Old nuclear reactors are incredibly peaceful. From the seat of a kayak on the Hanford Reach, floating past the remains of one of the biggest technological marvels of the 20th century, they’re like old barns in a New England pasture—droopy, quaint artifacts of another time.
Only these artifacts made plutonium.
Mark Vucelick, among the 8,000 employed at the Hanford site northwest of the Tri-Cities, paddles beside me, pointing out reactors and mule deer on the south side of the river, where we’re not allowed beyond the high-water line.
In the middle of World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers selected the empty desert here for the classified Manhattan Project. Thousands of workers arrived on the dusty landscape to construct…something. Only a half dozen people knew what the Manhattan Project actually was: constructing something that had never been built before, to create an element that had never existed before. Locals learned the truth August 1945 when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; the plutonium for the latter was made at B Reactor. The Fat Man bomb killed as many as 75,000.
Since the heady days of the war, Hanford’s nine reactors stocked America’s nuclear arsenal; only one, a power generator, remains in service. The 586-square-mile site holds three-quarters of the country’s high-level nuclear waste, including the most contaminated spot in the country. Vucelick works at a giant vitrification plant being erected to turn the radioactive by-products of the nuclear race into stable glass.
We paddle for about five hours, hugging the pinkish White Bluffs to look for nests of baby crows or swallows. This is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia, not like the reservoirs created by dams up- and downstream. Kayaks do better than powerboats in this stretch; Vucelick points to the basalt formations just below the surface and notes, “A lot of propellers died here.”
Vucelick literally knows where the Hanford bodies are buried; cleanup workers dug up horses, pigs, and beagles used to test radiation exposure. “You never know what those mad scientists were doing back in the 1950s,” he says. In all his stories about the global use of nuclear power and weapons, he calls Russia “the Soviets.”
If Hanford had never become Hanford, this land would never have stayed this pristine. Post–Cold War, the Department of Energy released its hold on the north side of the river, turning the area into a wildlife sanctuary. Another piece of land was used to build the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, which searches for Einstein’s proposed gravitational waves. Besides the cocooned reactors and a pit filled with discarded nuclear submarine cores—they have to go somewhere—there’s more nature in Hanford than radioactive waste.
On a windy day, intermediate paddle skills are required on the Columbia’s deceptive currents. Guided trips last all day. And as calm as the Hanford shore appears from the water, it’s still patrolled by guards with guns.
Vucelick notes that without the nuclear projects, the land around us would likely be monoculture farms like the ones that blanket the rest of the greater Tri-Cities. And it would have been mad science of a different kind, he says, like growing the Honeycrisp apple, a designer hybrid.
“They’re the plutonium of apples—they didn’t exist on the earth until we made them.”