Two news stories in recent days serve as a reminder of the awesome responsibility that comes with some of our most profound advances in science and engineering. First came word that tours will be starting up at Chernobyl. Then the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about radioactive rabbits found at Hanford.
Because of the infamy and scale of the disaster that occurred there, Chernobyl is easily recognizable to most. The details may have faded, but we know what it stands for—a catastrophic failure of a complex engineered system.
Hanford may be less familiar to the general public, but it is deeply imprinted in my life. I grew up within miles of the site in the barren sage-steppe plateau of southeastern Washington state. The place where weapons-grade plutonium was processed on a massive scale for decades remains one of the most insidious, intractable pollution challenges on the planet.
Perhaps because of that influence, I still believe that the manipulation of the atom for nuclear power and weapons stands as one of the most incredible feats of engineering in human history. By this description, I do not imply my enthusiasm. While parts of Chernobyl may soon be tour-ready—as is Hanford, to some extent, despite the ongoing (and seemingly endless) cleanup—there is much work to do to probe psyches, explore feelings, heal wounds. As one official put it, the tours at Chernobyl are the “opportunity to tell a story.”
A literary response to our nuclear forays and tragic missteps could probably be designated a sub-genre, and I have to wonder if anyone has collected all the titles that have been generated by survivors of war, downwinders, former production workers, displaced land owners, and the extended family tree of those like me who were not directly affected but who lived in the shadows of the nuclear industry.
We will be telling these stories for a very long time.