Hanford Is No Place for a Park

Seen from Washington State Highway 24, Hanford's B Reactor looks smaller than a sugar cube, a gray lump set down next to the Columbia River some 30 miles north of Richland, my hometown. It is one of several nuclear reactors built along that stretch of river more than a half-century ago in the name of national defense. They now sit shuttered, a string of non-descript shells with numbingly utilitarian names -- D Reactor, F Reactor, H Reactor.

I was in Washington recently with my eight-year-old daughter to visit my parents. It was her spring break and I try to get back at least once a year, bringing one of my kids with me. This year the wind blew steadily and clouds scuttled nonstop across the wide sky.

On our last day there, the four of us got into my parents' SUV and headed north out of town. The highway was grid-line straight and edged with a barbed wire fence -- just one strand -- more an idea of a boundary than an actual barrier. My dad and I idly speculated about it: Maybe now that security isn't as tight as it once was, they've removed the other strands to let wildlife get through. (One of the great ironies of the Hanford site is that despite the contamination brought about by the nuclear industry, it is one of the best-preserved shrub-steppe ecosystems in the world.)

Tumbleweeds the size of laundry baskets careened across the road and I fought the urge to swerve to avoid them. Although there wasn't much traffic on that day, I heeded the signs grimly noting the numbers of rollover accidents, of head-on collisions, of fatalities on the stretch of road between Richland and the Vernita Bridge, a few miles upriver from the reactors.

I wanted to show my daughter the reactors that formed the backdrop of my childhood, and I wanted to see them again for myself. The entire Hanford complex was shrouded in intrigue when I was young. Security was tight, and secrecy was the norm. My dad, like most of my friends' dads, worked out at "the area" as we called it. Beyond that fact, we knew very little. Even today, a veil of wonder hangs over the site though most of the activity now involves remediation and the dismantling of the reminders of the nuclear arms race that so defined the latter half of the twentieth century.

There's not a lot you can see of the B Reactor site from the highway's shoulder, but it is as close as we could get.

At least for now.

Committees in both the Senate and the House are considering a "Manhattan Project National Park" that would include the B Reactor, the "world's first production-scale nuclear reactor." That site, along with sites in Tennessee and New Mexico would commemorate the historical significance of the Manhattan Project -- the top-secret rush to build a nuclear bomb during World War II.

The stated rationale for the park is that "the development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II" was "the single most significant event of the 20th century.''

Another rationale offered is that it would be cheaper to maintain the B Reactor as a park than it would be to "cocoon" it (i.e., encasing the reactor core in steel and concrete). By one estimate, it would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars a year" to operate the B Reactor as a museum, and more than $10 million a year to encase it in concrete in order to forestall a leak of radiation.

The first rationale has some merit; the second one has much less. To my mind, economic arguments for the making the B Reactor into a park reveal an uncomfortably glib attitude about one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

To be sure, there is important history in the B Reactor, which processed the plutonium in "Fat Man," the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, killing tens of thousands of people. Even so, a "park" is not the right way to remember that event, particularly if, as comments by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and others suggest, the park would highlight the technological marvels over the destructive realities and decades of fear brought about by nuclear weapons.

I think the B Reactor should be cocooned. This won't make it safe forever, but only buys time until a permanent solution to its radioactive core can be found (if, indeed, any solution can be found). The site should be kept visible, but not fully accessible, even though tours of the site are already available to the public on a limited basis.

Maybe the side of the highway where my daughter and I stood, with its litter of broken beer bottles and the shreds of plastic fluttering on the barbed wire, is as good of a place as any to view the B Reactor. Put up signs explaining the horrors birthed at that site, including the stark reminder that the U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons. Pay the costs of the past and prepare for a future in which the nation continues to struggle with the consequences of what it unleashed there at Hanford.