Steve Olson

Surviving the Apocalypse Factories

Air Date: February 28, 2022

Author Steve Olson discusses the Manhattan Project and the future of nuclear weapons, and their relevance to the pandemic.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today. He’s an author of “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium, and the Making of the Atomic Age” and a seasoned and celebrated science chronicler and journalist. Steve Olson, a pleasure to see you today. Thanks so much for being on the program.


OLSEN: Thanks. Good to be here.


HEFFNER: Steve, let me ask you about when you first wrote this book and kind of your sense of the public reception to it. I’m interested always in authors, what they learn after the book’s been published, from readers, and also anything that’s going on in the world, like the pandemic or, you know, new developments in nuclear technology that have at all changed the way you interpret or make your thesis about the book.


OLSEN: Well, this book was interesting in that lots of books had been published about the Manhattan Project ever since the end of World War II. But this was a part of the Manhattan Project that really had not been discussed in a popular book, the production and operations of the Hanford Nuclear Plant in Eastern Washington State. So one interesting reaction I’ve had since the book was out, is that people are curious to have learned about the place. They say I thought I knew everything about the Manhattan Project, but I knew very little about Hanford and I learned a lot of new things from your book.


HEFFNER: And give our viewers and listeners an overview of what you reported from that lesser-known site of the Manhattan Project.


OLSEN: Right. Hanford is a place in Eastern Washington State. So I live in Seattle now. But I grew up on the eastern half of the state. It’s dry desert country, sort of wheat farming, cattle ranching type of country. And in 1942, it was decided that it would be the perfect place to put a facility to make plutonium, which had been discovered, a new element that had been discovered just less than a year earlier, actually, because it was realized that plutonium could be used to make atomic bombs. One of the great advantages about the site that was chosen was that it was far enough away from any cities that if the nuclear reactors that are required to make plutonium were to explode, it wouldn’t kill too many people; might have killed a lot of people in the small town where I grew up, but that never did happen. The other thing about it is that it was just the middle of nowhere. That’s certainly what I felt is I was growing up. I was desperate to get out of that small town because it seemed to me like the end of the world. And, and that was one of the reasons people knew so little about Hanford, because it’s such an isolated part of the country, relatively difficult to get to. And the other aspect of it was that it was super top secret throughout the Cold War. And so until the end of the Cold War, really in the eighties and nineties, very little information was known about Hanford. The people in my town, just 15 miles away from the nearest, I knew virtually nothing about what went on in Hanford.


HEFFNER: One of the things that’s interesting when we think of the climate of your book, culturally, and politically is, and to hear you say, you know, folks just didn’t have any idea of what was going on next door. I mean, it was little known. I wonder in the whole conception of the Manhattan Project and how it operated, if it could even be possible today. Just on the, you know, I wonder if that thought ever occurs to you surely there, there are surreptitious and secretive projects that are undertaken by our government. But it just seems like it would be, would’ve been a challenge to keep the public calm if they knew that was going on in, you know, the neighboring zip code.


OLSON: You know, that’s a very interesting question and I hadn’t really thought about it, whether or not it would be possible to do the Manhattan Project today. The Manhattan Project took remarkably little time. They built the first large-scale nuclear reactor at Hanford in 11 months from groundbreaking until Enrico Fermi came to Hanford to start up that reactor making plutonium. When you go visit it today and you still can, because it’s part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, or at least you’ll be able to visit it after the pandemic is over. It’s just remarkable that this incredible machine, using a brand-new technology that had never been used before, could have been produced so quickly. I mean, it really shows you what engineers and scientists working together under circumstances of a national emergency can get done if they feel it’s necessary to do so. And that, and that’s what people thought at the time. They needed to build atomic bombs, to beat the Germans who had an atomic bomb. And that was why the Manhattan Project and Hanford in particular were started.


HEFFNER: When we think of, you know, everything that came after the Manhattan Project in terms of how the war ended, you know, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then this age that we’ve lived in primarily of nuclear deterrence, since then, in that there haven’t been any known large-scale you know, or any nuclear and certainly no large-scale chemical weapons deployed. Did folks who were involved in the project have this this kind of plan that, or maybe it wasn’t a plan, but it was just kind of a hope that this would be deployed once and never again?


OLSON: They did. And it relates to the situation that we find ourselves in today, because even though people tend to forget about the fact that these nuclear weapons were developed, I mean they remain capable of destroying human civilization in an afternoon. And people are focused on the threats posed by climate change. And undoubtedly climate change is going to be a huge threat, but that’s over decades. And people forget that that even a small-scale nuclear war could cause incredible devastation and any larger nuclear war could really end human civilization. And it could be done because of an accident, because of tensions that are building elsewhere in the world. It is the case that the scientists of the Manhattan Project thought that they would produce atomic bombs and that they would therefore demonstrate that war was inconceivable, that the price of war was now going to be too high, and no nation would ever consider it. Instead, we still have thousands of nuclear weapons that are aimed at each other. I mean, I live here in Seattle and 20 miles northwest of here is the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. The submarine base, the west coast submarine base out of which our nuclear weapons on submarines sail. And there are more than a thousand nuclear weapons within 20 miles of Seattle. And certainly we would be a major target in any war. None of this area would survive. If a nuclear war were to start between the United States and Russia.


HEFFNER: You’re mentioning this as Russia is contemplating invasion of Ukraine, intervention in Ukraine. And we are sort of reminded of these things occasionally, right, when North Korea sets off some tests or when new nuclear development sites are discovered in China. But as we discussed with Vipin Narang when I hosted him not so long ago, it’s largely a quiet discussion that takes place you know, in a very calm and serene way, not with any real practical fear of civilization being destroyed on an afternoon, as you put it. And so it, you know, and again, I wondered what your research for the book and the development of the Manhattan Project, if at all, it prepared us for this this kind of culture of knowing this exists, but not living in fear of the demise of civilization. You know, the people who were working closest to the plutonium and closest the nukes as we come to know them today you know, they must have had a kind of psychological attachment to this problem that we can’t even fathom because we’re so psychologically detached from any conception that it is a problem.


OLSON: You know, you’re right that it is a quiet conversation, and it’s still carried out in many ways in secrecy, so that people tend not to learn much about what’s actually happening with our nuclear weapons program, sort of leftovers of the, of the Cold War. And yet it’s incredibly expensive. The United States is spending more than a trillion dollars modernizing its nuclear weapons as are all the other nuclear weapons nations in the world, spending fantastic sums of money that could go to the many other needs that we have right now on weapons that can really never be used. I mean, in some ways mutually assured destruction was an idea that people said in, during the cold war was ridiculous, in that the idea was to keep another nation from ever using nuclear weapons. We’re in the same circumstance today, of course. It hasn’t changed. We cannot use these weapons and yet we’re spending scare national resources building better ones that could be easier to use. So really, really things have not changed that much since the end of the cold war especially as China starts to increase the size of its arsenal. And as Russia makes similar investments in advanced and more modern nuclear weapons just as we’re doing.


HEFFNER: Yeah. And as you say that Steve it’s, you know, again, it’s another example of public policy that’s so far askew from what we practically could do to lift up the quality of life, or to improve, you know, geopolitical tensions. And so it’s kind of like building a bridge to nowhere. I mean, the bridge of the Manhattan Project, that was a vital bridge. That was a transcontinental Intercontinental railroad. And now the stockpiles, you know, are amassed for some, you know, some dystopian scenario, but I suppose with this current pandemic, and I know you and I both have had a lot of delays and, you know, recognize just how much the pandemic has affected work and communicating with the public and sharing a message about nuclear technology or about history. You know, I just, I wonder well maybe it’s, you know, the stockpiles that are building of nuclear materials in this country and haven been in recent years are really preparing for something that actually may happen. It’s just a matter of when. It’s a matter of whether it will happen in our lifetimes or whether the effect of climate change or climate disasters will preempt any kind of nuclear use, nuclear technology use. And of course there are nuclear energy sites that are used daily, but I’m talking about for the purposes of war. Where do you come out at that now? I mean has the pandemic at all changed your calculus about whether or not nuclear weapons could be used in our lifetimes or our children, or grandchildren’s lifetimes?


OLSON: At the end of the book I talk about the fact that even if something has a small percentage of occurring, whether it’s pandemics or the use of nuclear weapons, if you go long enough, like a century in the case of pandemics, that thing is likely to occur. Even if at any given moment, it is unlikely to occur. And that’s certainly the case with nuclear weapons, that whether by mistake or by a miscalculation on the battlefield, or some sort of escalation from conventional war to nuclear war, one weapon is used, these weapons are set up in such a way to deter attack, meaning that they would be used, that more nuclear weapons would be used if any one nuclear weapon were used, whether by mistake or on purpose. And things can just rapidly escalate. And as soon as they do, enough destruction occurs immediately along with the consequences of all the smoke and ash that would be lofted in the atmosphere and pretty much shut down agriculture for a decade, which is why you can talk about the fact that even people not killed immediately by nuclear weapons would suffer immensely in the years to come.


So yes, just as the pandemic reminded us that these things that have a small probability of happening can have major consequences, that’s exactly the situation with the pandemic. You know, I wrote previously about the eruption of Mount St. Helens here in Washington State in 1980, another event that had very low, very, very low possibility of happening, a massive eruption and massive explosion likely to have occurred. But when it did occur, it had very high consequences for the people that were around the mountain that morning, same, same thing.


HEFFNER: And I don’t say with any pleasure that the great influenza, the Spanish flu was 1918, COVID-19 really started in ‘19 and has accelerated in ’20, ‘21, ‘22. We know the days that will live in infamy in 1940 in the 1940s. And, you know, and I don’t know, but the 2040s are not that far away. And I mean, you point out that, you know, history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes, as the great Twain said. And we better count on it rhyming, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2045, but I don’t think I want to know.


OLSON: Well, you know, the end of World War II, there was a major effort to try to control the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. It didn’t work out at that time, but the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is now in effect. It went into effect last year. The goal of that treaty is to gradually cut down the number of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate them from the earth. There are ways of doing it. There are plans of doing it. In some ways it’s a simpler problem than climate change. You have these 13,000 pieces of metal around the world, which are under the control of nine men, essentially. If enough minds can be changed, those 13,000 pieces of metal could be eliminated. And we would no longer have these threats hanging over our head all the time.


HEFFNER: Well said. I’m glad you take an at least articulate an optimistic vision for what could transpire in these decades to come. But how much of the grievance and the appropriate grievance of the atomic bomb dropped on Japan and, you know, the memory of that historically, and considering the deaths and the victims of that over many years, and also the psychological, if you will, the impact on the Manhattan Project participants, the veterans of that. And I’m wondering if that memorialization, that kind of history has lived on, because once again, I just don’t see it in those quiet of conversations, even if they’re quiet, I don’t think they’re historically contextualized. And of course, the attitudes of the scientists’ post Hiroshima and Nagasaki is different than the attitude of Harry Truman, for instance, President Truman, at least what we know publicly. We don’t know what he said privately. But I just, I don’t have the sense that we are living with either version of that history anymore. We’re just kind of…


OLSON: Well, you know, this is an issue that came up. It’s really interesting. It came up during the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which is only seven or eight years old at this point. It’s relatively recent legislation and many aspects of the park have not been put together. So people, for instance, come from Japan to tour the reactor in which the plutonium was made for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. All of our current nuclear weapons have plutonium that was made at Hanford inside them. And they ask questions. They say, what is the purpose of this national park? Is it to commemorate the brilliant achievement of the Manhattan Project, the speed with which this new technology was developed and then use to build these bombs? Or is it a way people to reflect on the fact that these bombs are still there, and of the immense devastation that they cause? And that’s a problem that currently is sort of in the laps of the National Park Service, which has to figure out how to present these three sites while doing justice to the many different viewpoints that surround these parks. Another issue that comes up in the content of Hanford is the amount of radiation that was released in towns like mine, and the number of people who suffer from health consequences that could very well be related to the radiation that they received from those places. The lives of those people need to be acknowledged in these national parks as well. So it is a complicated and historically intricate issue that is going to have to work. It’ll take a number of years to work itself out.


HEFFNER: Just as we have saw the, the speculation at first, but then the kind of logical deduction that COVID 19 may have been the result of a lab escape, not necessarily a lab manipulation, but it leads me to your subject, Steve, because I think of, you mentioned nine men, and that number has grown over the course of recent human history, the number of presidents or prime ministers, or defense secretaries who are overseeing the stockpile of these weapons.


But I wonder if at all, you relate to this question of, of who’s, who’s protecting our high security or highest security labs where there are things like COVID that were potentially being studied, And, where does that, that leave us with respect to not just the nuclear weapons and plutonium in this country but around the world, the security of the nuclear arsenals?


OLSON: Yes, these facilities are run by human beings and human beings certainly make mistakes. And the consequences for those mistakes can be dire. But, you know, I also think about the history of the Manhattan Project, the fact that that in three years, the scientists and engineers of this country were able to do something that, it really just defies belief that they were able to separate uranium and make it into these bombs, develop plutonium and make it into these bombs. They did so with relatively few injuries or accidents during that time. And there were no major mishaps, no unplanned mishaps over the course of the Manhattan Project. And when you go to a facility like Hanford, where so many things had to go right for that facility to work and to produce the materials that went into this atomic bomb. I mean on the flight to deliver the bomb Nagasaki was actually the secondary target for the bomb and that flight almost failed three or four or five different ways after they took off from Tinian Island and were headed toward Nagasaki, just everything possible, went wrong.


And yet the intelligence and problem-solving ability of the people who were on that flight resulted in a successful mission in the same way that the Manhattan Project ultimately succeeded in its endeavor to build these atomic bombs.




OLSON: So you can take a message from that, that you know, human beings are capable of some remarkable technical achievements when they put their mind to it and are focused on a goal and, and don’t lose sight of that goal. And, that’s, you know, I could just hope that that attitude would, would prevail on a lot of other technological projects that we’ll need to undertake in the next few decades.


HEFFNER: Right. And on the stage of national security, it reminds me of the Bin Laden raid, not that that nukes are, you know, that they’re analogous at the same level of destruction, but that a lot went wrong, but nevertheless, the U.S. completed its mission under President Obama. Let me ask you this as we close in the minutes we have left, there was the hope that Operation Warp Speed was going to be sort of a contemporary, but very public Manhattan Project in the way that the vaccines were going to be created and delivered to minimize the damage of COVID and, to, you know, in effect end the pandemic. That hasn’t happened. And some of, at least modern science doesn’t have a single answer. They point to the fact that Americans are, you know, in a country where vaccination rates are not very high.


But there are countries with high vaccination rates and, you know, with omicron there continue to be breakthrough infections, a whole lot of infections. It’s clear the vaccine helps you from, from becoming infected or having a symptomatic case in which you’re hospitalized. So it, there’s no doubt based on the science, that there is an advantage to being vaccinated to prevent you from being hospitalized or from dying from COVID. However, the way that that Operation Warp Speed was advertised and the way that the vaccines were advertised suggested more of a magic bullet. So just as a very accomplished science observer you know, who’s been impacted by the pandemic. What is your sense of, you know, whether we’re still waiting for the right medicine to arrive, and it might not be the Pfizer oral pills. It might be. It might be a patch that scientists are developing where you put it on like a nicotine patch and it gives you antibodies, an injection that one single, or, you know, injection couldn’t give you or three. But is your sense that we’re not beating COVID because people aren’t getting vaccinated or boosted, or because we just don’t have the far enough advanced therapeutics and vaccines yet?


OLSON: You know, I hadn’t thought about the analogy until you asked your question, but I’ve realized that they’re, they are kind of analogous situations. Scientists thought that they had the magic bullet, which was nuclear weapons that were going to end all war because nuclear weapons would be too horrific to use. Instead for the past 75 plus years, we’ve had to learn to live with nuclear weapons and there, so there are some parallels with what’s going on with COVID, right. We we’d hoped that the vaccine would be this magic bullet that would end the pandemic for us forever. Instead, we’re learning that we may very well have to live with COVID for the foreseeable future. Now, there is a way to get rid of the nuclear threat that we have, and that’s to eliminate nuclear weapons, and that’s as much a political issue as it is a scientific or a technical issue.


And though the science and technology will be involved in bringing this pandemic to a close, as I always remind my friends and my wife, I mean, all pandemics in history have come to an end and we’re not going to have to live under these circumstances forever. But it is appearing as if COVID is going to be around.


HEFFNER: Yeah. I mean, even if it was the most impeccably timed vaccine, you know, and everyone got vaccinated three weeks later, everyone got vaccinated again. I mean, I’m speculating about that, but that just wouldn’t have been feasible in most scenarios of having it timed in a way that would mitigate the virus, I mean once the genie was out of the bottle, it was. And,  I’m, I’m glad sort of, you see the relevance of the question because, it raises for the public a challenge to science now, you know, because the mRNA, you know, was described as revolutionary, it may well be revolutionary.


OLSON: It is still being developed, these mRNA vaccines, and I know that they offer tremendous promise for the future. As I was mentioning, these scientific solutions always have their social and political and economic dimensions, and this one does as well. We could come up with the best vaccine in the world yet, if for some reason, people are unwilling to take the vaccine and offer a way for a virus to spread, that is still going to happen. So, placing all of our faith in science to come up with these answers is probably a bit misguided in the end. It’s going to have to be a broader.


HEFFNER: Right. And, and just as in the context of the Apocalypse Factory, we have to close down shop, or at least incrementally close down shop if we want to avert the apocalypse because those factories are still churning up a lot of nuclear fissile material every day, as, as you document, Steve Olson, author of “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age.” Thank you so much for your time today.


OLSEN: Thank you.


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