We came away glowing from our weekend hike in the sunshine of eastern Washington. Or perhaps the glow came from radioactive wastes generated by the nine decommissioned nuclear weapons reactors on the adjacent Hanford Site. Hanford is well known in Washington State, but for those unfamiliar with the name, I’ll give you a brief history.
Step back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany was ascending and German scientists demonstrated that the uranium atom could be split. Albert Einstein and other scientists put two and two together and realized that if Germany alone possessed an atomic bomb, the world would never again be safe, and Sauron of Mordor would possess the One Ring. Einstein lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the nuclear race; research and production facilities were quickly built at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford to create an atomic weapon to deter Germany.
Hanford’s role was to make plutonium, and three reactors were built before the end of the war to help split uranium and create plutonium, which was then sent to Los Alamos for incorporation into weapons. Hanford plutonium was in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
After World War II ended, the Cold War intensified the atomic age, and nine weapons production reactors were operating at Hanford by 1963. It was a hot time econonomically in the nearby tri-cities communities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, and a hot time radioactively for those living downwind and downriver of the Hanford Site. But that was presumed to be a small price to pay in order to provide some 57 tons of plutonium for about 60,000 nuclear bombs.
Fast forward to the winding down of the Cold War and the morning-after headache of nuclear waste. The reactors have all been shut down, and there is a massive cleanup under way. The Department of Energy hopes to block a million gallon waste plume of radioactive groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. They are also building a massive facility to combine radioactive waste with glass to make the waste stable for long-term storage. The threat? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, with nearly a half-million years of time before the element is safe for humans. Most of the waste is not plutonium, so it is not quite so dangerous, but remind me not to drink it.
Our seven mile hike did not take place on the Hanford Site, which is still off limits to virtually everyone but clean-up workers, scientists, and nuclear terrorists. Oh, sorry, I made that last one up. Presumably terrorists would be targeted by motion sensors and other security measures that made me a little apprehensive about even pointing a camera at the facilities. Perhaps security was pointing a camera back at me with a predator drone. Instead of trying to sneak across the river, we hiked along the White Bluffs, across the Columbia River from the Hanford Site.
The White Bluffs are now part of Hanford Reach National Monument, a wild area set aside by President Clinton and administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Our hike led past American White Pelicans and Common Egrets resting on the Columbia, two bands of Mule Deer wading in the great river, and tracks of a wily Coyote in the sand. About 20 kinds of desert wildflowers were blooming on the sand dunes and stony expanses atop the cliffs. A rare stretch of free-flowing Columbia River runs by below the cliffs, free of the dams that impound most of the river.
The photographs will give you a sense of this barren and beautiful landscape, which is called a sagebrush-steppe community–a type of desert dominated by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and grasses. To those passing through the desert at 80 mph on a freeway, it is interminably boring; but for hikers, the intimate
landscape of dunes, wildflowers, songbirds, and stones make it a fascinating place. Keep in mind that there are rattlesnakes, black widows, and ticks, just to keep life interesting (we didn’t see any of these, by the way, but we did take precautions against ticks).
For information about hiking along the White Bluffs, go to: Washington Trails Association.