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
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  1. I’ve always been suspicious that the location of the facility has been part of its demise. While it’s right off of Route 30 (and directly across from another world famous landmark, namely Vinnie’s Pizza), it’s very hidden from that major thoroughfare and tucked up in the residential zone. All that’s clearly visible from Rt 30 is the parking lot and an enticingly steep and rugged ravine in which we were forbidden to play as children.

    I’ve always been somewhat surprised that, as this site was abandoned and decayed, there wasn’t more of an uproar among the local residents, many of whom have a direct view of the facility from their homes, to replace it with something more “modern” or “useful.” Yet in reality it’s been quite the opposite – the people who live in the shadow of this “thing” have been a consistent voice of support for its preservation.

    As a resident of NJ who travels by train into NYC daily, I bear witness to the loss of the majestic New York Penn Station and the godawful rathole it has become. The destruction of that magnificent structure is considered by many to be the catalyst for the historical preservation movement, and it’s widely agreed that Grand Central Station would have suffered a similar fate. There are those who say that Penn Station died so that others might live.

    I think your point about the current focus of preservation is very apt. I fear the atom smasher has been irreparably damaged, but perhaps your points made here can help us to question our approach to the preservation of our nuclear heritage and preserve a memory of a time when nuclear research was in its infancy and the promise of scientific understanding of the fabric of our world was at the forefront of our best and brightest minds of the age.

  2. Lauren Weatherford

    I really found this interesting. I certainly didn’t know all this history. You’d think there would have been a movie about it. Seems like the kind of thing that has hometown hero’s. That popular knowledge only focuses on the Manhattan project is curious. It would seem that celebrating such extraordinary accomplishments that have had such a profound effect on us all would be worthy of more attention. I felt this was important enough that I had my 10 & 12 yr old daughters read it. They thought it was pretty cool What a great way to inspire our kids to become involved in more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programming.

  3. Gloria Rogulin Blake

    Lauren Weatherford’s comment is a perfect example of why I am so upset and saddened about the Atom Smasher at the Forest Hills site’s current dilemma. Our children right here in Forest Hills, PA might never know what took place right here in their hometown. I fear this rich history will all be lost with the dismantling of the Atom Smasher and the building of storage space where all of this important work took place. I’m grateful that Lauren is a conscientious parent and had her daughters read the comment. Will parents here in Forest Hills have their children do the same? Do the parents even know about our very important history? I was born and raised in the area and was never taught in any of the schools I attended just how much important work that changed the world was done here. From the making of steel to the Atom Smasher I am, myself, just learning about our contributions to the world. I want children here to be proud of their heritage and history. The Atom Smasher was such a spectacular icon and could have been a tremendous teaching tool in the STEM programs so popular today.

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