The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity

BILL DIETRICH is a Pulitzer-prize winning science reporter and the author of two books. A native of Tacoma, Washington, he is a graduate of Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and later had a one-year Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
   Dietrich has worked for several Northwest newspapers and as a correspondent in Washington, D.C. He was one of a team of four Seattle Times reporters who won a Pulitzer in national reporting for coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
   His first book, ``The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest'' (Simon & Schuster, 1992) won the Washington Governor Writers Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. His second, ``Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River'' was published this spring to critical praise in both regional and national newspapers. Dietrich's work as the Times' science reporter has resulted in major recent projects on Antarctica (where he visited the South Pole), ecosystem management, and the atomic bomb.

[IMAGE: Reporter Bill
Dietrich in a radiation
suit] Bill Dietrich, left, and a radiation technician suit up before watching the nuclear reactor refueling at the WPPSS 2 power plant at Hanford, Washington.


   I grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb. My boyhood home was in the flight path of McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington. My father worked on construction of radar and computer facilities designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers. My uncles serviced nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. We had regular nuclear attack drills in school, and I vividly remember the fear among adults that the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis would spark a nuclear war.
   Now the Cold War is over, ending a struggle that bankrupted and dissolved the Soviet Union and left the United States with a $4 trillion debt and deserts of nuclear waste. The contest was in deadly earnest. Photographer Alan Berner and I were in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and came away from the drabness of communist East Germany with powerful impressions of what a difference political systems make in the lives and health of ordinary people.
   The Trinity project was a fascinating, sobering opportunity to look back at what now seems like a half-century's bad dream of fear, rivalry, and irrational weapons stockpiling. Visiting some of America's nuclear design, testing and manufacturing facilities brought home the huge scale of the human effort that has gone into the arms race, while walking the Ground Zeros of past tests and peering into vast craters gave some sense of nuclear power.
   Interviewing the scientist who triggered the first atomic explosion, or the physicist who pioneered development of the hydrogen bomb, made abstract history come alive. And my own radiation treatment for cancer made me a recipient of a positive side of nuclear research.
   The atomic bomb was not so much necessary as inevitable, once we learned the secrets of the atom. The morality of blindly harnessing new technology remains unresolved, however. Today's young people will have to find a balance between our ability to transform and destroy the world and our need to sustain it. And they must learn to be wise, courteous skeptics about the glib political philosophies and expedient military decisions that can have such long-lasting, dire effects.

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