KENNEWICK — Sixty years ago on Sept. 26 a helicopter landed in a remote part of the Hanford nuclear reservation and the 37,000 gathered in the scorching desert watched as President John F. Kennedy stepped out in a cloud of dust.
Eight weeks later he would be assassinated as he and the First Lady rode in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
But on Sept. 26, 1963, he stood young, tanned and hatless on a speaker’s stand by the N Reactor.
He was at the Hanford site near Richland in Eastern Washington to lead the ceremonial groundbreaking for a project that would turn a reactor that produced weapons plutonium into the largest nuclear power plant in the world.
For 12 minutes Kennedy talked about natural resources and nuclear energy, bringing the 1,500 dignitaries who had reserved seats at the front of the crowd to their feet.
Then, in a bit of showmanship choreographed by the Washington Public Power Supply System, now called Energy Northwest, he waved an “atomic wand” over a Geiger counter.
The sound of the counter’s rapid clicking was broadcast over the crowd as the wand’s uranium tip set in motion a clamshell crane. The crane lifted the first shovelful of dirt to build the steam-power facility.
It was a triumph for Tri-City leaders and Washington’s U.S. senators, who had fought since 1957 to get N Reactor approved for dual use — commercial power generation and the production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
It also was a day that many in the crowd would remember for the rest of their lives.
JFK visit a Hanford family day
Kennedy’s visit was the first time the general public had been allowed on the nuclear reservation and they made history just by attending.
The now 580-square-mile Hanford site was used from World War II through the Cold War to produce nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
School let out early to allow children to see the nation’s president.
While some people went to see the president, spouses and children also piled into family cars for their first look behind the barricades where their relatives went to work each day. Officials offered tours of N Reactor.
Maynard Plahuta, who had just started work as an intern for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1963, told the Tri-City Herald at the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit the security forces at Hanford were “as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
The traffic jam was massive as buses and cars drove to the northern end of the sprawling reservation on two-lane roads. They were lined up bumper to bumper for almost 15 miles, according to news reports.
It took nearly four hours for all cars to clear the parking area after Kennedy left, the Herald reported. Some families listened on their car radios to another speech the president gave later that day in Salt Lake City before their cars had reached Richland.
Organizers had been given just three weeks to prepare. They bulldozed and burned 125 acres for the event, then put in 3,000 feet of water line to run sprinklers over the last week.
It didn’t do much good, people remembered decades later.
An area had been paved for the president’s helicopter, which had flown down from a military base at Moses Lake. But the helicopter still sent up a swirling cloud of dust. People who had seats on the speakers’ platform had to wipe the grit off their foreheads.
The blast of air sent the American flag crashing down with a loud crack. A 17-year-old Boy Scout, Det Wegener, picked up the flag and broken pole and held the Stars and Stripes in place until the president left.
About 70 people needed first aid, most because of the heat, and 25 were “stretcher cases,” the Herald reported. The temperature reached 90 that day.
People in the crowd turned their commemorative programs into hats to provide some protection from the blazing sun.
Priest remembers meeting JFK
Father William Sweeney was chosen to give the invocation, standing in front of Kennedy on the platform.
He was a natural choice as a native of Massachusetts and the priest who had traveled into the desert at Hanford to celebrate Mass in a leaky tent each week before as many as 1,000 workers and their families during World War II.
When Kennedy’s helicopter landed, the politicians on the platform ignored a request to stay put and rushed down to meet the president, Sweeney remembered in 1988. But Sweeney hung back, afraid the president, a fellow Catholic, would ignore him in the crush of politicians. He need not have worried.
The president spotted his collar, walked across the stage and simply said, “Hello, Father.”
Others on the speakers stand included Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini, Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, other senators from western states, the Washington state grange master, Tri-City Herald Publisher Glenn Lee and officials from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, General Electric and WPPSS.
So many people had asked, cajoled and issued ultimatums to be allowed to sit with the president on the speakers stand that organizers joked they should have the speakers and the audience switch places, the Herald reported.
Kennedy discusses nuclear future
The president’s 12-minute speech was a hit with the Eastern Washington crowd, according to news reports.
The president called Hanford a “great asset” and said, “I can assure you it will be maintained.”
There was no telling what the atomic age, “a dreadful age,” would bring, he said.
“It may well be that man recognizes now that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary, that it may be possible … to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law, that we may, out of this scientific change, it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world,” he said.
The atomic work done at Hanford in the last 20 years had changed the world, but bigger changes were yet to come, he said.
The nation should lead the world in producing low-cost nuclear power, he said.
His stop was part of a five-day, 11-state tour to promote conservation, and he called for setting aside land, water and wilderness for the future.
N Reactor operated from 1963 to 1987 when it was shut down for routine maintenance and refueling and never restarted.
But nuclear power continues to be produced on leased land at Hanford, where Energy Northwest operates the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power reactor.
The podium where Kennedy spoke at Hanford remains in the possession of Energy Northwest.
It brought the podium out to use again in 2021 when it announced a partnership with X-energy Reactor Co. to bring the next generation of nuclear power production to Eastern Washington.
Energy Northwest has signed an agreement with X-energy with the goal of also having an advanced small nuclear reactor producing power on Hanford land by the end of 2030.
Most of the Hanford nuclear reservation remains closed to the public. However, some of Hanford is now included in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the public can take tour those areas.