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Book: The Apocalypse Factory – plutonium and the making of the atomic age

In deft, distressing ‘Apocalypse Factory,’ Seattle author details Hanford’s role in the dawn of the nuclear age, Aug. 5, 2020  By Michael Upchurch,  The Seattle Times 

Book review

On the list of self-inflicted threats to humanity that we shove to the side in order to preserve our sanity, nuclear disaster — along with climate change — ranks at the top. And in Washington state, the toxic legacy of the Hanford nuclear reservation is the chief reminder of that threat.

Hanford produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 — 75 years ago this Sunday. It also supplied the plutonium for most of the thousands of American nuclear weapons manufactured since then. But in the popular imagination, Hanford looms less prominently than Los Alamos when it comes to stories about the dawn of the nuclear age.

In “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age,” Seattle writer Steve Olson — who grew up in the small town of Othello, roughly 25 miles northeast of Hanford — capably fills in the gap.

As a young writer, Olson studied with John Hersey — the author of the 1946 book “Hiroshima” — so it’s fitting that “The Apocalypse Factory” includes an expansive, Hersey-like chapter on the horrific consequences of the Nagasaki bombing, drawn from Japanese eyewitness accounts. Nagasaki residents, of course, didn’t know what had hit them and were confounded by the “atomic bomb sickness” that killed people who initially appeared to be uninjured.

The book also encompasses the political and military strategies of the period, along with the “fiendishly difficult” challenges of producing plutonium in a way that wouldn’t kill its makers. Olson writes lucidly, making even the most recondite details of the science involved clear to a nonscientist. And he’s eloquent in his chronicling of the lives affected — and sometimes destroyed — by the invention and use of the world’s most deadly weapon.

“Hanford,” he acknowledges, “represents one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements; it also embodies a moral blindness that could destroy us all.”………

The secrecy surrounding the bomb didn’t end with World War II. Censorship of details about Nagasaki’s destruction and vital info on what radiation sickness could do to humans continued for years. A story by one Chicago Tribune reporter who wangled his way to Nagasaki wasn’t just censored but destroyed. The carbon copy he kept only came to light 60 years later.

Initial jubilation at Japanese surrender was soon tempered by a realization among scientists of just how nightmarish the bombs’ effects were. Decades later, the radioactive pollution at Hanford likewise became impossible to ignore.

“The leaders of the Manhattan Project,” Olson concludes, “did not devote much thought to the mess they were creating.”

In this deft, informative, sometimes terrifying book, that sentence reads like a stinging understatement.


“The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age” by Steve Olson, Norton, 336 pp., $27.95

August 17, 2020 - Posted by | - plutonium, weapons and war

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