Imagine your grandpa as a young man — not some hypothetical guy, but your actual cigar-smoking, belching, church-going grandpa — making the stuff that killed 80,000 people and ended World War II.

    The Hanford site in southeastern Washington is a page out of the old do-it-yourself engineering magazine Popular Mechanics — maybe an imaginary special 1964 supplement devoted to backyard nuclear reactors. Most vibrantly at the preserved 1940s-era B Reactor, what comes through is an impression of ordinary pipefitters, electricians, civil engineers and an occasional physicist creating craftsman-like solutions to problems as they encountered them for the first time ever. They were normal blue-collar workers making history.

    Even Enrico Fermi, the 1938 Nobel Prize winner who oversaw key aspects of Hanford’s Manhattan Project, comes off not as a lofty genius or madman, but as a pragmatic technician doing his job — fueling a weapon to defeat military dictators intent on world domination. One of the U.S. Department of Energy’s charmingly geeky site interpreters points out three glass-faced gauges in B Reactor’s retro control room. Using only a slide rule, Fermi was able to tell by their readings that deep within the reactor’s workings a sensor was misplaced by an inch. Guiding a workman via primitive intercom, Fermi nudged it into precisely the correct location.

    All this transpired in an era almost untranslatably long ago in terms of technology. For example, some readers will wonder what a “slide rule” was — a mechanical non-binary calculator. All these men — and one lone woman — were applying fundamentally 19th century skills to the task of converting uranium into miniscule amounts of plutonium in the B Reactor.

    After a shockingly toxic refining process, this plutonium was used in the “The Gadget” and Fat Man bombs — the first and third nuclear detonations. Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. “The Gadget” was set off at the Trinity site in New Mexico about a month earlier. (I used to have a neat piece of fused nuclear glass from Trinity until my dad decided it might be dangerous. This seemed overly protective until I learned Fermi himself died of stomach cancer at age 53, one of many nuclear warriors to die in a similar manner.)

    B Reactor sits in the midst of sagebrush and broken pavement in the 640-square-mile Hanford site, which is itself smack-dab in the center of nowhere — or so it seemed when an Army colonel selected it in 1943 for America’s most ultra-top secret project. It’s still not a simple place to visit. When more people do, it’s easy to imagine the kinds of exaggerated prose that will result: a grotesque tombstone in the desert, a ghost-infested abandoned warehouse, a Twilight Zone portal into a dark and inverted reality. Some will discern a hulking graphite cube used by men to tease into existence a substance that any sane god would have taken better pains to hide from his unreliable children.

    What you actually see close-up, though, when wandering around B Reactor is a profoundly unforgettable artifact of mid-century America — both good and bad. On the positive side, these largely forgotten people were absolute artists at their individually small jobs. Wires aren’t merely attached to terminals. They are tapered around them with obsessive perfectionism.

    On the dark side, give a bunch of boys a nearly limitless budget and absolute secrecy, and what you get is a mess of monstrous proportions. An obvious but irresistible metaphor concerns the orchards that were cut down to keep evicted civilians from sneaking back to harvest the apples. More than half a century later, their geometrically arranged stumps survive in Hanford’s arid climate. Far-bulkier roots spread invisibly underground — just like much of the toxic waste lost in the plutonium-refining process.

    The real problem, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, isn’t escaped radioactive substances, but various chemicals utilized in the reactors and other facilities — especially hexavalent chromium or “chrome 6.” Added to Columbia River water to keep it from corroding the insides of machinery, this cancer-causing substance was made famous by Erin Brockovich’s legal crusade in Hinkley, Calif. At Hanford, vast quantities of chrome 6 and other poisons were stored underground in huge leak-prone thin-walled iron tanks. As I emphatically asked a Department of Energy speaker, “What were they thinking?”

    Hundreds of monitoring wells and sampling tubes track the movement of toxic plumes. Tests in the river’s gravel bottom find it there. EPA offers reassurances that it immediately dissipates to safe levels once it mixes in the river’s vast flow. Nor does EPA find anything to worry about inside Columbia fish. I’m partially reassured, but won’t be feeding my kid any bottom-feeding fish caught in the Hanford Reach.

    One elaborate new facility is devoted to pumping up Hanford’s groundwater, removing everything that shouldn’t be in it, and then pumping it back down. This process will continue most of our lives. Good luck to them, and to we who live downriver. Another vast plant will melt solid wastes into glass blocks for permanent storage. But it is stalled awaiting a determination about whether it will actually work safely as now designed. (See related editorial.) Once it is powered up, large areas of this facility will be off-limits to humans forever — everything must work perfectly for decades without hands-on intervention.

    I encouraged a reporter to write a book about all this. A great history of the space race is called “The Right Stuff.” My title for the Hanford story: “The Wrong Stuff.”

     Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter. He visited Hanford earlier this summer.

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