'The Apocalypse Factory'

‘The Apocalypse Factory’ is by Steve Olson.

Last August marked 75 years since the U.S. detonated two nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

The bombings brought an end to World War II but launched a new era of weaponry with the potential to eradicate civilization.

Seattle-based author Steve Olson covers the essential role that Washington state’s Hanford Site played in the war in his new book, “The Apocalypse Factory.”

Before the U.S was drawn into the war by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was made aware of Germany’s research into new warfare technologies involving nuclear fission.

According to one of Roosevelt’s advisors, “If a bomb were possible, if it turned out to have enormous power, the result in the hands of Hitler might enable him to enslave the world.”

Roosevelt understood that it was a life-or-death matter — he put American scientists to work in the race to translate emerging science on creating weapons using nuclear fission.

The American effort resulted in the discovery and harnessing of a new element — plutonium. In an endeavor that extended from a laboratory in Chicago, Illinois, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and a windswept plain along the banks of the Columbia River in eastern Washington — the top-secret Manhattan Project carried out a massive achievement that impacted the course of human history.

Olson tells this story in riveting detail — riveting, that is, except for about 30 chemistry-heavy pages early in the book that put this reader to sleep. Chemistry majors will be fascinated, I’m sure. For the rest of you — keep plowing through.

Olson introduces readers to the key academic, military, business and government players who sometimes butted heads but ultimately formed the team that led to the project’s success. He also brings in the perspective of farmers, who were forced to give up their land to the government for the project, and onsite laborers, who performed their daily work faithfully without being apprised of the monumental effort their work was supporting.

The book takes us overseas, too — to the little island of Tinian, the launching point for the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. And to Nagasaki — where the 13 pounds of plutonium that had been painstakingly manufactured at the Hanford plant in Washington was detonated, instantly wiping out hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and military personnel. Tens of thousands died later of radiation sickness.

Olson also takes readers to the Tri-Cities — Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, Washington — cities that grew up with the nuclear industry, where residents have raised concerns about the industry’s impacts on their health.

Finally, “The Apocalypse Factory” discusses the challenging clean-up efforts of radioactive waste at Hanford and the founding of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which has opened once top-secret facilities to the public.

This book uncovers a complex and fascinating chapter of American history.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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