The bus plowed through dust on the road winding through the Hanford Site, the horizon dotted with specters of reactors that had been dismantled or “cocooned.” All seats full, the bus was a mishmash of Richland natives like my sisters and me, returning home for the experience; locals; other nuclear tourists; and visitors from Japan.
The route through the nuclear production complex took me on what I imagined my father’s trip to work at the area had been, through a desolation that held its own beauty. It was also through ancestral tribal lands that had been confiscated in 1943 from Native American tribes — the Wanapum Tribe, Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — to create the nuclear complex. The guide pointed out hills, like Mooli Mooli, meaning “little stacked hills,” that rolled beyond us, a sacred tribal site. Tribal members have battled the government for access per their treaty rights, and have been crucial in the cleanup process.
Outside a tank storage facility, we briefly exited the bus. Over 56 million gallons of radioactive waste is held in 177 underground containers; approximately two-thirds of the tanks have leaked, and at least 1 million gallons of highly radioactive waste have seeped into the ground. Over 40 years, Hanford produced the plutonium for nearly two-thirds of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
We passed the burial site of the core of a nuclear submarine. It might seem an unusual burial object, except that such submarines represent another nuclear legacy for Washington, with eight Trident submarines stationed at the Bangor Base, each carrying multiple nuclear weapons with many times the destructive power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the B Reactor — its huge block building and companion spire visible from a distance — we saw where plutonium for the Trinity test (depicted in the film “Oppenheimer”) and Fat Man, the world’s second atomic bomb, was produced. Entering the vast chamber, we were carefully guided to the displays: Control panels. An office where toilet paper was distributed for workers to take home. A giant wall of graphite and tubes.
The Fat Man bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after Hiroshima was devastated by Little Boy. Both bombs created instant death: Children turned to shadows and birds burned in the air. Over 200,000 people were killed. Thousands more suffered for years after, including infants born with birth defects.
In Washington, that history is remembered. Richland holds a remembrance ceremony each Aug. 9 along the Columbia River for the bombing’s victims. In Seattle, From Hiroshima to Hope, one of the largest commemorations outside Japan, is held each Aug. 6, with candlelit lanterns on Green Lake carrying messages of peace and hope.
We were coming to the end of our drive through lands where we’d never been, and where we’d never been allowed. Past vast horizons and sagebrush, past a building that changed the world.
When we rolled to our final stop at the visitors’ center outside of Richland, the bus deposited us back on solid ground. To the heat. To a single bright sun. To a film of dust rising from dust devils coating our arms, our newly knowledgeable faces.
Reflecting on the tour, I was left with a sense of urgency. The government must prioritize funding, timelines and worker safety for cleanup.
Carrying the weight of history, we can strive for a future where diplomacy and treaties take precedence. We can stop funding development and production of new nuclear weapons. We can take steps to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used — that nuclear explosions remain in the past.
Note: This piece is based on tours taken in 2010 and 2013. The Department of Energy offers a B Reactor National Historic Landmark tour and a Prewar Historic Sites tour of the communities of Hanford and White Bluffs. The B Reactor tours end Nov. 18, and the B Reactor will be closed for repairs for at least two years.