Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

Polluted nuclear weapons site is developing tourism potential

Thousands of people are expected to visit the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home of first full-sized nuclear reactor

The nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site is now its newest national park and thousands of people are expected next year to tour the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home of the world's first full-sized nuclear reactor, near Richland, about 200 miles east of Seattle in south-central Washington.

While details of the new national park are still being worked out, the plan is to greatly expand the number of tourists and school groups who visit the site.

They won't be allowed anywhere near the nation's largest collection of toxic radioactive waste. 

"Everything is clean and perfectly safe," said Colleen French, the U.S. Department of Energy's program manager for the Hanford park. "Any radioactive materials are miles away."

In September, the state of Washington sued the federal government alleging it had failed to adequately safeguard crews involved in the decades-long cleanup of the nuclear reservation.

The Manhattan Project National Historic Park, signed into existence in November, according to the Tri-City Herald news site, also includes sites at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Manhattan Project is the name for the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II.

At Hanford, the main attractions will be B Reactor — the world's first full-sized reactor — along with the ghost towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, which were evacuated by the government to make room for the Manhattan Project.

The B Reactor was built in about one year and produced plutonium for the Trinity test blast in New Mexico and for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, that contributed to Japan's surrender.

Starting in 1943, more than 50,000 people from across the United States arrived at the top-secret Hanford site to perform work whose purpose few knew, French said.

The 300 residents of Richland were evicted and that town became a bedroom community for the adjacent Hanford site, skyrocketing in population. Workers labored around the clock to build reactors and processing plants to make plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

The park will tell the story of those workers, plus the scientists who performed groundbreaking research and the residents who were displaced, said Chip Jenkins of the National Park Service, which is jointly developing the park.

French said, the Energy Department will continue its tours of the B Reactor and the old town sites that began in 2009 and fill up with some 10,000 visitors a year.

In the lawsuit filed in September, the state alleged the lack of safety precautions left workers sickened by exposure to toxic vapors.

As a result of lax safety practices amid leaks and releases of toxic vapors in the vicinity of the storage tanks, workers have been continually put at risk and made ill from chemical exposure, according to the lawsuit.

One worker was treated last year for chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs caused by chemical exposure, the complaint said. Since spring 2014, over 50 Hanford workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to vapors, local news website, Tri-City Herald.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press


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