Third in a Series of on the Rivers of the West
On April 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford, Washington, to celebrate the dedication of the N Reactor. The ninth production reactor at Hanford and the only one of its kind in the nation, this new reactor was designed to produce plutonium for the defense industry and also to generate electricity.
President Kennedy praised the way that people along this river had changed “the entire history of the world,” especially during “the closing days of the Second World War,” a veiled reference to the bombs that had incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
While asserting that America needed to maintain its “national strength and national vigor,” he also said that “no one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries.”
When people around the world come to realize “that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary…it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law [that] it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world.”
The president then shifted to the primary topic of his address, which was to describe the way that the generation of electricity by atomic power would lead to new prosperity not only for people nearby, but also for people through the entire nation: “a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.”
Kennedy’s speech continued themes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed twenty-eight years earlier at the dedication of Boulder (later Hoover) Dam and Lake Mead and seven years later at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam.
Roosevelt was convinced that these massive public works were unalloyed contributions to the well being of the entire nation. They constructively linked federal and local initiative, political control, and expenditure of financial resources. They transformed rivers so that they no longer ran wastefully to the ocean, but instead did useful work for the people nearby and around the nation.
President Kennedy continued these themes, displaying much the same hubris as his New Deal predecessor had manifested. Despite the fact that the actual history of western development undercut his political ideology, Kennedy spoke as though the continuation of these public works would certainly lead to a world of peace and prosperity for people everywhere.
This future was a way of life in which air conditioning and all other comforts and benefits of a comfortable life would be universally available. The achieving of these goals, Kennedy declared, would require new generating capacity—the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee dam every sixty days.
Kennedy expanded the definition of conservation. The traditional understanding was the determination to protect and not waste what nature has already given us—to “use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future.”
The “newer part of conservation [was] to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown.” To accomplish these goals, Kennedy continued, we had to do five things. (1) We had to “use hydro resources to the fullest. “Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste.” (2) We had to develop techniques for developing power from coal and oil from shale, mining and harvesting resources from the bottom of the ocean, and of using energy from the sun.
(3) Low-cost atomic power had to be developed since experts were saying that by the end of the century “half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” (4) The electric systems around the country would need to be linked. (5) We must avoid the monopolization of this capacity either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities.
The N Reactor generated power for twenty years and now is mothballed. Its successor, the Columbia Generating Station produces one-tenth of the electric produced within the State of Washington.
And who in their right mind can affirm the bankrupt visions that, to use the metaphor provided by Blaine Harden, have killed the Columbia as a river and given it a rebirth as plumbing? [A River Lost, p. 75]