Another Side of the Atomic Story

Pamphlet from the 2010 PA Historical Marker dedication. Photo © Marni Blake Walter.

Pamphlet from the 2010 PA Historical Marker dedication. Photo © MB Walter.

“The Westinghouse atom smasher was not intended to make a bomb, but to seek out the secrets of nuclear energy as a source of practical power,” so reads the pamphlet from the atom smasher’s 2010 Pennsylvania State Historical Marker dedication. This is something I remember hearing or learning from others in Forest Hills; in my memory it is told with a touch of pride, or maybe a hint of relief. In any case it is an important point about the atom smasher that sets it apart from many other atomic heritage sites.

As the site of Westinghouse’s earliest research in nuclear physics, the atom smasher is at the beginning of a lineage that later includes the first nuclear powered Naval submarine, the Nautilus, and the first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, PA. This program’s focus was to gain an understanding of atomic science especially for the purpose of commercial (profitable) applications. The Westinghouse of today continues to be a major player in the nuclear power industry.

"Birth of the nuclear age": detail from a model Westinghouse atomic power plant, 1959, on display at the Heinz History Center.

“Birth of the nuclear age”: detail from a model Westinghouse atomic power plant, 1959, on display at the Heinz History Center.

But it is the story of the atomic bomb that dominates our collective views of atomic heritage. Several major sites of the Manhattan Project will soon be part of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. (President Obama signed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act into law December 19, 2014, thus authorizing the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.) The National Park Service unit will include historic resources at three major sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington. Some have criticized the park concept, saying it glorifies the atomic bomb and could be insensitive to the many who suffered as a result of it. This is not the intent of the park; instead, it will provide opportunities to explore the many complex issues surrounding Manhattan Project history. However, it does focus on bomb-making history, to the indifference of other aspects of our nuclear heritage.

Similarly, a recent National Geographic article, “8 Places That Showcase Atomic Age Archaeology for Tourists,” in fact showcases our collective fascination with the bomb. Of all eight places on the list, only one of them—the Nevada Test Site—in part addresses nuclear uses other than weaponry. It makes me wonder, if the atom smasher had made some major contribution to the Manhattan Project, would it be in the condition it’s in today? Or would it be a popular tourist site, preserved, lauded for its contributions to Cold War angst?

Take the comparison of the fates of two historically significant reactors. The B Reactor at Hanford was the first full-scale nuclear reactor. It produced the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki in August 1945. Today, public tours are offered of the facility, and it is now a “signature facility” of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. With that, its preservation and presentation to the public are ensured.

Meanwhile, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station (completed 1957) was the first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant in the country. It was also important as a testing and training facility. As a cornerstone of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, it successfully produced electricity for the Pittsburgh area until 1982. The facility was designated as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1980. It was dismantled beginning in 1985. Maybe the best testament to Shippingport’s lasting impact is that a new nuclear power plant currently operates at the same location.

The creation and wartime detonation of the first atomic bomb is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. It is important to address the vast legacy of the Manhattan Project in all its complexity, and the national park will be a major part of that effort. But along with the making of the atomic bomb, might we also want future generations to know how we strove to use that knowledge for developing sustainable energy sources and other innovations for the benefit of humankind? The Westinghouse atom smasher could serve to tell another part of the atomic story. We should take a wider look around at what we want to pass on to future generations, before it is too late.

 

The Westinghouse atom smasher after site demolition, February 27, 2015. © Randall Walter.

The Westinghouse atom smasher after site demolition, February 27, 2015. © Randall Walter.

—By Marni Blake Walter

The Atom Smasher In Our Backyard

Welcome to this new blog about the Westinghouse atom smasher and industrial heritage!

As a little kid, I knew we were almost home when I’d see the “giant light bulb thing” pass by out the car window. And sure enough, the next moment we’d pull into our garage. I didn’t know what the thing was, and I vaguely wondered why someone would build a giant light bulb down the street from us. To me, it had always just been there. This was ages before I had any idea what an atom smasher was, or what a “sense of place” meant. But I began to know that it was something significant, and unique.

Almost home. August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Almost home. August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.

Eventually I learned that the light bulb thing was an atom smasher. Later I became curious as to why they would build an atom smasher right smack in a residential neighborhood. But still, for someone growing up in Forest Hills it was just a normal part of the view. (Today, I’m fascinated by the very different attitude than our modern culture: not only was such a machine allowed to be built here, but it seems like it was met largely with excitement and curiosity. I would love to know, what were the scientists, and the onlookers and neighbors, really thinking?).

To Westinghouse researchers and nuclear physicists around the world, this odd structure was the first commercially owned Van de Graaff particle accelerator. The Westinghouse Electric Company added it to the already productive Research Laboratories facilities in 1937. Since 1916 these labs had advanced technology in mechanics, magnetics, chemistry, metallurgy, radar, and other fields. Built before the discovery of nuclear fission, the atom smasher was the company’s first venture into fundamental research on the atom, and the origin of Westinghouse’s ongoing involvement in nuclear power. Many significant discoveries and inventions were produced throughout all the departments at this site (for more details, see this firsthand description).

A view into Forest Hills from the landing on the atom smasher's ladder, August 2013. The building on the right is the former cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

A view into Forest Hills from the landing on the atom smasher’s ladder, August 2013. The building on the right is the former cafeteria of the Research Labs. © Marni Blake Walter.

To my grandparents and hundreds of others in Forest Hills, Chalfant, and East Pittsburgh, Westinghouse was a major employer and a major contributor to the surrounding communities. With several hundred employees working there at its peak, this site was a melting pot, bringing together everyone from blue-collar workers to eminent scientists. My grandma worked in the cafeteria, and I can still imagine her talking with her friends from the cafeteria in their own half-English, half-Ukrainian language. The knowledge of nuclear power is still with us, but the knowledge of what it might’ve been like to be an immigrant from the Old Country working in the shadow of some of the most high-tech discoveries of the day is already nearly lost to us.

As technology has a way of quickly outgrowing its roots, this atom smasher was shut down in 1958. As early as the 1960s, speculation began about when it might face the wrecking ball. Yet it stood, and for decades evaded threats to its existence: too large to move; too costly to dismantle. Until several weeks ago. The atom smasher structure is the very last remaining vestige of all that transpired at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, but today it is in an extremely vulnerable and threatened condition.

Many of us from Forest Hills and Chalfant were stunned and dismayed when on January 20, 2015, the atom smasher, having stood steadfastly for nearly 80 years, was torn down. My mom was the first resident on the scene that day. While we were still under the impression that the atom smasher would be kept in place, she sent this photo to me as she walked down the street to visit the site:

Any Forest Hills or Chalfant native would see at a glance that something is terribly wrong here! January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Any Forest Hills or Chalfant native would see at a glance that something is terribly wrong here! January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Now the atom smasher sits in a heap, forlornly trying to conjure a bygone era of exploration and optimism. (Post-apocalyptic filmmakers take note! In some circular irony, this image could easily be that “girt big rottin iron thing” in one of the early scenes of Riddley Walker— or the opening scene of your next end-of-the-world blockbuster! At the very least, it should’ve appeared in an episode of the X-Files.)

The Westinghouse atom smasher, shortly after it was torn down, January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

The Westinghouse atom smasher, shortly after it was torn down, January 20, 2015. © Gloria Rogulin Blake.

Almost immediately after tearing down the atom smasher, the property owner/developer stated in news reports that he intended to repair the structure and put it back in place. For the last year or so prior to the dismantling, we were told that a project was in the works in which the Woodland Hills School District would reuse the atom smasher as part of a STEM program for the high school. It’s no surprise that WHSD could not foot the bill, but the seemingly abrupt change of direction created a lot of skepticism, I think. And I’m not alone in wondering, why would you treat a unique historic resource in this way if you intended to save it?

I hope that the promised repairs will happen, and that redevelopment of the site will use this opportunity to build on and learn from past people and their industries. The former Westinghouse Electric Company’s presence in Forest Hills is a major part of the area’s history. As long as the atom smasher still sits there on its pile of rubble, I believe that it should be repaired and put back in its original place—not as an impediment to progress, but as an integral, valuable part of the future.

—By Marni Blake Walter