Interpreting the History of Nuclear Technology at Public History Sites

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In his 2012 publication, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener visited Cold War-related historical sites throughout the United States, analyzing the ways this history is interpreted within a public history setting. Wiener came away largely disappointed with his findings. He argues that far too many sites misunderstand, distort, diminish, and omit Cold War history from their interpretive missions, even though these sites are dedicated to educating the public about this history.

Emblematic of these interpretive issues is the Hanford B Reactor site in Southeastern Washington state. The reactor (which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008) was the first full-size weapons-grade plutonium production plant in the world and remained in operation until 1987, producing plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons for more than forty years. Wiener writes an entire chapter in How We Forgot the Cold War about his tour of Hanford and concludes that the site’s interpretive leaders have conveniently ignored its history. Rather than explaining the causes, context, and consequences of developing nuclear technology during World War II and its continued production during the Cold War, Wiener’s tour leaders focused on reassuring visitors of the site’s safety and promoting the federal government’s ongoing efforts to clean up radioactive waste around the site. The human consequences of nuclear technology–which include thousands of Hanford workers and residents who have acquired various (and often fatal) cancers because of radiation exposure from the plant–are left out of the narrative.

When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December, seven new national park sites were established and placed under the control of the National Park Service. One of those seven parks is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a three-state unit that includes historical sites in New Mexico, Tennessee, and the Hanford B Reactor in Washington.

As the Park Service begins organizing its long-range interpretive plans for Manhattan Project, it’s my hope that the human element of this important story gains prominence. In my opinion science centers, technology museums, and other related sites often struggle to move their interpretations beyond technical descriptions of historical objects, biographies of great inventors, and quantitative facts devoid of context (just look at the local Hanford government’s webpage about the reactor for an example). Less often do visitors learn about the lived experience of technological innovation and how developments in science, technology, and engineering shaped Americans’ day-to-day lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While the federal government should continue discussing cleanup efforts at places like Hanford, more focus on the daily health struggles of Hanford residents allows for new interpretive opportunities that demonstrate the harmful consequences of nuclear technology during World War II and the Cold War Era. Given that Hanford’s history is still recent, perhaps public historians can explore ways to use oral history as a tool for learning more about these stories. As Hanford native Trisha Pritikin warns in her essay on the National Park Service takeover of the reactor, “The legacy of the Manhattan Project is not represented solely by the atomic science. It is also reflected in its destructive effects on the human body . . . the human toll of this project remains a story that must not be silenced or ignored.”