In 1943, as World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, thousands of men and women from across the United States began arriving in a remote part of south-central Washington state. They knew very little about why the U.S. government had hired them—only that it was an important project to support the war effort. It was a project that would change the world forever. Hanford Engineering Works, as it was called, was one of three major components in the top-secret Manhattan Project—the project to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. A flurry of scientific discoveries had fueled the race to build this ultimate weapon of war. In the late 1930s two German scientists had shocked the world by fissioning—or splitting—the nucleus of a uranium atom.
Scientists worldwide began speculating if they could harness this new kind of energy. And in 1941 a new discovery brought the prospect of a nuclear weapon closer. An American chemist identified a new man-made element called plutonium. Like uranium, plutonium could possibly be used as fuel for a nuclear bomb.
The Hanford site was selected as the place to build the massive plant needed to manufacture plutonium on an industrial scale. The task seemed impossible: build the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactors and hundreds of other buildings that would be needed. The project was all based on scientific theory. No one knew exactly how to do this or if the project would succeed because it had never been done before.
The pressure to succeed was intense. As nuclear chemist Manfred Lindner says in the documentary, “If the Germans get the nuclear explosive first, they win the war. If we get it first, we win. And everybody knew what was at stake.”
On August 9, 1945 a bomb armed with plutonium made in Hanford exploded over Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II. After the war ended many people thought Hanford would just close down. But in the late 1940s the Cold War began. And Hanford got bigger as America began stockpiling a nuclear arsenal.
Shot on location, this program tells the story of the early history of Hanford largely through the words of people who worked there during World War II and during Hanford’s expansion during the Cold War. Viewers will also see early archival film shot at Hanford and remarkable photographs taken over the years. In addition, viewers will go inside B-reactor—the first full-scale nuclear reactor in the world, now being preserved as a National Historic Landmark.