Editor’s note: this is the second article (of hopefully many) on The Royal Tour from Christian Grand. You can read all of his articles here!
The Tri-Cities area lies a bit north of the Oregon-Washington border, and about 40 miles north of I-84. Many sections of the interstate overlay what was once the fabled Oregon Trail. Anyone with a car and a license can cruise through the same shrub-choked landscape at seventy miles per hour that settlers trekked by foot two hundred years ago. It would be easy to pass straight from Boise to Portland without noticing more of the Tri-Cities area than the surrounding rolling hills and occasional vineyard.
The organized suburbs and rolling hills deserve a closer look, however, as this area stands as a quiet monument to one of the most important moments in American history.
In 1943, residents were removed from a 586 square mile region just north of here. There at Hanford, for better or worse, scientists set to work figuring out how to harness the power of the atom, thus creating the atom bomb (working in concert with labs in New Mexico and Tennessee).
Hanford was chosen strategically by the United States government to create and process the uranium and plutonium necessary for a new type of explosive that would soon change the world. The government was looking for a large tract of land with low population density and access to a great quantity of cold water. The government used the cool waters from the mighty Columbia River as coolant at the reactor, and forced the removal of all residents from the Hanford region – farmers and Native American tribes alike.
Hanford Lab’s B Reactor
After the forced evacuation of all residents in the Hanford area, the US government started recruiting workers from around the nation to come work here. Though Hanford was one of three laboratories around the United States actively working on creating the atom bomb, this site alone employed 51,000 workers – many of them the most preeminent engineers in the world at the time. The workers eventually succeeded in the creation of the atom bomb, but the hasty construction left a lasting impact on the environment. Even today, 75 years after the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, the Hanford site is undergoing major cleanup efforts.
The plutonium manufactured here at Hanford was used in the atom bombs that turned the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to rubble back in 1945. Today, you can tour the Hanford site and decide for yourself whether dropping the bombs helped expedite the end of a war or if it was an unnecessary show of power that killed innocent citizens in a war that was already coming to a close. The free tour is available to anyone, but no one is allowed in without a guide. In order to take the tour, one must pre-register, and meet at the Manhattan Project National Historic Park visitor center, which is nestled in an unassuming strip mall on the edge of town in Richland, Washington.
The visitor center
The day I took a tour of Reactor B, I showed up on a sunny morning, and milled around the visitor center as families trickled in the door to learn about this place. I’m a self-proclaimed national park geek, and readily admit that the draw for me to come out here was part of my quest to eventually visit every national park unit; there are over 400 of them! As I stamped my National Parks Passport with the unique stamp from the Manhattan Project NHS, people started showing up from around the world to take the tour; there were people in my group from the USA, Belgium, and Sweden.
The inside of the reactor complex
After watching a brief introductory video, we all piled into a bus to head out to the reactor. Our tour guide was a retired nuclear engineer whose passion for discussing both the mechanics and the history of the atom bomb was boundless. Many of the people on my tour were physicists, and while they discussed the intricacies of uranium 235 vs uranium 238, I marveled at how many knobs there are, and how shiny stuff was.
Me fiddling with knobs. (Not really, just pretending, don’t worry.)
After the tour, on the way back the visitor center, the physicists discussed uranium and speculated on how many more years it would take to clean up the nuclear waste that still permeates the desert. Spoiler: no one knows, but probably a long time. Thoughts like this will remain with me – and with you – long after a tour here.
Though the Tri-Cities area isn’t especially eye-catching today, the suburban sprawl serves as a home to the descendents of the 51,000 workers brought here 75 years ago, and home to the engineers and support staff who still toil daily to mitigate the effects of radioactive waste, one of the lasting legacies of the Manhattan Project and Hanford Lab.
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