In a small town in Washington state, pride and shame over atomic legacy via AlJazeera

Richland High School’s controversial mascot honors the community’s role in producing the plutonium dropped on Nagasaki

RICHLAND, Wash. — The workers inside Hanford’s nuclear reactors in the early 1940s knew their jobs were important, even if many of them didn’t know why. They worked hard, and for that they were paid well, tucking their children into bed at night inside handsome homes with green lawns on streets named for brilliant engineers: Goethals Drive, Jadwin Avenue.

The secrecy around Hanford, a part of the Manhattan Project, came to light on Aug. 9, 1945, when U.S. forces dropped a thick-bellied, 10,000-pound plutonium-filled bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan — vaporizing some 60-80,000 people in an instant and thereby ending World War II. All along at Hanford, they’d been contributing to the war effort,  producing plutonium that would make up the core of the Nagasaki bomb.

“Peace!” the local newspaper headlines cried on Aug. 14, 1945. “Our bomb clinched it!”

“This town just went totally nuts,” said Burt Pierard, 74, who remembers beating pots and pans in a parade of children around his neighborhood. “It was euphoria, just the whole atmosphere was party-time, patriotic.”


For some, Richland High’s mascot embodies political incorrectness: a symbol that glorifies destruction and the deaths of innocents, a mark of hatred and fear. The bombs changed “humanity’s relationship with technology,” said Tim Connor, who was born in Hanford in the 1950s. Connor went on to become an investigative journalist and activist, working to shut down plutonium production at Hanford, which is now considered the most contaminated nuclear site in the country. “We really used our best and brightest to unlock the secrets of the atom that, in a way, still hold the world hostage to this incredible terror.”

But for Pierard, a 1959 local graduate with cloudy blue eyes and a long gray ponytail, the Bombers R-Cloud is an inspiring reminder of a time when Richland, in his mind, saved the world. He’s not willing to see this symbol dismissed without a fight. “If you are gonna take my R-Cloud away from me,” he said, rolling back his black sweatshirt to reveal a green and gold R-Cloud tattooed onto his right shoulder, “you’re gonna rip it off my cold, dead arm.”


Qualheim, an alumnus of the school who has taught there since 1979, said he prefers to stay quiet about the Richland High mascot these days. In the past, he had expressed his personal distaste for the R-Cloud after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Since then, he feels branded by some alumni as a conspirator looking to rewrite history yet again.

“I certainly don’t run around carrying a picket sign saying, ‘Down with the cloud!’” Qualheim said. But he won’t wear the R-Cloud mascot, and he’s removed it from uniforms for the students he coaches. But he no longer has the energy to fight it. If a student asks, he’ll talk about what he sees in the logo.

“Some people look at [the R-Cloud] as a peace symbol. When I see that, I see that vaporized shadow in the cement and I see those melted baby bottles and melted tricycles. That’s what I see,” he said. “Their skin was dripping from their bodies.”

To Trisha Pritikin, who grew up in Richland but moved away years ago, the R-Cloud has only negative connotations. “It indicates a joy for destruction and death,” she said. “Like, ‘Let’s celebrate the fact that we can destroy and kill with this atomic technology.’” She sees it as a blight on Richland.


Pritikin is a Hanford Downwinder, who watched her parents die from cancer and has thyroid disease that she attributes to the radioactive emissions from Hanford. “My whole family got wiped out,” she said.

Hanford’s toxic reach didn’t stop at the site’s barbed-wire fences: radioactive emissions released into the air fell on fields where livestock grazed. Soon, local children were drinking tainted milk, fish from the Columbia River were contaminated, and the Oregon Health Division deemed it  “the most radioactive river in the world from World War II to the 1970s.” Thousands of people who were unknowingly exposed have filed claims, but very few have seen any compensation.

“They blanketed the community and beyond with radiation, and they didn’t tell us. It seems to me that would put a little dent in the pride around [the mascot],” Pritikin said.

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