BACKGROUND: The Manhattan Project

THE MANHATTAN ENGINEER DISTRICT (MED) was formed in August of 1942 in an attempt to develop an atomic weapon during World War II. Roosevelt's administration and the military suspected that the Germans were on the verge of creating an atomic bomb and feared the worse. A top secret operation, the Manhattan Project involved a series of decentralized sites spread across the country; Los Alamos (Site Y) in New Mexico, Clinton Engineer Works (Site X) in Tennessee and Hanford Engineer Works (Site W) in southeastern Washington State. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for process development, procurement, design, and site selection under the direction of Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves. Due to the urgency of the situation Groves delved head on into project piecing together the initial stages of what would become the most powerful nuclear weaponry complex in the world.

Groves asked J. Robert Oppenheimer to head the laboratory at Los Alamos where research and development of the bombs would be completed. The Clinton Engineer Works would contain an experimental reactor, a chemical separations plant, and other facilities. The Universities of Chicago, Rochester, Berkeley, and the Michigan Institute of Technology were already involved in atomic research and contributed scientists, physicists, and other researchers to the project. Because of safety and security requirements a more remote location was needed for a third site—an experimental plutonium production facility.

In December 1942, Colonel Franklin T. Matthias, one of Grove’s top assistants, began scouting for a location to site the secret facilityHis search was concentrated on six sites in California, Oregon, and Washington. In the end an isolated stretch of arid land bordering the Columbia River was selected. This remote area included the small farming and ranch communities of White Bluffs, Hanford, and Richland. The site was partly chosen due to its proximity to the cold waters of the Columbia—a resource that would be used to cool the reactors as well as power them. The E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company became the prime industrial subcontractor and would oversee design, engineering, and construction of plutonium production and the separation facilities. Matthias remained in command charged with delivering plutonium to Los Alamos as soon as possible.

Within months the U.S. Government condemned over 560 miles of land and instructed the Army to forcefully remove of more than 1,500 area residents including Native Americans. Under condemnation the government offered only the value of the home as assessed by non-local appraisers and failed to include any additional value for improvements, equipment, or crops currently growing in fields. [1] The handful of people who were able to land jobs with the project were able to stay in their homes but ended up paying rent to Du Pont for the privilege. [2] Native Americans in the area, such as the Wanapum tribe at White Bluffs were removed from riverside villages and fishing camps traditionally used for fishing, hunting, foraging, and ceremonial purposes dating back hundreds of years. [3] Initially Indians were promised limited access to their long-established camps but shortly after construction of began access to them was revoked "due to security reasons." [4]

Construction at Hanford often began without "plans or blueprints" due to time restraints with construction proceeding at a nearly unbelievable pace. [5] "In just thirty months between groundbreaking in March 1943, and the end of the war in August 1945, the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) built 554 buildings not dedicated to living requirements." [6] These buildings ranged from reactors, separation plants and laboratories to craft shops, warehouses, and electrical substations. The B Reactor along with five other reactors were planned for construction at different locations along the Columbia River. Four huge chemical separations plants were scheduled for construction ten miles south of the reactors within the interior of the site. The government-owned village of Richland would also be built during this period.

At the peak of construction in 1944, 45,000 workers were employed at the site. A variety of temporary housing was constructed to house workers; 131 barracks for 24,892 men; 64 barracks for 4,357 woman; 880 hutments (Quonset Huts) for men; and 3,639 trailer lots. [7] Construction workers were housed in a work camp set up in old Hanford. African Americans and women were segregated within the camp. Hispanic Americans were housed completely off-site near Pasco. [8] In addition to housing the camp included sixty-five construction shops, an administration area with twenty-four buildings, eight mess halls, saloons, stores, a recreation hall and auditorium, a theater, a bowling alley, and a softball diamond among other amenities. Services included eight schools, a day nursery, five fire stations, a large infirmary, and clinic. [9]

Recruitment of potential workers was a complicated ordeal due partly to labor shortages resulting from the war and the sheer remoteness of the site location. Because of this many unskilled workers were offered salaries twice the daily rate found elsewhere with skilled labor potentially earning fifty percent more than they were regularly paid in civilian positions. Meat rationing common during the war did not apply to Hanford and recruiters used this to their advantage. [10] Regardless of the need to fill a position no potential employee was ever hired without a thorough background check commensurate with the rank they would fill. Each employee hired was fingerprinted and required to sign a "Declaration of Secrecy" enforceable under the National Espionage Act or the Federal Sabotage Act. [11] Security measures like these constantly undermined individual civil liberties. The Army, FBI, and Hanford Site Patrol combined their efforts to enforce and carry out background checks and the safeguarding of information. Even Richland Village was not excluded from these covert activities, which included examination of mail and eavesdropping on phone calls. Undercover agents at Hanford were said to be everywhere. [12]

Less than one percent of the total workforce understood what Hanford was producing in terms of product. Workers were often switched to different assignments. Those that asked too many questions they were simply terminated. Lack of knowledge concerning their job led some employees to quit. Those whom remained were constantly reminded through print campaigns to "not talk shop." This cult of secrecy went as far as the White House; Vice President Harry S. Truman was only informed of the project's existence after Roosevelt's death. A tight-lipped "compartmentalization" policy was developed by Groves suggesting that, "Each man should know everything he needed to know to do his job and nothing else." [13]

An enriched uranium bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 unleashing a force equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. [14] Three days later, "Fat Man," a bomb made with plutonium produced at Hanford exploded over Nagasaki with a force of 21,000 tons of TNT immediately killing 40,000 people and injuring 60,000 more. The death toll at Nagasaki eventually reaches 140,000 and 200,000 at Hiroshima. [15] With these culminating events public awareness of Hanford's involvement in producing materials for atomic weaponry became widely known. However, very little information beyond that would be disclosed. By 1946, with the Manhattan Project's mission complete the operation officially ended.