The Manhattan Project Today

This is the Columbia River as understood by the people who brought us the Atomic Bomb.P1060309 Control Panel, B Reactor, Hanford Engineering Works, Washington

This is the Columbia River as understood by American wild west mythology:


Hauling the last of the white sturgeon out of the radioactive sludge, to release it again.

It takes 4 or 5 hours. Cut the line off the hook. Repeat. Two mothballed weapons grade plutonium reactors, sealed in stainless steel shells, in behind.

This is what the Columbia River looks like within the B Reactor complex, immediately before being run through the reactor. The valves are partially dismantled and open to Russian inspection as part of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

P1060367 This is the spot where the military industrial complex was invented in 18 months beginning in 1942. The scheme to dam the Columbia at Grand Coulee (and destroy the salmon) to provide water in order to settle 100,000 poor black families as free holding farmers was sidelined in order to generate the electricity to run this machine. It produced the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki Bomb. When the irrigation scheme was finally initiated, the land went to large industrial farmers instead, at a subsidy of billions, originally intended to settle the poor. It was here that the American agricultural dream ended.

P1060275 Here is the Columbia River in the Hanford Reach, the only free flowing section in the U.S. The white egrets have recently returned from what was thought to be extirpation.

P1060773This is the Columbia River as seen by the Wanapum People, the people of the river, who were largely extirpated by the Hanford project.

P1070419White Cliffs, Behind Spirit Island

These cliffs are the glacial silts of the Okanagan, lying in a twenty mile curve where the river breaks out of the mountains into the Columbia Basin.

This is the river as seen by the citizens of Richland, Washington, the residential area of the plutonium manufacturing project:


Totem Salmon in a Childrens’ Playground

There are virtually no salmon left in the river. The dead are honoured as if they are still alive. That is how important the notion of hunting wild animals is to US American culture. Meanwhile, because of a treaty signed downriver at Celilo Falls, more money has now been spent trying to bring back the Indigenous Salmon Fishery than has ever been earned by the technology that replaced it.

This is the Columbia River as seen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation:


Outflow of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project

The pumps at Grand Coulee Dam lift 45 cubic metres of water per second into the system. This is what is returned to the river.

This is the Columbia River, as seen by industrial fruit farmers employing Mexican workers, who are housed behind razor wire, in military compounds guarded 24 hours a day by armed guards.

P1060681Martian Colony on the Columbia River

Since the climate is not conducive to apple growing, Italian poplars have to be fed with Canadian water to break the wind, and overhead irrigation, with over 50% evaporation loss, has to be sprayed over the trees in order to produce edible (but tasteless) apples.  Frank Herbert wrote Dune in this climate.

The American way is to have all of these rivers existing at once and to manage the tensions between these irreconcilable visions on a partisan political stage. That is a questionable way of managing people. In terms of the river, it is abusive. Choices must be made, not between competing human demands, but in the name of the river. Choosing between human demands leads to short-lived solutions — a generation at best — that then lead to poverty and debt.


These are the Orchards of Hanford Town

They were abandoned to build B Reactor. The trees were abandoned and the apples left to fall to the ground. 50,000 workers housed here in 1942 begged to pick them up. They were forbidden.

The engineers at Hanford have now spent a decade trying to clean up the leaking storage tanks of radioactive waste on site, before contaminated ground water reaches the Columbia. They have spent upwards of 15 billion dollars. They have built a machine. It does not work. I present these images to you as a suggestion that the work of rebuilding the earth cannot proceed using past intellectual, social and political tools. This is where they lead:


Evening Sun Above the Richland Strip

During the Vietnam War, this was the image of American prosperity and power. Now the sun is pink because the overgrown sagebrush west of here above the Yakima River at Ellensburg is on fire. The pink is the colour of a century and a half of bad range and grassland policy. Effectively, 12,000 years of wealth have been mined down to this since 1860

They lead here, too:


Waterskiing on the Impounded Columbia in Richland

In the smoke of the sagebrush fire.

And maybe worst of all to this:


Personal Water Craft and Impersonal Hellish Racket

These offensive stupid machines were invented here. It is this culture of dammed rivers, extirpated salmon, nuclear engineers, subsidized industrial agriculture, boredom and entitlement that led to the invention of these toys. The world’s greatest salmon river has become a toy and a playground. As for machines, they are the modern image of the Cold War, the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Bombing of Japan and the dislocation of the people from the river and the earth.

What we are left with, with which to rebuild the earth, in a Kafka-esque maze of competing government and private interests, is this:

P1060211Chamra Nature Preserve, Richland Washington

This nature preserve at the confluence of the Yakima and Impounded Columbia Rivers, beneath the freeways that serve as streets in this self-professed Atomic Age City, is composed almost entirely of weeds. All the nature you see in the image above is weeds.

This is not nature. This is wilderness. In American terms, this nation, that began with fundamentalist Christian settlers and their  image of Eden, has created wilderness out of lived, loved and livable space, the very wilderness that Adam and Eve were expelled to. It is an image of what those early puritan settlers saw when they arrived at Plymouth Rock. To this date, this has been the purpose and achievement of the American state. Like Adam and Eve, it is up to us now to walk out into that wilderness and make it again a rich and life-giving space. To do this, the river has to be a part of every conversation, on her own terms.

p1070453 Stag Swimming to the Reactor Fields, Hanford Reach

For perhaps 150 years we are going to have to give to the river, rather than take from her. The time of the taking will lead only to increased poverty.

salmon2One of the Last Columbia River Salmon

Only a few thousand of these fish spawn in the Hanford Reach today, in a system that once brought home 30,000,000 salmon a year. Men like this, intent on killing them before they spawn, are operating within their cultural and political rights. They have, however, no ethical rights at all.

Killing the earth doesn’t end with the tar sands of Canada, shale tracking, chemical plants, or the deadly Basa fisheries of Vietnam. It is entirely part of the culture and infiltrates almost every act. Humans have the capacity to kill and to give life. It is time for the life-givers to call things as they are: killing is not a sport for humans. It is a sport for beasts. Let’s stop the nonsense and call things by their proper names. This nonsense of human ownership and superiority has gone on far too long.



4 replies »

  1. This rarely encountered kind of understanding is critical to the saving of our Selves, our Souls and our Earth… Thank you for blessing us with them.


  2. Thank you, Simonne. A trip to B Reactor and up the Hanford Reach is a deeply moving (and troubling and humbling) experience. The river, however, promises some hope.


  3. insightful writing, as usual, thanks for this, i knew a goat farmer whose animals were having all kinds of problems with their animals, i asked her where the hay came from, it was central Washington, a bad place to live, many people contracted thyroid problems due to radioactive releases, some not so accidental…


    • Thanks. Yes, there were the regular releases (within ‘safe’ limits), the deliberate releases (within toxic limits), the spraying of vast tracts of land to see what would happen, and then the aerial release to see were it would go. The latter was the worst. But then, these were the guys who called those machines “our girl”, and got so choked up at shut-down time that they stopped making log notes as per regulations, because they were so emotionally choked up at having to kill their girl that they couldn’t write another word. A large part of the cleanup effort has been to send men out into the sagebrush and weeds to see what they will discover, because whenever a piece of equipment got hot, it was just thrown away on the spot and left there. Amazing stuff.


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