In a cloak of secrecy that not even the workers who built it could see through, Hanford’s Plant B reactor was the birthplace of the atomic age. This was the first large-scale plutonium production reactor ever to be built, creating a supply chain of radioactive materials that made it possible to create the first atomic bomb and Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, contributing to the end of World War II.
Since being decommissioned in 1968, Plant B has been meticulously scrubbed as a part of a decades-long, $1 billion-per-year cleanup of the entire Hanford Site nuclear complex. Though this historic reactor is still contaminated with radiation, none of it is “smearable,” as experts would call it. In other words, one-time visitors can’t be harmed simply by coming into contact with objects there.
For several years now the Department of Energy (DoE) has offered selected road tours around limited areas of Hanford that include a walking tour of Plant B (http://manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov). In order to book a slot, you must be an adult U.S. citizen who can plan well in advance. Online bookings fill up extremely quickly once the DoE announces the tour schedule.
The only way to snag a free ticket is to regularly check the website. Plant B’s availability may soon be opening up, though. In 2008 the building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and DoE officials are currently working on plans to open the reactor to more public visits.
In spite of Hanford’s toxic legacy, in a remarkable twist of fate it was also single-handedly responsible for preserving the last free-flowing, nontidal stretch of the “River of the West.”
The 51-square-mile buffer needed to protect outsiders from Hanford and vice versa during World War II and the Cold War is now protected as Hanford Reach National Monument, an amazing preserve that helps sustain healthy runs of chinook salmon and offers safe haven for deer, coyotes, bobcats, white pelicans, and other flora and fauna.
For more information, contact the USFWS Monument/Refuge headquarters at 509/371-1801 or www.fws.gov/hanfordreach.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition