For decades, the Hanford site drove the economy of nearby Richland – essentially a company town for the nuclear industry – and, to a lesser extent, Kennewick and Pasco, Richland's neighbors in a metropolitan area known as the Tri-Cities. Now the cleanup continues to define the region; commanding large portions of 2009 stimulus funds and keeping the Tri-Cities economy afloat as the Great Recession hit the rest of the Northwest hard.
All of this reinforces a sense of “plutonium pride.” All over the Tri-Cities are landmarks like Atomic Laundry and Proton Lane. Student athletes at Richland High School play for the Bombers. Their mascots are mushroom clouds.
“We're proud of the cloud," says Dave Acton, a Richland native.
Over pints of Plutonium Porter, Richland native Dave Acton – the general manager and brewmaster at Atomic Ale & Eatery – describes his hometown pride. Easily mistakable for Jeff Bridges's title character from “The Big Lebowski,” Acton rolls his eyes at nuclear fears.
At the confluence of the Yakima, Snake and Columbia Rivers, two other cities besides Richland comprise the Tri-Cities. Pasco is a rail town that's become a magnet for Latino immigrants. Panaderias, taquerias and predominantly Spanish signage fill the city's business district. In a city that's also the gateway to Eastern Washington's grain farms, Pasco's outdoor farmer's market is one of the state's biggest. To the south, meanwhile, Kennewick is the region's shopping hub, with both an indoor shopping mall and a sprawl of arterials lined with big boxes and strip malls, while bars, tattoo parlors and headshops – as well as a number of wood furniture refinishers – now dominate the city's older Downtown.
The surrounding region is largely agrarian. Volcanic soil from the Columbia River Basalts makes the hills and valleys of the Yakima Fold and Thrust Belt prime wine country. Combined with pleasant weather and a resilient economy, the Tri-Cities have grown faster than other parts of the Northwest.
“There's a lot of people in this area, but they're not from here,” Acton said. “People sold their cracker boxes in Seattle or California for 3 or 4 million dollars, came here and bought a mansion on the mountainside. Then they come in and they say 'oh my god, this area is dangerous.'"
Acton's fed up with newcomers who try to whitewash the region's history by suggesting that the high school change its mascot, for example.
“Quit trying to change our area,” Acton said. “You moved here. We are who we are.”
Acton says he doesn't take Richland's nuclear history as a negative. He says the city has a reason to be proud. Those who came to work on the Manhattan Project are no different than shipbuilders who built the USS Enterprise, or the women who inspired Rosie the Riveter and helped build B-17s and Mustangs.
“Here in Richland we didn't necessarily ask to be in the war, we didn't necessarily want to be in the war, but we can say with complete and utmost certainty that we ended that thing,” Acton said. “It's not about deaths, it's not about destruction, it's 'let's get this done, so we can all get along now for a change.' Unfortunately, we never will.”
Now, Acton said, nuclear power is a way of turning the knowledge gained in the pursuit of nuclear weapons back into something useful He dismisses concerns as fear-mongering.
“Panic sells,” Acton says. “Peace doesn't.”