Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 11:55 UK

US nuclear site open for tourists

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Hanford, Washington state


A look around Hanford B Reactor

The US town of Hanford, in Washington state, is opening up its nuclear secrets to tourists.

"I'm in love with B reactor," says historian Michelle Gerber to a bus-load of American tourists.

It is 8am on a Saturday morning and they are the lucky ones.

Around 20,000 people applied for this exclusive tour run by the US Department of Energy.

We joined the trip to this unlikely tourist attraction that is growing in popularity.

Barren wilderness

"We're very excited this year to be able to offer about five thousand seats," Ms Gerber tells us over a microphone. "That's a record by far".

We drive for an hour through a beautiful barren wilderness, the dry scrub of south-eastern Washington state.

A 600 sq m section of the state lay largely untouched for 60 years: a buffer zone around a top secret project.

Atomic ale
Atomic ale in a local pub is a sign of the town's pride in its past

As we turn onto a dirt road - onto restricted land - a man is waiting for us.

"It's an industrial site," he tells us, "so it's not made for the public... we have asbestos, we have mercury we have lead."

Looming ahead on the flat, empty landscape is a large, drab, boxy concrete structure with a tall chimney stack.

It has no windows, and apart from a handful of low pre-fabs, stands alone in this windswept desert.

"No matter what you end up thinking about the whole process," historian Michelle Gerber tells us, "99% of you will you probably come to the conclusion that at least the engineering was amazing."

We pull up. The US flag ripples atop a metal pole, its rope clanging loudly in the howling wind.

Those are the only sounds in the place where America's nuclear weapons industry began.

And it began in the most devastating way: the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945 contained plutonium created at Hanford B Reactor.

Soon after, Japan surrendered and World War II was over.

Cold war

The work to build B reactor was untested; it was a top secret rush, from blueprint to operation in 11 months.

As many as 50,000 people lived and worked on site. It became the second largest city in the state after Seattle.

Patriotic workers enjoyed full employment in this government boom-town.

Everything was provided: housing, shops, services, even dances and acrobatic shows.

Secrecy was essential during the Second World War and few knew exactly what they were working on.

But as WWII ended, so Hanford's work began.

Established in 1943 - went on to produce the plutonium that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945
Supplied two-thirds of US weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War
Clean-up began 20 years ago - could take 20 more years to complete
Clean-up costs $2bn a year

Eight more reactors were built; a production line that supplied two-thirds of America's weapons-grade plutonium through the 40 years of the Cold War.

Hanford helped make the US a superpower.

The plant was also the mainstay of the local economy.

Government spending underpinned the region for nearly half a century, but the end of the Cold War brought the end for Hanford too. The site is now deserted.

But in nearby Richland, memories are more than preserved.

The local high school football team is called the Richland Bombers and its emblem is a mushroom cloud.

Pupils say they are not glorifying war, but remembering local achievement.

Some in Richland worked at the nuclear site, many more have relatives who did.

Clean-up operation

Despite a few dissenters, many townsfolk believe their forefathers helped bring an early end to World War II.

Along the main street is the Atomic brew pub, where beers are given names like Atomic Amber and Half-life Hefeweisen.

It is a gimmick, yet locals and tourists are drawn to its odd charm. General manager Dave Acton, who grew up in the area, says it is an homage to locals.


Hanford residents are proud ot their town's nuclear past

who worked on the Manhattan Project.

But Hanford has another legacy - it is the site of the biggest nuclear clean-up in the world.

Radioactive contamination - both accidental and deliberate - took place on a huge scale over decades.

Two-thousand people have filed a lawsuit claiming Hanford caused them to develop illnesses including cancer - they are called downwinders.

Some cases are pending; two people have won compensation.

For years, water from the mighty Columbia River, Hanford's border to the north and east, was used to cool the fuel rods and then dumped back into the river, contaminated.

More than a third of the 177 giant underground tanks built to store radioactive waste have leaked. Seven have so far been emptied.

Contaminated waste is now percolating through the earth. The fear is that it will reach the groundwater and end up back in the river.

Chain reaction

The US Department of Energy is in charge of the clean-up at Hanford, a project that costs $2bn (£1.2bn) a year.

It started 20 years ago and could take another 20.

Environmentalists say the government is acting too slowly at Hanford.

Officials admit safety precautions have had an impact on the speed of clean-up, but they stress they are on schedule.


Cleaning up in Hanford

Things could speed up thanks to an extra $2bn for the Hanford clean-up from President Obama's economic stimulus package.

It could create upto 4,000 jobs - money that will trickle down into Richland's coffers.

Hanford's work kept the local economy afloat for decades; cleaning-up after it will provide a welcome boost during a recession.

It is an economic chain reaction in an area that cannot and will not deny its controversial past.

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