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THE APOCALYPSE FACTORY: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age

It began with plutonium.  Or maybe it really began with fear—fear that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom. That’s the real reason, in a matter of months, the United States built the vast Hanford nuclear facility on the banks of the mighty Columbia River in eastern Washington State.  There, far from prying eyes, they charged scientists like Glenn Seaborg and Enrico Fermi, with finding a way to create the substance at the core of the most destructive weapons ever developed: plutonium.  There, thousands of physicists, engineers, laborers and support staff manufactured plutonium for the first atomic bombs to fuel the American nuclear arsenal. Author Steve Olson grew up just twenty miles from Hanford’s B Reactor and has always wondered why the facility has been largely overlooked in histories of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. The Washington town played host to some of the most influential scientists and engineers in American history and played an important role in the race to construct weapons with the potential to win the war—and to end human civilization at the same time. In this look back at the making of the atomic age, he also wonders how we can use our collective ingenuity again to address the threat that nuclear weapons pose today.

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