The Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Richland, Wash. 46°38'51"N, 119°35'55"W
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a onetime national secret, now hosts both a National Historic Landmark with free, guided tours and a $40 billion environmental cleanup. Part of the Manhattan Project, this site in southeastern Washington produced plutonium for atomic bombs during World War II and the Cold War.
To B or Not to B: Choose between two half-day tours: an in-depth exploration of the deactivated B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor; or a sitewide bus tour through Hanford’s history, from its top-secret wartime construction to the U.S. Department of Energy’s present-day cleanup operations.
Book It: Tours run April through September and fill up fast, but don’t worry: Occasional cancellations mean empty seats are sometimes up for grabs.
Good to Know: Tours start in Richland, 25 minutes from Hanford, and have some restrictions. Hanford sitewide tours accept only American citizens 18 and older, for example, but B Reactor tours welcome non-citizens as well as ages 12 and up.
Going Nuclear: The Manhattan Project built the B Reactor in just over a year, coming online in 1944 with the help of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi. Stare down the reactor’s 46-foot-deep core (sans uranium) or pretend you’re Homer Simpson in its control room.
No Glow: More than 40 years of plutonium production created millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons in liquid waste, and Hanford’s storage, disposal and record-keeping were, at times, lacking. But visitors are kept safe distances from contamination and cleanup, and the B Reactor, under constant monitoring, is inspected before each tour.
Flood Stories: Catastrophic ice-age floods shaped the region, leaving basalt columns, deep channels and breathtaking views at spots such as Wallula Gap, 30 minutes south of Richland.
Get Out: Hike through a fossilized forest less than two hours northwest of Hanford at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. Perched on the Columbia River, this park and nearby areas offer camping, swimming, fishing, boating and rock climbing.
Savor: More than 200 wineries, five farmers markets and numerous roadside stands are within an hour’s drive of Richland.
Go: Richland and adjacent Kennewick and Pasco form the Tri-Cities, with the closest airport. But flights into Spokane, a two-plus-hour drive, may be cheaper. Either way, having a car is key.
Go Deeper: In July and August, nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper leads weekend trips pairing Hanford’s B Reactor tour with camping and an easy 18-mile guided paddle down the Columbia River, along Hanford’s edges. The unique, all-inclusive experience costs $100, with scholarships available. Book before mid-June. — Ashley Braun