Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Site W

Today was another one of the "must-do" items that have been on my Pacific Coast list for years. 

I started off with an early alarm at 6, so I could be out by 7 and at my destination by 11.  This worked.  As a side note, this morning I did something I am known to almost never do, and which I had not done at all this trip, with the exception of visiting Cousin Joan in Pasadena: 

Go back the same way I came.

I hate doing it, when it's almost always as easy to make a loop and see different scenery.  But today, time was very much of the essence, and it just so happened that the Grand Coulee is now officially one of my Favorite Places on Earth, and it was a thrill to see it again, from the opposite direction.  It really is amazing, and I'd come back at the first opportunity.

So I retraced maybe 60 miles or so, then headed for Richland, or more specifically, the Hanford Engineering Works, or Hanford Site, or Site W.

Hanford is a huge, 586 square-mile "Area 51" type secret government installation along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.  It was hastily constructed after the experimental proof of nuclear fission, with work starting in 1943.  By 1945, nearly 550 buildings had been constructed by a camp of about 50,000 workers toiling in secrecy.  During that time, Hanford was the largest post office in the US.  The remoteness, access to clean, cold river water, and proximity to a huge electrical supply (Grand Coulee Dam) made it the ideal location for Site W.
"B" reactor core

Reactor B (I asked why no Reactor A and got a good answer) once up and running, was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, creating the man-made element Plutonium from Uranium-238 (at the rate of about 7 ounces per ton!) which was used for testing, and ultimately, the Fat Man bomb that ended the war.  (Little Boy, the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was made with U-235 produced in Oak Ridge, TN)

Today, the site is still heavily guarded, but I think more due to it's status as the world's largest toxic cleanup site, and whatever nefarious secrets it holds to that effect.  But the B reactor is open to tours for American citizens over age 18 -and that's exactly what I am!  The installation is so large, we boarded a tour bus at the center outside the compound, and it was a 40-minute ride to the reactor site. 
Only the shells of 3 buildings remain from before eminent domain was invoked, and in fact most of the 550 buildings related to the project have been razed and buried, or entombed.  Yet there was still much we couldn't see, and if the bus were to have made a wrong turn it would have been a security breach and all hell would have rained upon us. 

The site is still taking radioactive waste from nuclear subs and other installations, and there is an ENORMOUS amount (think hundreds of millions of gallons) of horrible stuff buried in the ground there - and that's what they admit to.

This is honestly one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life.  I'd be embarrassed for you to know how stoked I was through this whole thing. If you're also fascinated (or frightened) by this, there's plenty of material on the internet.  And as you know, if it's on the internet, it has to be true.

Tonight - Walla Walla, Washington.  Tomorrow - through Idaho to somewhere in Montana.

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