RICHLAND, Wash. – You've heard of eco-tourism. How about nuclear tourism? One of the hottest tickets in the Northwest this year is to a hulking nuclear reactor in southeast Washington. Interest in the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor is high. And it started long before President Obama signed the recent nuclear reduction treaty. Hanford's B Reactor was built in secret during WWII and operated through the Cold War. Now it's like a museum. Correspondent Anna King caught a ride on this year's first tour of the B Reactor.
Sound: Upbeat music
In a lobby on the outskirts of Richland, upbeat music plays and WWII-era photos flash on a large flatscreen. About a dozen people from all over the county are waiting to board the minibus to the middle of Hanford.
Jim Owens and his wife Karen just moved here from Pennsylvania. Jim now works at Hanford as an engineer.
Jim Owens: “The coworkers told me about the tour and said how good it was. So we decided to try and get on the tour.”
Getting on the tour isn't easy. Some have been trying to get a ticket for years. Boarding the mini-bus I ask around. Most of these people stayed up until midnight to get theirs. In the first minute of registration 500 seats were reserved.
Sound: “All men of good will earnestly hope that a realistic control of atomic weapons can and will be achieved.”
A vintage cartoon plays on a small TV on the bus.
All of the people on this tour have different reasons for attending. Sitting near me is Alese Rhodes. She lives near Hanford, but she's originally from Germany. And because she's not a U.S. citizen, she's never been allowed on the nuclear site before now. As we near the boxy reactor Rhodes leans forward in her seat.
Anna King: “What do you think?”
Alese Rhodes: “It looks old, it looks old doesn't it. Impressive. This is like unsafe looking.”
Tour guide: “Welcome to the B Reactor.”
Stepping out of the bus and inside the reactor, some in our group are a bit jumpy. Klint Nollmeyer teaches middle school just south of Seattle. He clutches his notepad to his chest and his deep-set eyes are wide.
Anna King: “What do you think?”
Klint Nollmeyer: “Ahhhhhh scary. You are in the place where the bomb was made right? You known, the smell of industrial and everything.”
The air inside here does smell acrid, dusty and metallic. Metal coils and cylinders stacked four-stories high are held in graphite blocks. Flashing amber lights swirl about.
There are only about a dozen nuclear tourists. But they are escorted and watched closely by a half dozen tour guides.
Tour guide: “If you want to come on in...”
The tour weaves through government-green painted corridors around the reactor core. We go to the backside of the reactor, the cooling water intake room, the pumping room and finally the control room. The floors sparkle. The dials gleam. So far the federal government has spent about $200,000 to restore and safety-up the reactor.
Videos on flatscreens tell most of the story.
Sound: “In addition to monitoring the rate of reaction, operators also had to constantly monitor the pressure in the cooling system.”
Standing in the control room with all the brass knobs and vintage dials, the weight of America's nuclear choice is hard to escape. No matter what your political views, it's hard to deny the achievement of building this entire reactor in about 11 months. Especially when no one had ever done this before. And it worked. The people who sat in this old wooden chair helped Hanford pump out about 2/3rds of the nation's plutonium from 1944 to 1989. And to this day the country is spending billions to clean up the mess. For teacher Klint Nollmeyer the legacy of all this comes flooding in. It's a lesson he wants to pass on to his students.
Klint Nollmeyer: “Not to judge it for my kids, I want them to judge it for themselves. Is it worth it? Is what we did? But I want to give my kids that informed decision.”
Many believe important nuclear sites like the B Reactor should become part of the national park system. But the National Park Service says that plan would be too costly and difficult. Still, Washington state lawmakers are fighting to keep the proposal alive.
Back on the bus, some stare out the windows, others talk in hushed voices.
Edwin Navrotski is 83. He says he was drafted into the infantry in World War II. He saw Nagasaki, Japan about three months after the bomb was dropped. Plutonium for that bomb came from Hanford's B Reactor.
Edwin Navrotski: “I saw the end product and now I see the beginning. So it's the completion of a cycle for me.”
Navrotski says he thinks the Allies saved a lot of lives by dropping the bomb, but now some 65 years later the total annihilation it caused is still fresh.
“And I hope we never get to use it again. I'm from the greatest generation, but I hope that there is a greater generation that does not have war in its itinerary through life.”
Although it's made of steel and concrete, the B Reactor is a little like a mirror. It reflects back something of those who enter. Some gain an education. Others tease apart the intricate engineering. And for a few like Navrotski the B Reactor refreshes conflicted emotions.
Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio
More information on Hanford site and B Reactor tours: http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordSiteTours