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  • Atomic Geography: A Personal History of the Hanford Reservation by Melvin R. Adams
  • Max Frazier
Melvin R. Adams, Atomic Geography: A Personal History of the Hanford Reservation. Pullman: Washington State UP, 2016. 144 pp. Paper, $22.95.

This personal narrative consists of vignettes that embody author Melvin Adams’s conflicted and complex relationship with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the reservation’s relationship with the local environment. Adams describes this tension as a paradox, insisting that “to deal with and control the radioactive waste sites at Hanford, the analytical mind of an engineer and scientist is essential. But the site also cries out for poetic treatment and understanding—the analytical approach by itself being inadequate to express the meaning of Hanford” (7). His words capture exactly what makes this book unique and difficult to characterize.

Adams divides the narrative into an introduction and six parts. He considers the geography, paradoxical nature, challenges, and timeline of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in his introduction, then, in engineer-like fashion, methodically takes on the next six parts. Part 1 describes Hanford from Native American beginnings through the reservation cleanup today. In part 2, Adams uses illustrations and specific details to describe the engineering challenge he faced as possibly Hanford’s first environmental engineer. Quick to state that his personal reflections contain no footnotes, he provides instead a list of references. Perhaps this part’s most interesting aspect for literary people is his discussion about designing and placing markers meant to communicate the area’s hazard across thousands of years, through climate and cultural change. Part 3 offers stories about anomalies and events from the seeming paradise of a highly contaminated former 216-U Pond to a man exposed to [End Page 136] radiation to a Japanese balloon that shut down nuclear production. Some events occurred during Adams’s tenure as an engineer; some persisted as stories from before his time.

Part 4 details the philosophy behind building government homes along with Adams’s personal experience living in one, while part 5 elaborates on some of the flourishing environmental aspects of the reservation, such as an elk herd and rare and new plant species. Adams’s literary and poetic responses to his experiences are the substance of part 6. His poems can increase in resonance with readers who now know their context from the previous parts. The last lines of “Burial Ground” seem to sum up Adams’s stance on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation: “The earth is full of artifacts, fossils, and ghosts. / The earth does not regret, only remembers” (13–14).

This narrative will interest people focused on environmental history and the ways the United States has used western regions as areas of experimentation and containment for nuclear production. People interested in memoir will be intrigued by the way the book’s isolated parts come together in the poetry reflecting Adams’s conflicted relationship with the reservation. He insists that “[his] years at Hanford were the safest of [his] working life” (62). Proud description of a maintenance-free containment barrier reveals his belief that he participated in good work at Hanford and that the best combination of economy and effectiveness is addressing the contamination there. His poetry and sentiment toward the flourishing flora and fauna on the reservation show a deep relationship to this controversial site. His narrative tries to capture the entirety of this paradox.

Max Frazier
US Air Force Academy (retired)


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pp. 136-137
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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