RICHLAND, Wash. – The Hanford Nuclear Reservation recently accepted another spent nuclear reactor from the U.S. Navy. The reactors travel by barge from the naval shipyard in Bremerton, along the Washington Coast and up the Columbia River to Richland. It's a highly secretive operation. But in the Tri-Cities, Washington, a nuclear reactor arrives almost like a celebrity would.
News of the arrival of a spent Navy reactor in the Tri-Cities travels by word of mouth. Passersby gather to gawk and snap pictures. The reactor looks like a small high-rise building with no windows, painted sand tan. Getting it off the barge requires large cranes.
Sound: Barge rumbles
The spent reactors come from dismantled vessels at Bremerton's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. They eventually go into a big dirt ditch on the Hanford site. It takes barges, cranes and dozens of workers to coordinate.
The work often happens through the night. Stadium lights blaze. Nearby, Tri-Cities residents sit and watch from their cars like a drive-in movie. At daylight, the reactor is moved by a massive blue tractor trailer.
Sound: Tractor trailor
A caravan of trucks follows the reactor into the sagebrush with a police car flashing lights. This reactor is from the ex U.S.S. South Carolina.
As it passes into the Hanford site, four older men race to the scene packed tightly into a pickup truck. Maynard Hill and his buddies are on vacation. They rushed over to catch a fleeting glimpse of the reactor.
Anna King: “Hi guys are you watching the reactor?”
Men: “And that's it going right up there huh?”
Anna King: “Yeah.”
Men: “That is neat and I wanted these guys to see it. And doggonit I couldn't get them down here quick enough. Boy they are moving pretty fast. Yeahhhhh.”
With that, the big rig toeing the reactor slips beneath the sight line and into the sagebrush of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Security is tight for obvious reasons. The Navy takes days to even answer my most basic questions. And reaction to the operation in the Tri-Cities is pretty ho-hum. No shouting protesters, no people holding signs. Jennifer Mendez was jogging past as the crew cleaned up. She didn't seem too concerned either.
Jennifer Mendez: “I guess we're familiar with lots of reactor type work going on out here and I think we all know that extra steps are taken to make sure it's done safely.”
The Navy brings about 2 to 3 reactors through Richland a year. With the addition of the U.S.S. South Carolina there are now 122 at Hanford.
Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio