A thrilling narrative of scientific triumph, decades of secrecy, and the unimaginable destruction wrought by the creation of the atomic bomb.
It began with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured in quantity by humans. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction of inconceivable explosive power. In a matter of months, the Hanford nuclear facility was built to produce and weaponize the enigmatic and deadly new material that would fuel atomic bombs. In the desert of eastern Washington State, far from prying eyes, scientists Glenn Seaborg, Enrico Fermi, and many thousands of others—the physicists, engineers, laborers, and support staff at the facility—manufactured plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and for the bombs in the current American nuclear arsenal, enabling the construction of weapons with the potential to end human civilization.
With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and storytelling, Steve Olson asks why Hanford has been largely overlooked in histories of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Olson, who grew up just twenty miles from Hanford’s B Reactor, recounts how a small Washington town played host to some of the most influential scientists and engineers in American history as they sought to create the substance at the core of the most destructive weapons ever created. The Apocalypse Factory offers a new generation this dramatic story of human achievement and, ultimately, of lethal hubris.
Science writer Olson (Eruption) delivers a lucid, fast-paced chronicle of the discovery and weaponization of plutonium and the unforeseen consequences of the nuclear arms race. Delving deeply into the history of the Hanford nuclear facility in south-central Washington State, the first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world, Olson documents how material produced at Hanford as part of the Manhattan Project during WWII was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico and used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki in August 1945. He covers the struggle between researchers and the military for control of nuclear weaponry, and the sincere but ultimately counterproductive efforts by scientists to reduce the chances of nuclear war by "stoking people's fears" of nuclear annihilation. During the Cold War, the Hanford site expanded from three to nine nuclear reactors and supplied most of the plutonium for the American nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, inadequate safety standards and waste disposal procedures, as well as rushed production, contributed to groundwater contamination and high cancer rates in the surrounding region. Olsen has a knack for explaining complex chemistry in ways that even the most science-averse reader can follow, and he packs many intriguing tangents into the narrative. This comprehensively researched and compulsively readable account deserves a large audience.