HatchLab member Allison Cobb, a poet from Los Alamos, NM, where the first atomic bombs were built, blogs about her trip to tour the plutonium reactor in Hanford, Washington, with Yukiyo Kawano, an artist from Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was used. They have launched a fundraising campaign for their collaboration, Suspended Moment.
Last Friday, at 10:30 in the morning, Yukiyo Kawano and I boarded a bus to ride 45 minutes into the desert for a tour of the plutonium reactor at Hanford, Washington. I’m from Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bombs were made. Yuki is from Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was used. Grandparents on both sides of Yuki’s family survived the atomic bombing—making her a third-generation hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor). Hanford manufactured the plutonium used in the bombs.
We had to leave Portland before dawn to get to Hanford in time. We wanted to see this piece of history together. Of course it’s not just history for us—not for anyone, really. The U.S. and Russia keep thousands of nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to launch in 15 minutes or less. Submarines armed with multiple nuclear warheads silently circle the globe. At Hanford, Chernobyl, Fukishima, and elsewhere, deadly radiation seeps into ground, water and air. The historian Bo Jacobs calls this “slow motion nuclear warfare,” and it’s happening all around us, all the time.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened 71 years ago—a fading memory. Yuki and I hope to keep alive the reality of that devastation, so that it will never happen again. In the words of poet Carolyn Forché, we work against forgetting. We went to Hanford to perform our piece Suspended Moment. Yuki is an artist. She makes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs out of her grandmother’s kimonos, sewn with strands of her hair. I’m a poet, and I wrestle in my work with the legacy of nuclear weapons from the town of my birth.
At Hanford, we met our friends and collaborators: Butoh choreographer and dancer Meshi Chavez, composer Lisa DeGrace, photographer and videographer Stephen A. Miller, and carpenter Chris Allegri. We all contribute to Suspended Moment, but Hanford was the first time we were bringing all the pieces together in one performance. We were excited, and a little nervous! This was our launch event. We’ve started a fundraising campaign to bring Suspended Moment to nuclear sites around the world.
But first, our tour of the “B reactor”—the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor, built in 1944 to produce plutonium for the atomic bombs. Our tour guides and the introductory film all spoke in dramatic positives—how the massive wartime undertaking at Hanford symbolized human ingenuity, how the atomic bombs brought an end to war. Never mentioned was the scale of devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the ongoing legacy of contamination at Hanford.
Hearing all this talk about the marvels of science and wartime victory, I felt acutely Yuki’s presence beside me. My mother’s father fought in the Pacific—the end of the war may have saved him, given me a grandfather to grow up with. I’m grateful for that. I carry his memory inside me.
But at that moment, I also sensed the memories that Yuki carries—how her own grandfather suffered radiation sickness and ill health for the rest of his life. How Yuki lost her beloved mother three years ago to pancreatic cancer, the same year her uncle died from thyroid cancer. Did her mother’s heritage as the daughter of an atomic bomb survivor contribute to her early death? Yuki will never have an answer.
All that Hanford’s tour guides said is, in its way, true—one view of history. We want to keep alive another view—the danger, devastation and heartbreak of nuclear weapons. That night, we performed Suspended Moment at The Reach Museum on the banks of the Columbia River, whose waters cooled Hanford’s nuclear reactors and then returned to flow west to the ocean.
Our performance was part of an ongoing exhibit called Particles on the Wall that engages the legacy of Hanford. We felt grateful to be part of this event and for others working to keep these memories alive.
We hope to bring Suspended Moment back to Hanford at a larger scale, and to Los Alamos, and Hiroshima, the Nevada nuclear weapons testing site, and elsewhere in the globe touched by this nuclear legacy. It’s about our bodies, and the stories we carry. Our work against forgetting. We hope you’ll consider supporting it.
Learn more about Yuki, Allison and fellow collaborator the dancer and choreographer Meshi Chavez on their Hatch the Future Podcast: Reflecting on a Nuclear Legacy.