Thursday, May 23, 2013
The history of the site is basically that the federal goverment decided that this was the best place to locate a nuclear site as part of the Manhattan Project during WWII. The minimal number of people living there, the recent construction of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams for power, and the proximity of the cold water of the Columbia River was what made it an ideal spot. Unfortunately, the people who lived in White Bluffs and Hanford were given 30 days to pack up their belongings and leave their homes and farms with no explanation as to why. You can still see the remnants of the Hanford High School and the White Bluffs Bank as well as the stumps of the fruit orchards that were there before WWII. During WWII, there were 50,000 people working on the site to build the facility. There were pictures of babies born there, parties, dining halls, etc. in the tour headquarters. All pretty amazing. And all very secretive. During WWII, most of the workers had no idea that they were working on building nuclear bombs until after they were dropped in Japan. Even after that, no one was allowed to talk about what they did there. If they did, they found themselves drafted into the military and sent some some really remote location like Patagonia--at least that is what our tour guide said. And one of the guys taking our tour that used to work there confirmed that he heard guys talking in the bar about things that they shouldn't have been and all of a sudden they disappeared. Didn't know where but there weren't working at Hanford anymore. And uranium and plutonium were not to be in anyone's vocabulary. Even the guy that worked there, couldn't bring himself to say plutonium today when talking about what he did. Uranium was called metal and plutonium was called buttons.
The site is huge--the size of the state of Rhode Island. There are nine decommissioned nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing centers there. All but one of the nuclear reactors have been cleaned up as much as possible and sealed. They have left one--the B reactor which was the one that produced the products used in the nuclear bomb used ion Nagasaki during WWII--open for tours. It was pretty interesting to see it. They are in the process of trying to get the nuclear waste moved out of the leaking tanks that they are in to tanks closer to a new vitrification processing plant that is being built. There are 177 tanks with millions of gallons of radioactive waste in them. A large number of them are leaking into the ground water. We saw workers out in the waste tank farms in protective clothing and carrying Geiger counters at a couple of the sites. They are hoping that this new plant that is being built will be the answer to making the waste a little bit safer. It won't take away the radioactivity but it will basically make it into glass so that it won't leach into the soil anymore. Then they plan on storing it very deep underground once that the waste has been processed. They figure that whole project will take until at least 2052--but probably much longer than that. It is still going to take tens of thousands of years before it won't be radioactive anymore.
We saw a big hole in the ground where they are moving asbestos and contaminated soil further away from the rivers and water supply. There is a protective liner under all the waste to keep it from leaching into the ground water supply. Pretty interesting seeing all the trucks bringing in contaminated and non-contaminated soil to cover over. Also saw the facility where the plutonium used to be stored up until a couple of years ago when it was moved to Georgia. It is only just recently that they have allowed visitors anywhere near it. It was one of the most secure locations in the country. It is still so sensitive to security risk that they don't allow cameras there. So even though they allow pictures to be taken at Reactor B if you go on the Reactor B only tour--because of some of the other locations of the reservations, no cameras or cell phones are allowed on the tour.
We saw where they bring the nuclear reactors from submarines and surface ships when they are decommissioned. We also saw the currently still operating nuclear power plant and several research laboratories on the site. There is a lot more than just nuclear production, storage and cleanup going on there.
I have to admit. Going on a five hour tour of Hanford was not high on my list of things to do. And some of the science and engineering of it all was over my head. But is was interesting to see given that there is so much press about Hanford and it being the biggest radioactive contamination site in the country. It is surprising the number of people that still work there for the government and contractors in the cleanup process and security of the place. Fascinating place.