HANFORD, Wash. — A platoon of double-crested cormorants took flight from the eastern shore of the Columbia River, skimming the sun-sparkled surface as two slender white egrets stood in the nearby shallows, hunting small fish hiding in the reeds.
Twenty kayakers, mostly tourists from the Pacific Northwest, paddled along, letting the steady current do most of the work. They coasted past mule deer grazing on the shore, coyotes stalking the sandy beaches and cliff swallows buzzing the nearby white bluffs.
But the main attraction was on the western shore: several bland, industrial-gray structures and towering smokestacks, a collection of buildings that gave birth to America’s Atomic Age.
Welcome to the Hanford Reach, where one of the last free-flowing stretches of the Columbia River encounters America’s most contaminated nuclear site.
Along this flat, mostly treeless scrubland, the U.S. government built nine reactors from 1943 to 1963, including the historic B Reactor that produced the world’s first weapons-grade plutonium for the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.
The reactors have leaked so much radioactivity into the air, land and water that the contamination caused by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident seems trivial by comparison.
Yet merchants and tourism directors here in southern Washington state see the river and the shuttered reactors as a growing tourist draw.
Imagine a theme park next to Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant. As odd as it may sound, the idea seems to be working at Hanford.
The popular kayak tours are one example. Pat Welle, owner of Columbia Kayak Adventures, who leads two or three groups each month past the nuclear sites, said her business has more than doubled since she started it in 2004. A jet boat tour operator plans to add a second boat, and the river plays host to several bass fishing tournaments each year.
“I think the attraction is the unique combination of scenery — the white bluffs and the wildlife — and that odd collection of nuclear sites,” Welle said.
The reactors have long been shut down, but the surrounding land rumbles with bulldozers, dump trucks and crews in radiation suits working on a $2 billion-a-year cleanup project — the most expensive such project in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The irony is that although the reactors contaminated hundreds of acres, government restrictions on access left the surrounding lands largely undisturbed for more than 40 years, allowing wildlife to flourish.
The effort to make the Hanford Reach a tourist hot spot got a boost in 2000 when then- President Bill Clinton proclaimed 195,000 acres along the river and around the nuclear site a national monument. About 60,000 people now visit annually, including anglers, hikers, birders and history buffs.
That number is likely to grow under a plan by the National Park Service to upgrade boat launches and picnic sites and to open the B Reactor for regular public tours. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is also expected to approve a recommendation this month to declare the B Reactor a national historic landmark.
The story began in 1942 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began searching for a plutonium production site for the then-secret Manhattan Project. With large tracts of land and access to large volumes of water to cool the reactor, the Hanford area along the Columbia River seemed perfect.
America’s first large-scale nuclear reactor was built in about a year. Most workers at the B Reactor were clueless about what they were developing until the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Later, a headline in the local paper announced: “Peace! Our Bomb Clinched It!”
During the next 20 years, the federal government built eight more reactors along the Columbia River in a 586-square-mile area known as the Hanford site.
In 1948 a dike at a reactor waste pond broke, dumping 28 pounds of uranium into the Columbia River.
Today, scientists and biologists extensively test almost every creature along the river, whether a tadpole or a deer.
A spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Health Office Of Radiation Protection said tests of fish from the river have not detected levels that exceed public health standards for radiation.