Nuclear Tourism’s Hot Spot

The Department of Energy offers free tours of the closed portion of the Hanford Nuclear Site — if you can secure a reservation.

Hanford  Btank  Farm
Hanfords B Tank Farm, under construction during WWII. These tanks are among those that have leaked radioactive waste. DOE.

It isn't easy to secure a reservation to tour the Hanford Nuclear Site near Richland, Washington, but for one day each spring, the Department of Energy accepts online reservations for free, four-hour public tours of the closed portion of the site. In 2013, 1,776 slots were available, and half were claimed within ten minutes of the opening of registration.

Those who get a spot on the guest list (U.S. citizens, 18 years or older only, please), have the chance to see Hanford's 300 Area (where uranium was fabricated into fuel rods), as well as the nine nuclear reactors that produced plutonium for thousands of nuclear weapons between 1943 and 1988. There's also a guided walking tour of the historic B Reactor, which produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.

But it's probably safe to say that most of the nuclear tourists are more interested in the work being done at the site today—that is, the ongoing multi-billion-dollar cleanup of radioactive material. Visitors have the chance to see the sprawling landfill (where trucks deposit low-level radioactive and hazardous waste), as well as the fenced-in, gravel lots above the 177 underground storage tanks that hold more than 50 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste.

It's those leaking underground storage tanks that are the most pressing concern, as the tanks need to be emptied and their waste treated, for safer long-term storage. Hence the ongoing construction of the site's new Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, which promises to turn the chemical and radioactive waste into glass blocks, which will then be stored in an underground chamber. 

The plant was originally scheduled to come online five years ago, but the project has been plagued by problems, some of which are addressed near the end of Kate Brown's recent book, Plutopia, which examines the deliberate and decades-long environmental contamination that took place at Hanford (as well as the Maiak plant in Ozersk, the Russian equivalent of the Hanford site).

To be sure, toxic waste sites can be strangely compelling, which perhaps explains why Butte, Montana is able to charge two dollars for a chance to see the Berkeley Pit, an abandoned open pit copper mine filled with an estimated forty billion gallons of acidic, metal-contaminated water. And why the former uranium mining town of Uravan, Colorado remains a fascinating story, having been buried in its entirety, as part of a massive Superfund cleanup.

If you're interested in making a reservation for the 2014 Hanford tours, keep tabs on the Public Tours page at hanford.gov.