Growing up in the shadow of Mt. Fuji

The UN nuclear arms conference began on Monday. The countdown to midnight has been moved forward again to 7 minutes to midnight, the same setting as when the clock debuted 55 years ago.

Picture on right: Hanford B reactor, source of the plutonium for Fatman. Source:

In 1960 I was three years old and we lived on a street called Blue in a government housing development that was a different kind of government housing development than what will immediately spring to most people’s minds. It was in the middle of an American desert that at that time not many Americans knew existed. The town we lived in was called Richland, located on the Columbia river in southeast Washington state.

As far as I knew, Richland was nestled in a state called paradise.


The Japanese transistor-culture had moved in and along with the portable pocket radios came western lamps and furnishings with pseudo-Japanese aesthetic. On the living room wall above the black and white tweed sofa was a print of a painting of Mt. Fuji framed in ebony and gold, gray volcano rising out of a wash of pink cloud and mist, a scene which to me complemented the lampshades of the slim black lamps on the paired white and ebony sofa endtables. The lampshades were double-tier and gave the appearance of parchment decorated with hills of seeming spare black and white brushstrokes converging and were probably not intended to be evocative of Asian art, but when I looked at them I saw Japan.

We moved to Seattle for about two and a half years. We lived in an apartment.


Then we lived in a house.

Seattle, the house, 710

Then we moved back to Richland.

I remember standing in the desert, some mornings when I was seven, at our place on Everest Street, looking toward the west horizon beyond which was the distant white cap of another volcano. Mt. Rainier. My second grade teacher’s name was also Rainier. Perhaps because it was omnipresent in Seattle, it felt to me like Mt. Rainier hovered over us, so strong was its presence. I collected large chunks of pumice up and down the Columbia river.


We still had the picture of Mt. Fuji only now it was hung above a Russian vase my mother had picked up in British Columbia.

Russian vase on Everest Street

By now I also had a little geisha doll in a glass case my father had bought as a souvenir for me at conference he’d attended in Japan to do with radiation issues. He had also returned with a kimono for my mother, hapi coats for us kids, and a picture book on Japan which I spent many hours perusing. The images were by Takeji Iwamiya and the book was published, I believe, by Bayer as a gift for conference attendees. At least that’s what it reads. Prepared and presented by Bayer.


Many years later, in the 1980s, my father went to Russia, with my mother and a sister of mine, as part of a conference for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

He also visited China, invited to give a talk in Bejing by an international organization referred to then mainly as People to People.


I love that picture.

I have now two nieces and two nephews adopted from China, and recent pictures of family standing atop the Great Wall.

In the 2005 news was an AP-IPSOS poll that appears to show most Americans don’t believe any country, including the U.S., should have nuclear weapons. The first paragraph concluded, “That sentiment is at odds with current efforts by some nations that are trying to develop the weapons and by terrorists seeking to add them to their arsenal.”

The article then revealed how older Americans are more likely to approve of the use of The Bomb against Japan at the end of WWII. It talked about the problems of Korea and nukes and old nuclear material scattered across the countries of the old USSR and the worry of terrorists using a nuke of some type but that most people aren’t losing any sleep over the issue. It’s not a nail-biter for most.

It said,

The Bush administration repeatedly warns about nuclear weapons and is using diplomacy – and force – to try to limit the threat.

I thought it interesting what wasn’t mentioned in the article.

The article said nothing about the funding the Bush administration is seeking for their “Bunker Buster”, a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) that the White House hopes to start field testing next year.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reported in 2002,

A US decision to develop new nuclear earth-penetrating weapons would have several negative political implications internationally. First, such weapons are explicitly designed to be more “usable” and to be used in what would otherwise be a non-nuclear conflict. As a result, they blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and lower the threshold for nuclear use. Second, by contravening US pledges under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) not to target non-nuclear weapon states with nuclear weapons, such weapons undermine the non-proliferation regime.

In the meanwhile, a $9 million project is underway involving a redesign of new nuclear warheads.

The Arms Control Association states,

The existing stockpile is safe and reliable by all standards, so to design a new warhead that is even more robust is a redundant activity that could be a pretext for designing a weapon that has a new military mission.”
This is the crux of the matter – that the Bush administration seems to have found a way of circumventing Congress’s decision to cut funding for what were clearly intended to be major new nuclear weapons programmes.

But back to idyllic childhood kingdom.

Beyond the neatly plotted streets of “Our Town” was easily spied the sheep ranching and farming heritage of the area that, in 1942–after review of various locations with requisite hydroelectric power, isolation and a long construction season–was elected by the Masters of the Manhattan Project for what would become the Hanford Engineer Works. Code name, Site W.

Even in the late 50s and 60s, when I was a child in Richland, the sense of secrecy persisted. My father…


…a radiation research scientist whose field was bioengineering, went out every morning to catch the bus that delivered him to Hanford and in the evening returned him to our peculiar neighborhood which existed only because of Fat Man and Little Boy. During WWII all the employees at Hanford had fake job titles. If a stranger sat beside them on the bus and asked what their work was they each had pre-determined occupations to give, shoe repairman etc. So I heard. So I was told. Richland was past that stage by the time we were there, but I have read that for up to 50 years after Fat Man people didn’t begin to speak about their roles at Hanford. One didn’t feel comfortable asking what the parents of others did for a living. At least I didn’t. There was no question of dropping by to see where dad worked. You couldn’t. I would spend my days thinking about how when Russia dropped The Bomb on us my dad would be at Hanford and I would be at school and my mother and siblings would be at home–and who would survive in what fallout shelter?

I remember one time driving through the Hanford Reservation and past the reactors. Finally, there they were, the source of so much fear in my life. They seemed a strange, alien grafting into the vast, surrounding desert. Fascinating and horrible. Terrifying.

The desert wanted nothing to do with them.

Where Hanford was located were sites which had been traditionally used for spirit quests among the American Indian Nations of the area. It was at Rattlesnake Mountain that Smohalla received his vision of Washani practices. With the instutition of the Hanford Project, the area of course was closed off entirely to Indian access.

These are the Horse Heaven Hills where large bands of wild horses once roamed. When I was a child, playing daily in the desert with the hills and Rattlesnake Mountain on the near horizon, they exerted a powerful influence. I had the idea that it was at Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Mountain that the spirits of the area resided. I envisioned the Hills in the morning covered with ghostly horses which disappeared into the mist as soon as Anglo-European civilization came into sight at dawn. I imagined skeletal remains of horses here and there on the Hills as being the only clue to their sacredness during the daylight hours. I imagined over the Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Mountain the Ancient Spirits of the area still watched. I recall drawing once a picture of it all after I woke up from a dream in which I had seen them all on the Hills, had seen them disappear at dawn. The area had been covered with desert flowers.

Temporary quarters for more than 45,000 construction workers had to be established at Hanford. In Richland, permanent facilities for other personnel were built “safely removed from the production and separation plants”. By the summer of 1944, Hanford’s population was 50,000.

All the private property in Richland was acquired through condemnation.

The suburban ideal of Richland, its plotting and architecture, had its roots in Ebenzer Howards’ late 19th century Garden City concepts and the “communitarian” experiments of the 1930s. The initial plan was for 6500 residents which was intended to expand to 12,000, then ended up being 16,000. The architect, Swedish-born Gustave Albin Pehrson, had to provide the plans and specifications for the initial duplex type design of housing in one week, the remainder to be supplied within two and a half months. Construction began in April of 1943. The architect was Swedish-born Gustave Albin Pehrson.

I can say that in its post WWII days, when we were there, the haste and extra-social/class manner in which the Village was erected could still be felt throughout.

The reason for the location of the site was not divulged, although the specifications precluded the possibility of locating the work near any existing town of a size sufficient to accommodate the people required…the planners could not weigh any of the sociological or ecological factors involved. Under the circumstances, they were without information as to the anticipated future use, ownership, administration, economic or industrial base of the village, or the probable population shifts after the war. In the actual laying out of the site, therefore, many important decisions were deferred to those with more thorough understanding of the scope and objectives of the project.

This is the reason, I imagine, for there being so little in Richland, in the 60s, which was a clear demarcation of social class.

In addition to these factors, G.A. Pehrson was simultaneously pressured by DuPont to provide good quality housing for their employees and by the military for an economical approach that would provide only the most basic and minimal forms of housing. Debates ensued regarding the inclusion and utility of basements, fireplaces and enclosed porches and brought about frustration and ultimately compromise for both Pehrson as well as DuPont officials.

In other words, the barest minimum. What resulted was comfortable but was also small, boxy, entirely utilitarian with almost no ornamental detailing. The layout of the village endeavored some harmony with the terrain to the extent that they attempted to follow existing land contours and to preserve the few existing shade trees and orchards. There were many open spaces and common areas. The streets were oriented on a curvilinear system and designed to accommodate the Hanford buses and the commercial areas of the village. The commercial and residential areas were separated and because Richland was a small as it was it worked, for foot and bicycle traffic was easy and the streets were lined with spacious sidewalks. In a short ten minutes or so, as a child, I could bicycle anywhere.

There were initially 8 basic housing types, all wood frame. First there were duplexes and then single family homes. “The intent was to achieve a mixture of income levels in each of the neighborhood districts. Despite these intentions, specifications called for higher cost houses to be given more favorable locations, concentrated in the district nearest the Columbia River. Indeed, the majority of the duplexes were concentrated in the western portion of the town, with a greater number of single family homes located east of the old County Road (now George Washington Way), and nearer to the river.”

Which is true. Those with more money lived near the Columbia River. But Perhson’s ideal was clearly evident in the village and I suppose is a reason why the places we moved to subsequent Richland were all strange to me with their clear social/class distinctions evident in neighborhood location, materials and ornamental accoutrements.

G.A. Perhson stated: “High morale cannot be achieved by crowding skilled and veteran workers into inadequate dwellings. Neither can it be predicated upon salary, position or caste distinction. No village can eliminate such distinctions entirely for it is the .American tradition to aspire to executive status and where such men locate will undoubtedly be considered favored territory; but in so far as the planners could arrange these matters, all types of houses were scattered throughout the project.”

The creation of the Village had been one of the largest undertakings of its kind and, after the war, its sale was reported as the largest single-package real estate transaction in US history.

Left: Fat Man and Little Boy[clear]

The plutonium used for the Fat Man bomb was produced at Hanford. Its testing was code named Trinity, at Alamogordo Bombing Range south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the test that ushered in the nuclear age. 16 July 1945.

Left: Trinity. Image from the web[clear]

Fat Man destroyed Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 . it is said that 22,000 died the first day and another 17,000 in the following four months.

Left: The Nagasaki cloud. Image from the web[clear]

Left: Nagasaki several days before. Image from the web.[clear]

Left: Nagasaki several days after. Image from the web.[clear]

In 1953, a report by the US Strategic Bombing Survey put the number of deaths at 35,000, wounded at 60,000 and 5,000 missing. In 1960, the Japanese put the number of dead at Nagasaki at 20,000 and the number of wounded at 50,000. Later, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the figure for deaths alone at 87,000 with 70% of the city’s industrial zone destroyed.


This is the Avalon Project’s report on Nagasaki. The report breaks it down into the number of deaths per square mile, from 25,000 per square mile within the first 1640 feet of the blast to 20 per square mile at 6550 to 9850 feet.

This is Nagasaki Journey. The photographs of Yosuke Yamahata.

Here is the Safeway which I passed daily on my walk to school down George Washington Road in Richland.

This is, I believe, the old movie house where I saw “The Sound of Music”.

This is the Catholic Church we attended.

When I was eight years of age scientists rolled their white trailers onto our schoolyard. We were sent home with a white sheet on which we were to list certain area foods that we consumed and how much. They were primarily interested in dairy products, though also produce consumed which was from the area. At the end of that period, classroom by classroom, child by child, we were each taken to one of the trailers and placed on the flatbed of the device that would measure the amount of radiation our bodies may have absorbed from area products.

It was a slow process. The trailers sat in the schoolyard for weeks, maybe several months We played around them. Lying on the flatbed and moving through the great body of the machine was eerie.

From the “Bomber Memories” forum

L —– ——-(77)
Like J—- H— (77), I recall the “Whole Body Counter” trailer. Does anyone remember keeping track of our diets for a week or two prior to the test in 4th or 5th grade at Jason Lee? I do wonder about the results of the study, since a few of the original elementary school group were recalled later at Chief Jo and RHS. I seem to remember D— G—- and I being pulled out of Mrs. Bishop’s algebra class in 7th grade at Chief Jo and perhaps again in my sophomore year at RHS. I do remember going through the tube really slowly and there were lots of little clicking noises. In junior high and high school, I don’t remember any advance notice, explanation or consent forms. The whole thing was strange… I explained it to some friends at a dinner party once and was accused of telling a story.

M —– ——– (77)
To JH (77) Not only do I remember the whole body counter that came to school – I still have the “Certificate of Appreciation” that they gave me afterwards. I just dug it out of my old scrapbook, and it states: “Battelle Northwest expresses appreciation to Marjorie ——– for contributing to the study of influence of diet on radioactivity in people.” It is dated October 4, 1966 (which was second grade for us), and has a sketch of the “mobile laboratory” on it. As I recall, I didn’t have a clue as to what it was all about at the time, but I was certainly impressed by the certificate!

P—- R—- (71)
My dad, Bill R—-, is the one who “invented” the Whole Body Counter. I remember, early on, that my mother and sisters (Carol ’68, Judy ’75) and I were “guinea pigs” as it was being built. At first, it was the size of a small room. By the time I was in high school (’71), it fit in the back of a semi. The purpose of the WBC was to measure the kinds and amounts of radiation emitted by the body, both natural and from contamination. It was used in Alaska, found the trace amounts of radiation that found their way through the food chain into the
Eskimo bellies.


I forget how long it took for us each to be run through the counters but it seemed a long while.

I had the same experience as one of the above individuals as far as telling people about the whole body counter and having them look at me like I was making it up. It would create a queer hostile vibe when I’d talk about Hanford, especially around conservatives, people with great faith in government. I’d have the feeling I could give shown them wall-size pictures and they would still decide I had to be lying.

In 1990 a group working against The Bomb and reactors came knocking on my door building public awareness and wanting support. The two men started their spiel. They mentioned Hanford. When I told them I knew a bit about these things, that I was from Hanford/Richland and my father had been a scientist at Hanford, they said they were sorry and backed off my porch in a way that made me feel as uncomfortable with their reaction as I was with the reaction from conservatives. I was telling them that I was interested in what they were doing and they were all eager to give me more information, then I told them about being from Hanford and the next second they were backing off from me like I’d just popped up out of a coffin, shaking their heads, saying they were sorry to hear I was from the area, and then they were gone. It was a very short conversation. Maybe it spooked them that my father had worked at Hanford.

Whole Body Counter – The basis of the design was the research of Palmer and Roesch at the Hanford Laboratories

My father was researching the effect of low level radiation on miniature livestock at Hanford but didn’t know about this test. Years later, when I described the machines to him, he conceded yes that would have been what they were testing for as he was also involved in early construction design of these devices, which can only use steel minted before WWII as after WWII all such metal is contaminated with radiation that throws off the readings. So these machines were often times made of metal used for WWII ships.

Daily, at school, I would stare out the window and wait for the flash of light that would mean the bomb had arrived. We monthly had drills. The sirens in the town would go off. We filed out into the school’s main hallway and lay down on the floor, hands over our heads, and the great metal doors would slowly, automatically slide shut leaving us in absolute dark.


When I moved down south to the nation’s other plutonium reactor, at the Savannah River Plant near Augusta, and our bomb drill consisted of us getting under our desks, I wondered at the primitive measures, their ass-backwardness, and their trust in god and government.

So many people are worried about what other countries can do to us. I have always been worried about what we have done to ourselves. Studies now report radioactive bioaccumulation in clams along the Hanford beach. Radioactive tumbleweeds blow around Hanford. There is increasing radioactivity under the Hanford Reach, vital salmon spawning grounds in nature.

Like milk?

You may have been exposed to radiation released from Hanford if you lived in certain areas of Washington, Oregon or Idaho between 1944 and 1972. This does not mean that radiation harmed the health of everyone living in these areas. It does mean that you may be more at risk for health problems related to radiation than people who did not live in these areas…According to HEDR, the main way people were exposed to radiation released to the air was through drinking contaminated milk.The map also includes counties along the Columbia River downstream from Hanford. People were exposed to radioactive material through use of the river or from consuming contaminated food from the river and adjacent Pacific coastal areas.

When we lived on Everest Street in Richland, milk still delivered in glass bottles by the milkman. In the winter the glass bottles would be freezing cold when you went to get them. As children, we drank a lot of milk. Good for you. And ours perhaps was good as it was not milk from “downwind”.

1986. After almost 40 years of cover-ups, the U.S. Government released 19,000 pages of previously classified documents which revealed that the Hanford Engineer Works was responsible for the release of significant amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the adjacent Columbia River. Between 1944 and 1966, the eight reactors, a source of plutonium production for atomic weapons, discharged billions of gallons of liquids and billions of cubic meters of gases containing plutonium and other radioactive contaminants into the Columbia River, and the soil and air of the Columbia Basin. Although detrimental effects were noticed as early as 1948, all reports critical of the facilities remained classified. By the summer of 1987, the cost of cleaning up Hanford was estimated to be $48.5 billion. The Technical Steering Panel of the government-sponsored Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project released the following statistics in July 1990: Of the 270,000 people living in the affected area, most received low doses of radiation from Iodine, but about 13,500 received a total dose some 1,300 times the annual amount of airborne radiation considered safe for civilians by the Department of Energy. Approximately 1,200 children received doses far in excess of this number, and many more received additional doses from contaminants other than Iodine.


The Savannah River Plant had its own cover-ups.

1988. The National Research Council panel released a report listing 30 “significant unreported incidents” at the Savannah River production plants over the previous 30 years. As at Hanford (see 1986), ground water contamination resulted from pushing production of radioactive materials past safe limits at this weapons complex. In January 1989, scientists discovered a fault running under the entire site through which contaminants reached the underground aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the southeast. Turtles in nearby ponds were found to contain radioactive strontium of up to 1,000 times the normal background level.

Some while back I drove through Richland with my husband. We visited the first house I’d lived in.


We visited the second house I’d lived in, which looked the same as when my brother and his wife visited it at about the same time.

House on Everest

We visited the third house in which I’d lived.


It looked much the same, only smaller, because I was bigger.


I went to the graveyard to look for the graves of the twin brothers that my mother lost in Richland, when I was about 18 months old, during a period of time when there was a reported rise of miscarriages and infant mortality in the area.

The Bellingham Herald
May 11, 1997 pg. B 1
3 new Hanford studies started

RICHLAND-Three new studies of the health effects of radiation releases from Hanford nuclear reservation—including a look at the deaths of 4,000 babies and fetuses—have been authorized by the federal government.

The studies stem from radiation releases from Hanford between 1944 and the early 1970s, the major years of plutonium production there.

The Hanford Health Effects Subcommittee, a group of state, Indian and public interests, was briefed about the studies last week.

Scientists have said children were at special risk of radiation exposure because they drank a lot of milk from cows that fed on contaminated grass.

The new studies are separate from a continuing study of 3,200 down-wind residents to see if exposure to the Iodine-131 can be linked to thyroid cancer.


A lot had changed and not much at all had changed. The desert was more pristine when I was a child. A lot of the open areas in the town had been built up it seemed or hemmed in and belabored with fences and trash. The sense of space was gone, of Richland having an unhindered intimacy with the desert. When I had been a child the desert was my backyard. Daily, for hours and hours, I would roam in it. A huge meditation garden. With snakes. Rattlesnakes. But I was careful. Every so often a rattler would wander into the street and be run over by a car.

It would get so hot in the summer that the tar on the streets would melt and spray your legs as you rode your bike.

I had been hoping my husband might witness a good sandstorm, but the weather was clear, sunny, many people jogging. Then when we stopped at the Columbia River Park, as I stood looking out over the broad river, the weather began to change. The winds gathered force. The temperature plummeted. The sandstorm came rolling in as we drove out of town. Which is the way of sandstorms. One moment the weather is brilliant and the next it is rolling dark and you fight to stay on your feet, pummeled with stinging grit seeking out mouth and eyes and nose.

As I mentioned earlier, when I was seven my father went to a conference to do with radiation in Japan and returned with a small glass-case enclosed geisha doll for me, which of course didn’t survive childhood and younger siblings, but I have kept to this day the book he brought back. I used to try to study Japanese, hoping I’d one day go to Japan, and consumed a great deal of Japanese literature. I have long since dropped attempting to learn the language and retain no knowledge of it.

I love the desert and sometimes think I would like to live in it again. I try to imagine the west as it was before the arrival of the tumbleweed, native to the Ural Mountains, which was first reported in the US in 1877 in South Dakota, carried in perhaps with flax seed imported by Ukrainian farmers. It took less than twenty-five years to reach the Pacific Coast.

8 Replies to “Growing up in the shadow of Mt. Fuji”

  1. Many of our actual military men (excluding of course Curtis LeMay) believed not only that our use of the atomic bomb was immoral, but militarily useless. Admiral William Leahy wrote: “…use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . . we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. ”
    Eisenhower said,”it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Unfotunately he didn’t say that until 1963.
    I wonder if such statements are excluded from school textbooks today?I’ll bet they are.

    Excellent post.

  2. Curtis Lemay. What a nut job. Murderous nut job. But also a nut job. And I guess just the kind of a guy the US wanted around doing the dirty work or else he wouldn’t have been in the position he was in.

  3. What a trip, in all respects. My grandfather worked on the railroad hauling freight over the Cascade Mountains from Pasco where my grandmother was a cook at the rail station. Before the dams, I used to watch Yakama Indians dipnet salmon from platforms along Hanford Reach. Later I watched thousands of Canadian geese lift off the river over the White Bluffs at dawn. In high school, we’d park on top of Jump Off Joe at night and smoke pot looking out at the lights and stars that went on forever.

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