Free tours of the Department of Energy's Hanford Site, a famous, secretive landmark in America's nuclear history and a monumental hazardous waste challenge today, fill quickly every year. Online reservations for 2011 are available beginning March 8.

RICHLAND — As the tour bus rolled through miles of scrub- and sagebrush-covered desert, the towering gray monument to our nation’s nuclear history was a blip on the horizon growing steadily larger as we neared.

I was so caught up in our guide’s tales, there’d been no time to think about this mammoth concrete structure, but once we were inside its cavernous interior, a tidal wave of goose bumps washed over me:

I was in the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, the one called the Manhattan Project B Reactor; its sole mission to convert uranium to plutonium for use in atomic bombs … the very plutonium used in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945.

Having grown up in nearby Yakima in the early 1960s, I knew little more about Hanford than the shivers it generated when we’d drive toward the Columbia River and pass highway signs warning, “Do not stop, Do not take photos,” because we were near that secretive place.

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Five decades later, our tour group was inside this “has been” production facility, now a National Historic Landmark, waiting for the docent not only to tell, but to show us, the steps involved in turning uranium into plutonium before it was shipped off to other top-secret places where the bombs were made.

Hush-hush past

The Hanford Site was such a secret back in the early 1940s, when the Atomic Energy Commission acquired 670 square miles on this windswept Columbia Plateau, the only thing known about its intended purpose was that it had to do with the war effort.

The secrecy was so enveloping in January 1943, when the government issued 30-day evacuation notices to the 1,500 residents of two small towns, Hanford and White Bluffs, they were simply told their homes, businesses, ranches, orchards and farms were needed for important war work, but not told for what or why, explained our guide, Rich Buel, a communications specialist for the Department of Energy.

Our group, made up primarily of Washingtonians, plus a few visitors from Illinois, Colorado and Oregon, was on the final tour of the season, last September. We joined the ranks of some 6,000 visitors who toured in 2010.

The U. S. Department of Energy manages the Hanford Site and operates two types of tours from April to September: the 5-hour Hanford Public Tour, offered twice a day, usually three days a week, and a shorter tour of the B Reactor, offered slightly less frequently.

The free tours, offered since 2004, require advance reservations, and they’re wildly popular. All seats for the 2010 Hanford Public Tour (the longer one) were filled within 12 hours of the registration opening last spring.

Bring your ID

We checked in with our government-issued identification 30 minutes before departure at the B Reactor Tour Headquarters in Richland, a near-museum of a place wallpapered with Hanford historic photos and artifacts.

Our tour, which kept us safely away from any hazardous materials, took us from Hanford’s past into the future as we traveled a two-lane road through a portion of today’s 586-square-mile Hanford Site.

We traveled over land once populated by Native American camps and fishing sites.

Passing the ghost towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, and a long-ago orchard, now nothing more than skeletal tree trunks, we saw nuclear reactors in various stages of dismantling (at one time there were nine); and those once a part of the failed 1980s nuclear-power generating project known as WPPSS (say “Woops”), an acronym for Washington Public Power Supply System.

Then we visited monuments to Hanford’s future, those edifices built with the goal of someday making “green” this present-day hazardous-waste site.

Our bus slowed as we neared one of the site’s “tank farms,” where some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste is stored in 177 underground tanks — 67 of which are known, or suspected, to have leaked.

Tanks and truckloads

of nuclear waste

Stopping at a mock-up tank, we learned about cleanup and containment efforts.

“It took 300,000 tons of raw uranium to produce 74 tons of plutonium which produced lots of waste,” Buel explained. “There’s waste from liquids involved in the process, the chemical waste, the solid waste.”

We traveled past the 12-story high, four-football-fields-sized Waste Treatment (Vitrification) Plant, scheduled to open in 2019, the place where tank waste is to be transformed into a stable glass product. Then it was on to the 200-West Pump and Treat Facility, where chemicals and radioactive contaminants will be removed from contaminated groundwater. Pumping at 2,500 gallons per minute, it is expected to treat about 25 billion gallons of water in its lifetime.

Next stop, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, where we watched a parade of enormous dump trucks — looking more like toy trucks against a vast backdrop — continuously hauling low-level radioactive waste (there’s some 10 million tons of it) to the site for cleanup.

Too soon it was over. We’d traveled from the 1940s War Years into what is projected to be a Green Future World. Hanford isn’t a theme park and its stark reality isn’t for everyone. No photos. No cellphones. Bring your lunch. Eat on the bus. But the tour draws back the curtain from this once-secret enclave of scientists. Would I go again? In a nanosecond.

Jackie Smith is a Kirkland-based freelance writer.