RICHLAND, Wash. — The workers inside Hanford’s nuclear reactors in the early 1940s knew their jobs were important, even if many of them didn’t know why. They worked hard, and for that they were paid well. They tucked their children into bed at night in handsome homes with green lawns on streets named for brilliant engineers —Goethals Drive, Jadwin Avenue.
The secrecy around Hanford, a part of the Manhattan Project, came to light on Aug. 9, 1945, when U.S. forces dropped a thick-bellied, 10,000-pound plutonium-filled bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan — vaporizing some 60,000 to 80,000 people in an instant and leading to the end of World War II. All along at Hanford, they had been contributing to the war effort, producing plutonium that would make up the core of Fat Man.
“Peace!” the local newspaper headlines cried on Aug. 14, 1945. “Our bomb clinched it!”
“This town just went totally nuts,” said Burt Pierard, 74, who remembers beating pots and pans in a parade of children around his neighborhood. “It was euphoria, just the whole atmosphere was party-time, patriotic.”
Richland’s pride flooded into the hallways of the local high school. That fall, the students of Columbia High voted to change their mascot from the Beavers to the Bombers, and the yearbook for that school year was dedicated to the atomic bomb. Mushroom clouds found their way onto the school crest, class rings and football helmets. In the 1980s the school became Richland High and adopted a new logo: a bright yellow capital R with a white mushroom cloud billowing up behind it. They called it the R-Cloud.
Qualheim, an alumnus of the school who has taught there since 1979, said he prefers to stay quiet about the Richland High mascot these days. In the past, he had expressed his personal distaste for the R-Cloud after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Since then, he feels branded by some alumni as a conspirator looking to rewrite history yet again.
“I certainly don’t run around carrying a picket sign saying, ‘Down with the cloud!’” Qualheim said. But he won’t wear the R-Cloud mascot, and he’s removed it from uniforms for the students he coaches. But he no longer has the energy to fight it. If a student asks, he’ll talk about what he sees in the logo.
“Some people look at [the R-Cloud] as a peace symbol. When I see that, I see that vaporized shadow in the cement and I see those melted baby bottles and melted tricycles. That’s what I see,” he said. “Their skin was dripping from their bodies.”
To Trisha Pritikin, who grew up in Richland but moved away years ago, the R-Cloud has only negative connotations. “It indicates a joy for destruction and death,” she said. “Like, ‘Let’s celebrate the fact that we can destroy and kill with this atomic technology.’” She sees it as a blight on Richland.
“I’m glad to tell anybody that I was born and raised in Richland, and if indeed the bomb did end the war, then I’m so glad it saved a lot of lives,” she said. “But I’m not proud of the death and destruction brought by the bomb. How could anybody be?”
Pritikin is a Hanford Downwinder, who watched her parents die from cancer and has thyroid disease that she attributes to the radioactive emissions from Hanford. “My whole family got wiped out,” she said.
Hanford’s toxic reach didn’t stop at the site’s barbed-wire fences: radioactive emissions released into the air fell on fields where livestock grazed. Soon, local children were drinking tainted milk, fish from the Columbia River were contaminated, and the Oregon Health Division deemed it “the most radioactive river in the world from World War II to the 1970s.” Thousands of people who were unknowingly exposed have filed claims, but very few have seen any compensation.
“They blanketed the community and beyond with radiation, and they didn’t tell us. It seems to me that would put a little dent in the pride around [the mascot],” Pritikin said.