During we were taken on a visit to the hanford site, and given a tour of the B reactor, the worlds first nuclear reactor, which was used to derive plutonium; plutonium used in the Fat Man bomb, dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

As a part of the trip, and the conference, we were invited to consider the technical achievements of the Hanford site, but also their ultimate impact on real human’s lives, and the world.

After the tour, @adambrault asked if I would share some of my thoughts about the Hanford site, and lead a discussion of other attendees thoughts. Here’s the full text of the short talk I wrote and gave. (It was last minute, so excuse the roughness).

Last month, my wife, and I visited Japan on vacation. Before we left, when we were trying to figure out where we should visit with the two weeks we had in the country, one of the places that came up was Hiroshima. In discussion it came up for one reason: Hilary (who is an american) felt like she had a duty to visit the city. In the end we unfortunately couldn’t fit a trip to Hiroshima and its peace garden into our schedule; but the “final impact” of the second world war was something we discussed while we were there.

Much like Germany, Japan’s political, and emotional psyche has been shaped by the events of the second world war. In fact while we were there, there was a vote in the Japanese parliament on whether Japan could legally become involved in military action that was not solely required for self-defense. I believe that the vote passed, but it was not a popular result by any stretch. As a nation, after 70 years of peace, Japan are very wary of being involved in military action. After the vote passed, video was broadcast on the news of a brawl in parliament, as opposition politicans erupted in disgust at the passing of the vote.

As a nation, the American psyche however, could perhaps use some introspection on how the war was ended. Even if Germany and its allies were on the edge of producing their own nuclear bombs (which is a fact that is in question); and even if dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were absolutely required and definitive in ending the horrors of the second world war; the terrifying impact of those two bombs can not be overstated. Perhaps the great curse of winning in war, is that it becomes impossible to reflect on whether the means justified the ends.

At the reactor today, we heard of the “great science”, the “great engineering”, and the “great technology” that the Hanford and Manhattan projects represented. The Hanford website describes “Hanford’s ultimate triumph came with the nuclear explosion above Japan in August 1945, effectively ending World War II.”

“Hanford’s ultimate triumph.”

I cannot discard the technical impressiveness of the hanford project. The scale and speed of it’s construction, particularly when it is the very first nuclear reactor ever made. Even the design, the handlettered signs, the tools and instruments that had to be created alongside the reactors themselves. It was certainly one of the most enormous technical undertakings and achievements of its time.

But what of the giant elephant in the reactor. The invisible asterisk. The questioning of whether any amount of technical achievement can be considered worth the deaths of over 200,000 civilians. Surely that must make some mark in the mind not only of America, but of every nation in the world.

The Manhattan project may have been the most impressive scientific and technical achievement of it’s time. It was certainly the most “impactful”, for good or bad. But I’m not so sure it can still hold the mantle, purely in terms of technical achievement. The internet, is surely vying for that position.

Fortunately I don’t think the internet has had its Hiroshima. But I don’t think it is impossible.

If we can’t even question and contrast the technology with the horrifying impact of the Manhattan project AFTER THE FACT. How are we going to question the impact and dangers that the technologies which we are creating now will have on our lives?