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