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Touring the Nation's Most Contaminated Land

The Department of Energy plans to take up to 3,500 people this year through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

What we can see from miles away on a bus are big concrete blocks spread out along the cooling waters of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington. That's the closest we're going to come to these "cocooned" nuclear reactors on a recent tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation located outside Richland.

I've come along for a public tour of the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, a sprawling 586-square-mile swath of desert where scientists made plutonium that fueled the atomic bomb the United States dropped on the people of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. A jar of plutonium-239 produced for the test that preceded that blast was — embarrassingly — found in a Hanford waste pit in January.

These solitary structures, covered on top by stainless steel alloy, are all that remain of nine separate nuclear reactors. Each in their inception represents an international event beginning with Pearl Harbor and heading into the Cold War. Their continued use mapped the conflict's longevity. The final reactor, N Reactor, was built in response to Russia's Sputnik launch. On the other side of the river are beautiful white bluffs.

"You're actually seeing a museum on the landscape," said Hanford historian Michelle Gerber, whose father retired from the nuclear weapons site. "Hanford was really the battlefield of the Cold War because it truly came home here."

We've stopped developing weapons of mass destruction. But when we did, this is where we did it.

From the time the federal government condemned the properties of nearby towns here in 1944 and launched the ultra-secret Manhattan Project, it took 11 months to create an atomic bomb. In the decades to follow, these reactors fueled the nuclear arms race. Gerber reminds us this happened in a different era.

"I want everybody to make their own choices about what they think about all this," she said on the bus. "But one thing there isn't any debate about: B Reactor (the first full-scale reactor in the world) was an engineering marvel."

The U.S. Department of Energy is making Hanford more accessible to the public this year than at any time in the area's notoriously secret history. More than 2,500 people booked tickets for a free, five-hour tour (60 in all) within 24 hours after the DOE made reservations available online. Another 1,000 people will likely visit the historic B Reactor — the heart of the Manhattan Project — on shorter tours available without reservations every Saturday. In October 2008, the B Reactor — with its control room and towering wall of knobs and hoses neatly arranged — was named an official historic landmark.

Paige Knight, founder of Hanford Watch, a citizen watchdog group, said a change in leadership at Hanford about two years ago triggered an effort toward greater transparency. Public tours are part of that. They offered tours in the 1990s, but those ended after 9/11. Tours have steadily increased since 2004 when Hanford offered just four. Last year, 48 took place.

"When you go on those kinds of tours you're going to get the canned version," Knight said. "The people who they have to man the tours are often World War II vets. Many believe it was the bombs that won the war. That's OK, but it's not the way I read history."

When it was all said and done by the mid-1980s, the United States had created enough nuclear weapons with plutonium made at Hanford to annihilate the world several times with enough contamination left behind to occupy generations with the cleanup. Workers buried nuclear waste and other toxic chemicals all over this vast desert half the size of Maryland. Because of the buried waste, numerous groundwater plumes of dangerous chemicals continue to seep toward the Columbia River, a vital waterway for wildlife, crop irrigation and drinking water for much of the region.

Railroad tracks, we're told, lead to a waste disposal at the base of a hillside. At another point during the tour, a field of red flags — close enough to resemble a miniature golf course — mark buried toxic waste for hundreds of yards. Later on, we see the gauges that monitor a buried tank farm, just some of the 177 single-wall tanks commonly referred to in media reports — about a third of which have leaked.

A great deal of cleanup effort is spent monitoring these tanks along with nearby groundwater wells as well as filtering the water before it reaches the river. On top of groundwater, trucks need to haul 12 million tons of contaminated soil to nearby landfills.

The cleanup will likely cost taxpayers in the end more than $150 billion. At the current rate of spending of more than $5 million per day ($2 billion per year not including another $2 billion this year in federal stimulus money), it would take more than a century to complete.

Over the years, mismanagement, government waste and cost overruns have plagued efforts. The site's largest project by Bechtel Corporation, a vitrification plant that turns nuclear waste into glass, was estimated to cost $4 billion at the time it was approved in 2000. The cost has now ballooned to at least $12 billion with a completion date slated for 2019. The bus circled this one.

Washington and Oregon added another legal case to Hanford's docket last fall by suing the Department of Energy to speed up the cleanup.

David Barber came from nearby Walla Walla, Wash., to experience the tour. Had he lived where he does today in the 1940s and early 1950s, Barber would consider himself a "downwinder" — so named because radioactive iodine drifted downwind from Hanford causing thyroid cancer and other health effects. "Downwinders" at one time could be easily recognized around town by the scars on their throats where surgeons removed a thyroid. (Barber's wife, who grew up in Hood River, had thyroid problems.)

Barber asked tour guide Gerber about one such release in 1949 called the Green Run, in which scientists emitted the largest known cloud of iodine-131 for several days to test how it traveled. Gerber, a Department of Energy employee who serves as a general spokesperson for everything historic about Hanford, said most of the gases settled quickly due to rain.

"It went quite a ways from what I understand," Barber said later. "More than what the gal on the bus actually told us it did. I heard it went into Oregon and as far into Canada and Idaho."

The federal government still doesn't acknowledge local victims of radiation poisoning from the '40s and '50s. It does, however, continue to spend money — $60 million so far — in attorneys' fees fighting a 1991 case brought on behalf of 2,000 plaintiffs who say they got sick from downwind radiation, according to Karen Dorn Steele, an investigative journalist who wrote extensively about Hanford for The Spokesman Review in Spokane.

This is the Hanford experience that along with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl may forever cloud our view of modern nuclear power. Energy Northwest, which operates a commercial nuclear reactor next door to the Hanford Site, makes a point to disassociate itself.

"The defense-waste cleanup activities under way at Hanford are completely separate and unrelated to Energy Northwest," Rochelle Olson, communications officer for Energy Northwest, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "Our commercial nuclear power plant should not be considered one in the same."

Energy Northwest took reporters on its own five-hour tour in May of its commercial power generator to show how it deals with two years' worth of spent nuclear fuel. In contrast to Hanford, "our 25 years of used nuclear fuel is stored above ground on a small concrete pad in thick concrete and steel containers awaiting federal storage or eventual recycling and reuse," Olson said.

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