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Jolted by events today, and 72 years ago today

Observers of thermonuclear detonation at operation Hardtack I in 1958, in the Pacific Proving Grounds, Marshal Islands (National Nuclear Security Administration)

I’m always curious about what inspires and sparks an artist. Personally, I find it hard not to be provoked by what’s going on in the world, by events both frightening and awe-inspiring.

My dad and his mother, 1946

Recently we’ve heard a lot of North Korean saber rattling, bellowing that reaching our shores with a nuclear weapon is imminent. This feels personal for me, not only as a west coaster but because I learned last fall that, while I was practicing duck-and-cover under my little desk, my engineer father assisted the scientists at our atomic bomb tests on Enewetak Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, in 1958.

Then, as now, we were living through a tense environment of political posturing and confrontation with our “enemies.” Dad described getting up early and heading down to the beach with a bunch of guys, donning adjustable welder’s goggles and looking right at the detonation some miles up the beach. He has vivid memories of lightening bursts, visible electric discharge in an immense rising mushroom cloud.

B reactor as seen in 2017, at the Hanford site, Richland, Washington

Immediately before that visit with my dad, Bruce and I were heading through Richland, in eastern Washington, and learned that the Hanford Nuclear site, part of the Manhattan Project, is now managed by the National Park Service. You can tour through the B reactor, which produced the plutonium for the second atomic bomb, the “Fat Man” detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. You stand in front of a monolithic wall of finely machined apparatus that took rods of uranium-238, bombarded them with neutrons, and burped out slugs that were then purified into plutonium-239.

Front page of the local Richland, Washington, paper, on August 6, 1945

The experience bombarded me too. What struck me was that the people who mobilized to construct this place didn’t know what they were building. On Monday, August 6, 1945, the headline on the local paper read: “IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS”. On the day Hiroshima was bombed, Richland finally learned from President Truman what they were producing.

Loading the Fat Man bomb  (capture from footage, Atomic Heritage Foundation)

And three days later, 72 years ago today, Nagasaki, Japan, learned the meaning of “complete and utter destruction.

Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki (capture from footage, Atomic Heritage Foundation)

There are many ways to process this: historical, scientific, environmental, humanistic, political, patriotic; in the context of that time, and in the context of what we later learned about the consequences. Grappling with these legitimate, sometimes conflicting points of view generates some intense energy for an artist’s mind.

The whole operation in Richland is an astonishing story. In little more than a year, this place went from hundreds of square miles of grassland and a couple of displaced towns and tribes, to a boomtown of more than 50,000 workers, to manufacturing nuclear material. They built a huge production facility for a technology that was hardly proven. In December 1942, Enrico Fermi was able to produce a nuclear chain reaction at his Chicago lab, where he described the apparatus as "a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers". B Reactor was intended to produce more than a million times the energy of Fermi’s test, with no piloting of the engineering in between; they were racing to create blueprints just ahead of the construction crews. While multiple safeguards prevented a runaway nuclear chain reaction, air from around the reactor was vented out tall stacks so the wind would dissipate any escaping bad boys, hot water from cooling systems was dumped right back into the Columbia River, and they didn’t know what to do with the dangerous waste product. They’ve been cleaning up the radioactive mess for decades now.

But it feels impossible to pass judgment on the thinking of the time, in the middle of a world war. These were scientists who not only created the bomb, but questioned its morality and warned of its consequences. These were people whose sons were fighting and dying far from home. These were politicians and generals, many of whom were trying to make the least terrible choice. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.” He knew he was responsible for the future victims of nuclear war. He confided to Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”

But wistful regrets didn’t change the fact that Oppenheimer had personally sanctioned a nuclear attack without warning on a city of civilians.

And I carry around a persistent image of charged particles in roiling clouds, and a scary little Fat Man.

Image credits:

Nagasaki mushroom cloud and Little Man: source: Wikimedia Commons

Other photos: © 2017 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.



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