Atomic Geography is a compelling story of inherited guilt and achingly slow progress at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. While the story may occasionally get lost in the weeds, even the weeds have a strange glow about them.
In 1979, an environmental engineer was hired to clean and contain the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during its prolonged decommission. Melvin R. Adams didn’t worry about Soviet spies absconding with cesium as much as he did with a Russian species of tumbleweed. Russian thistle, with a 20-foot-long tap root, simply pulled the radioactive metal out of the soil before flying away in one of the region’s infamous winds. Like so much at Hanford, the encroachment of the noxious weed had no final solution, but instead required a series of seemingly never ending contingencies that alone changed little.
The dry language of Adam’s scientific (and bureaucratic) background is apparent as he details everything from data transfers to the cookie-cutter employee housing in Richland, where Adams lives. Atomic Geography spends time in the weeds, reading like Environmental Engineering for Dummies, but Adams mixes anecdote inside of every blueprint. The poetic interludes humanize what could be boring, like statistics. But don’t skip this portion because you will be astonished at the numbers. A compelling moment is when Adams describes Hanford as “one of the most challenging and expensive environmental cleanup projects in the country, if not the world.”
Despite finding a dead bird nestled on radioactive salt cakes, Adams describes the Hanford reservation as being ecologically healthier than much of the inhabited West. Adams believes the site has clear potential as a wildlife refuge in the coming years.
This natural resilience is a major theme in the series of contemplative poems which end the book. Several refer to the “inevitability of grass,” while another notes that we should “let the earth fold over” Hanford. The last poem, however, is titled “Nagasaki Bomb,” which ends in a damning stanza.
“The Hanford Walls
are not inscribed
with the names of veterans,
or the children of Nagasaki,
the Bill of Rights,
the Declaration of Independence,
a poem by Basho.
Only canyons of buildings
with water stains
visited by tumbleweed.”