Apr 2, 2007

Fission Trip

Sightseeing at Hanford, America's original plutonium factory.

The bomb-sniffing dog has nosed into my briefcase. A Department of Energy official has checked my ID. As instructed, I've left my cell phone and camera at home. I step onto the charter bus and settle in as the driver heads north on Route 4. A few minutes later, we pass through a checkpoint and into a restricted area — an arid swath of southeastern Washington state blanketed with sagebrush and steeped in cold war history. Time to start the Plutonium Tour.

There are a few younger couples, but most of my busmates are retirees from nearby towns like Richland and Pasco. We're about to get an up-close look at the Hanford nuclear-production site, one of the most significant and terrifying relics of the arms race. In the 45-year period ending in 1988, the nine reactors here produced most of the plutonium for America's arsenal . Today, the concrete monstrosities sit mothballed, their reactor cores cold.

Hanford is the worst nuclear waste site in the Americas : 53 million gallons of radio active liquid and sludge, 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste, and 270 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater. Bechtel has been contracted to render the liquid and sludge harmless, but the engineering firm's treatment complex is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. It won't go online until 2019 at the earliest.

There's pent-up demand for public tours of Hanford, which were suspended after 9/11. Three years later, the tours quietly resumed with beefed-up security. Last fall, when the Web site for tour registration went live, all available spaces filled in just two minutes.

The main attraction at Hanford is B Reactor, which was built in just 13 months spanning 1943 and 1944 in the sprint to supply plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Before we enter, a woman in jeans and a US Marines sweatshirt assures us that we "won't get contaminated on this tour." What we really need to watch out for, she warns, is lead paint, uneven floors, and the occasional bat or spider. Walking inside, the air is cool, and the entryway is decorated with poster-size photographs of Hanford operations from the 1940s. Also on display: a copy of Einstein's 1939 letter to President Roosevelt recommending research into a new resource — a nuclear chain reaction — that could produce "extremely powerful bombs of a new type."

The hall opens onto a cavernous main floor, with the three-story face of the reactor just off to the left. Near the ceiling, an eerie orange warning light still spins. The gray wall is covered with 2,004 holes that make it look something like the board for the strategy game Battleship . When the facility was up and running, workers fed slugs of uranium into these openings, and then neutrons pummeled the metal to produce plutonium.

We come to the control room, equipped with the obligatory red emergency button for shutting down all operations. My Homer Simpson moment arrives when I take a turn in the wooden technician's chair. Suddenly, B Reactor and Hanford come to life. I can almost see a guy in a hard hat scribbling on the yellowing calendar behind me, a crew of uniformed workers loading uranium cylinders into the reactor outside, tidy rows of barracks and lines of construction equipment covering the now-quiet desert.

When it comes to atomic history, Los Alamos basks in J. Robert Oppenheimer's heroic afterglow. Hanford is the forgotten little brother. Thousands of people — construction workers, physicists, secretaries, soldiers — converged anonymously on this patch of ranch land to conjure the fuel for the nuclear age . The bombs made from those materials were used only twice. And today, in these newly perilous times, Hanford is a reminder of just how hard it is to clean up a nuclear mess.

David Wolman

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