SITTING INSIDE an old nuclear reactor, gazing up at a wall that holds over 2,000 cylinder rods that once produced plutonium for our nation's atom bombs. That's how I spent my Labor Day weekend.
Located just outside of Richland, in eastern Washington state, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation spans 586 square miles on high desert plains. The mighty Columbia River marks the site's eastern boundary where its waters once served as the depository for a few of the reactors' contaminated effluent.
Belly-high barb-wire fencing, with phallic smoke stacks positioned next to its aging boxy structures, surrounds Hanford's dry austere landscape. The aura of this rough terrain, taken from the Wanapum tribe only 66 years ago, is evocative to say the least.
At noon on this particular Saturday, a group of us climbed onto a bus in Richland to tour Hanford's notorious B Reactor, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 2008. Constructed by DuPont in just 11 months back in the early 1940s, B was the first full-scale plutonium production plant in the world. This summer the Department of Energy, along with the help of the Fluor Corporation, provided regular public tours of the reactor, hoping that one day the facility will be turned into a national museum of sorts.
By all accounts, the B Reactor is historic. For starters, it's the most polluted nuclear site on the planet. "It was the perfect marriage of science and engineering," one of our guides expressed almost tearfully. "The brave men that built this left us a history we should not ever forget."
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I CERTAINLY agree we ought not disregard the B Reactor's true legacy. Beyond the lofty rhetoric of scientific achievements and marvelous engineering feats lives a story our government would rather not recall. It's a tale of death and environmental destruction, the remnants of which are with us to this day.
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