud
Three decades ago, Gary Carter had a 1960s-era Chevrolet Chevelle that neighbor Tim Praino wanted to buy. Praino is now the principal at Richland High. He presides over a school brimming with pride. The gym ceiling is littered with green banners with gold letters honoring past state championship teams.
“I was part of the class vote in 1988 when they voted to continue to have the mushroom cloud as part of our emblem” Praino said. “It had a 95 percent approval rating.”
The son of parents who moved to Richland for Hanford jobs, Praino grew up in an “A” house, which originally was a duplex. His father bought the structure in 1968, eliminated one front door, removed the wall and made it into a six-bedroom home.
As one generation removed from working at Hanford, many of Praino’s students now have parents who work in the burgeoning wine-grape growing businesses and other industries that no longer depend on government-funded jobs.
“When I grew up, three out of every four parents worked out there. Now the economy has changed so much,” Praino said. “Not as many families rely on it, so I don’t know if my kids have a complete understanding of what went on out there.”
Other than history class in their junior year and Washington state history in middle school, the curriculum doesn’t teach students much about Hanford’s history.
“We are so far removed from the Cold War,” Praino said. “Now, it’s all about the cleanup. But in the end of the 1980s, it was tense.”
This past year, to make up for a snow day, the school had 100 seniors take tours of the B Reactor, where Hanford produced the plutonium for Fat Man, so some students got a sense of the history.
Along with a painted mural of the bomber “Day’s Pay,” the school has dozens of logos from various graduating classes honoring the Bombers logo and mushroom cloud.
Up until 2006, the hallway leading out of the school’s cafeteria had the Bombers and mushroom-cloud logo embedded in the floor.
“If any underclassmen got caught stepping on the logo, they would end up in a garbage can,” Praino said. “It’s got a crazy cult following.”
Every once in a while, someone will try to make the logo the center of a controversy.
“The most we ever hear is when someone complains about the Kamiakin Braves,” Praino said. “And they respond by saying, ‘Hey, they’ve got a mushroom cloud over there at Richland.’”
Man behind the scan
While the massive government effort created new technologies for destruction, it also prompted new scientific advancements to detect radiation in humans.
Earl Palmer, 87, graduated in 1955 from Idaho State University in Pocatello with a degree in chemistry.
He applied to work for General Electric and the company shipped him to Arco, Idaho, to interview with the group trying to build the world’s first nuclear-powered bomber. Palmer then accepted a job at Hanford, where he became a health physicist, and worked there from 1956 to 1990.
“The town has expanded up in this area,” Palmer said. “Before, there was nothing here but sagebrush.”
He soon became involved with developing instruments in a room with 12-inch steel walls that were cut off a World War II-era battleship. His work produced the “whole body counter” in 1960.
“I spent the rest of my career developing instruments to measure radioactivity in people,” he said.
The machine was so accurate it could not only detect the level of radioactivity but also where that radioactivity was located in the body.
In 1962, the company sent Palmer to Alaska to measure high levels of Cesium 137 found in Eskimos. He learned that nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean by the United States and Russia had released radiation that flowed in the jet stream and was absorbed by lichens growing in Alaska. Caribou ate the lichens and the Eskimos ate the caribou.
“They had 100 to 1,000 times more radioactivity than we do” in the Lower 48 states, Palmer said.
Many times when Palmer would take a trip abroad, he would bring one of his test subjects home. In 1963, he brought home Jonas Ahgook from his project in Alaska. Ahgook quickly became a family favorite, said Palmer’s 82-year-old wife, Myrna.
“The kids would lay on the floor watching Westerns on TV. (Ahgook) would lay on the floor with them,” she said. “We put him on a horse. He said, ‘Now I’m a cowboy.’”
The couple, who married in 1954, has a glass cabinet with gifts from all of the international contacts that Earl Palmer brought home for dinner over the years.
“Our children got exposed to people from all over the world,” Myrna Palmer said. “Living in Richland was great because everybody were young people raising kids.”
Earl Palmer’s work also became critical in saving Harold McCluskey, who suffered severe exposure to americium during an explosion on Aug. 30, 1976. He survived 11 years as the most radioactive man in the world, earning him the designation of “the atomic man.” .
As a result of Palmer’s contributions, the heavy-steel room used to scan employees for radiation was named the Palmer Room after he retired in 1990. It’s still in use today.
“I had an exciting career,” Palmer said. “It was very interesting.”
Ed and Cindy Bricker, of Olympia, both grew up in Richland as the son and daughter of Hanford workers. The hometown of their youth was a childhood dream.
Workers’ kids had access to an Olympic-size swimming pool, made inner-tube rafts to float the Columbia River and went camping in the sand dunes as part of Boy Scout trips.
“If we’d get in trouble at school, you would come home and get in trouble again because your mother had already been called. If you got by her, you would get in trouble when your father came home because they would call and tell him at work,” Ed Bricker said. “If we tried to skip out of the house, your friend’s mother would have already known and sent you packing.”
On Sept. 22, 1963, Ed Bricker got into the back of his father’s 1959 Buick with other Cub Scouts and raced out to Hanford to see President Kennedy arrive by helicopter for the groundbreaking of the N Reactor.
“I shook JFK’s hand. I was about 9. It happened so quickly,” Ed Bricker said. It was two months before Kennedy’s assassination.
But growing up in Richland at that time had other quirks. One day, a semi truck showed up at school, and technicians asked the students to fill out paperwork relating how much milk they had consumed, whether they had eaten vegetables from the basin or if they had eaten fresh fish from the river.
After filling out the paperwork, each student laid down in a machine that was designed to detect any levels of radiation. Cindy Bricker, 58, didn’t know it at the time, but she learned years later that the body scanning machine was invented by her father, Earl Palmer.
Then came the green boxes, which were about 8 inches wide and 1 foot tall. Hanford workers were required to give urine and sometimes fecal samples that they would leave outside their doors.
Another Hanford employee would then come to collect the samples, which were scanned for possible radiation.
“My dad was an electrician,” Ed Bricker said. “Everyone knew where you worked because you had to put a green container … outside your door for them to come pick up.”
Ed, 62, graduated from Richland High in 1974, and Cindy graduated in 1977, which is when the couple got married and they both started working at Hanford.
But a decade later, Ed Bricker became a whistleblower. His employers called him a “spy for the government” for reporting about radiation hazards at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant, a heavily guarded facility where plutonium was refined for weapons use.
Internal documents showed that Bricker’s employers, Rockwell Hanford Co. and Westinghouse Hanford Co., had devised a plan of retaliation that would lead to his “timely termination.” The case finally led to a $200,000 settlement.
“This place was designed for production first and safety second. Now it’s cleanup first and safety second,” Bricker said. “I lost a lot of good friends as a result of being a whistleblower.”
His past sometimes put Bricker at odds with his father-in-law, Palmer, the health physicist, who worked 44 years at Hanford.
“It was a generational thing. (Palmer) tried to work within the system to work and fix it,” Bricker said. “I was trying to protect people in my own way.”