AEC's Environmental Impact

It is no argument that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) played a vital role in the pollution of the land making up the Columbia Basin, but they also helped facilitate the transition from an exploitation mindset to a more preservationist—orientated. Government officials, politicians, farmers and groups like the Tri-City Nuclear Industrial Council (TCNIC) argued for land to be open so the economy could thrive. In this essay I will be providing evidence from Findlay and Hevly’s Atomic Frontier Days supporting the argument that essentially, the AEC went from depriving and polluting the land (exploitation) to preserving it (preservation).

Doing so, I will also highlight the outlying pressures that the AEC faced regarding the transition, at the beginning of World War II the army looked specifically for empty space, essentially a “blank slate” to build cities, laboratories, and factories, thus creating a program that thrived off of exploiting the land for its resources.

The original layout of Hanford exemplified an urban and industrial community that was “surrounded by vast expanses of relatively undeveloped, and in some places, highly polluted land.

” (206). When looking at the original foundation of Hanford, it’s evident that government officials such as the army and more specifically, the AEC were eager to exploit the vast amount of opportunities that the “blank slate” provided. “The government bulldozed orchards, buildings, and irrigation canals and replaced them new manufacturing facilities and communities” (212), and operated “as a cog in a bureaucratic, industrial, and scientific machine” that was controlled by capitalism and the idea that exploiting all resources was the path to a more successful and resourceful society.

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A major resource was the placement of dams along the Columbia.

This exploitation not only stimulated the rural economy of the area (211) but would produce more food and generate more hydroelectricity in a time of crisis. The AEC adapted to the exploitation mindset because of the people who pushed for expanded land for resources, but eventually preservation became a priority because of the expectations the company needed to meet. The most important example of “highest and best use” of resources came to be after the shutdown of eight reactors at Hanford between 1964 and 1971. At this time, AEC was instructed to support local affairs and assist economic diversification because of this, as the reactors were shutdown, it was approached by people “eager to develop resources under the commissions control” farmers were after the rich Hanford land and business could be expanded by increasing transportation opportunities along the Columbia, which again comes to the building of dams.

You could look at the situation like the fairgrounds after the fair because the fair is there for one purpose after the fair did its job, people expect the operation managers to pick up and leave. The situation was similar after the reactors were put to a halt, while “many acted as if the AEC were simply finished with the Hanford Site and could be expected to leave”. The actual outcome was much different the AEC was not ready to turn over the land because despite resources not being used to their full potential, preservation would prove to be quite useful to the AEC.  The agency’s environmentalist career started with the wahluke slope in the mid 1960’s, well after the deplumation of the bombs (249). Groups like the TCNIC did get its way when the AEC studied which parcels they could continue using, and began easing restriction on slope because the risks were lowen “On July 27, 1965, the commission announced it would permit ‘non-resident farming’ on about 40,000 acres of the slope” (249), reviving the local dream of reviving farming as a staple for the Tri-Cities economy.

However, in 1967 the Bureau of reclamation decided against the original decision by the commission because of their inadequate drainage. Along with this, the creation of the ALE (Arid Lands Ecology) proposed in 1965 by the TCNIC, the Bureau of Reclamation, and local farmers, was proposed to the AEC requesting an opening of the slopes on Rattlesnake Mountain. Because the AEC feared that the farming would “disturb the underground water table, which in turn would disturb certain nuclear and chemical wastes”. Today, the transition to a more environment-based thinking is looked at as generally a positive element to a community. But when the AEC was making this transition their motives were highly criticized because the idea that land and water should be utilized for practical gain still remained prominent in the communities that were surrounding the Hanford area.

The principle of maximizing resource use was so embedded into the community by the AEC before the transition that it “provokes suspicion and hostility from local citizens” despite these competing pressures, they still managed to preserve land for environmental purposes. Surprisingly, the same agency that brought such pollution to the hanford site was the one to make a strong effort to preserve it, “AEC and DOE officials were influenced by the rise of environmentalism. They shared in political purposes to respond to the perceptions and pressures of a more mobilized public; and they hoped to turn environmentalism to their own advantage” (257). Pressure from the community surrounding Hanford pushed the AEC into the blank slate resourcefulness, but it was the AEC that adapted to the given pressures from locals and continued to shape the community into a thriving one revolving around a more preserving outlook.

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AEC's Environmental Impact. (2023, Jan 15). Retrieved from

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