The sun shines on a radioactive hazard warning sign at a landfill used to bury hazardous materials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. / Ted S. Warren, AP
HANFORD, Wash. â?? I'm fascinated by Cold War history, and I like a haunted hayride. Which explains why I spent a vacation day at a place where humanity developed the capacity to destroy itself.
I visited B Reactor, a decommissioned nuclear plant that made the stuff for the first atomic bomb, test-detonated in Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945; for the one dropped on Nagasaki that helped end World War II; and for warheads the United States stockpiled in its four-decade arms race with the Soviet Union.
I wanted to revisit a scary time of spies and top secrets, when a mysterious distillate called plutonium 239, brewed on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, would change the world. Or possibly end it.
I wasn't alone. The Department of Energy's free tours, designed to help develop "nuclear tourism" in the region, fill up fast.
We boarded a bus south of Hanford and rolled for 45 minutes into the desert. The road was lined with barbed wire fences clogged with tumbleweed. Although all of Hanford's nine weapons reactors are closed (and most are sealed), the 586-acre site still is entered only by gate and patrolled by armed guards.
From the outside, B Reactor - the first large nuclear reactor ever built and a National Historic Landmark - is unimpressive. It's a boxy, gray cinderblock structure obviously assembled in haste; the most advanced technology came in the most banal container.
Inside, we walked through a low corridor into what felt like the building's great hall, a room five stories high. One wall is the face of the reactor core, studded with tubes for 2,004 fuel rods, each of which could vary in diameter by only 0.003 of an inch.
I checked out the control room, which was like stepping inside the mind of a mad scientist, circa 1950. The primitive computers and other machines, painted a government green-gray, bristled with a bewildering array of switches, dials, screens, knobs, gauges, buttons and lights, with cryptic labels such as "Deadman Test Switch" and "Work Area Fog Spray.''
You can see the drafting table where the physics Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, using nothing but a slide rule and graph paper, worked for three straight days to get the reactor up to speed on Sept. 26, 1944 â?? eight months after groundbreaking. Blueprints were completed after the building.
There's the old safe that held Pentagon orders, a reminder that secrecy was all. Plutonium was "product," and Fermi was "Mr. Farmer." Nobody talked shop, even with their families, unless they wanted a visit from the FBI.
You can sit in the operator's chair, but the tour guide warned, "Please don't push any buttons â?? especially the red one!''
She was kidding. B Reactor may have been an agent of Armageddon, and Hanford may be the most polluted place in America, but "we do have fun here,'' said Kevin Haggerty, the facilities manager.
And they have pride in what was accomplished. But the story told here is not the whole one. There's little or no mention of pollution created by the Hanford nuclear program; 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sit in 177 underground tanks, some of which leak. Nor is there an acknowledgment that the bomb might not have been the only way to force Japan to surrender.
Haggerty counted heads on the bus before we left. "It's a fun place to come visit,'' he said, "isn't it?''
That, and thought-provoking - because of the accomplishments the tour loudly celebrates and the questions it implicitly raises.
Hampson reports for USA TODAY from its New York bureau.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Voices: A close encounter with nuclear tourism