A riveting history of a lesser-known Manhattan Project triumph that, like so many wartime triumphs, has lost its luster.



How Americans made the plutonium that went into the first atomic bomb.

Beginning a captivating, unnerving history, Seattle-based journalist Olson emphasizes that while uranium gets the headlines, plutonium makes up almost all of the thousands of bombs in arsenals around the world. In 1943, everyone in an immense southern Washington area received orders to move out within a month. Tens of thousands of workers poured in to build entire cities and infrastructure and then three nuclear reactors to produce plutonium and three huge factories to extract it. Olson delivers gripping accounts of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s construction, the iconic summer 1945 test in New Mexico, and the bombs’ destruction of Japanese cities. Hanford’s output peaked in the 1960s before obsolescence and overproduction took its toll. By the 1970s, most reactors had shut down. With the project’s declassification, the first historical accounts extolled its immense effort, technical accomplishments, and ultimate triumph, but time has produced more unsettling information—especially regarding the health effects, given that “Hanford had released far more radioactivity into the air, water, and soil than outsiders had known.” Until Hanford, no one had handled radioactive material on an industrial scale, and readers will be dismayed as Olson describes the results. In addition to the problems associated with radioactive gas, cooling water and factory chemicals flowed into the nearby Columbia River. Radioactive solid waste lay in open dumps until experts decided that this was a bad idea; then it was collected in huge steel containers with a predicted lifetime of 20 years, after which someone would surely find a better way to deal with it. Most are still there, corroded and leaking. Billions of dollars have been spent in a cleanup, but a huge area remains poisoned. If it’s any comfort, Kate Brown’s superb Plutopia (2013) reveals that the Soviet Union’s version of Hanford was worse.

A riveting history of a lesser-known Manhattan Project triumph that, like so many wartime triumphs, has lost its luster. (32 illustrations)

Pub Date: July 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-393-63497-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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