Shandelle Battersby has an uneasy time at an exhibition about nuclear warfare.

On a wall of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center in Richland, Washington, next to a picture of Albert Einstein, is the mugshot of Ernest Rutherford — New Zealand's greatest scientist, known as the "father" of modern nuclear physics.

Rutherford's photo, along with others instrumental in the early research and development in the field, is part of a permanent exhibition at the centre that details how the area became part of the Manhattan Project during World War II to produce nuclear weapons.

Plutonium produced at the so-called Hanford Site was used in "Fat Man", the second atomic bomb to be dropped over Japan in 1945.

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As a New Zealander proud of our nation's anti-nukes policy, visiting an area known for its involvement in the production of atomic weapons — and being reminded of our small part in it — is definitely an uncomfortable experience. It's worth putting that emotional reaction to one side for a few moments however, and let yourself be transported back to the 1940s; the museum has a wealth of fascinating information and a guide is on hand to help explain things if required.

Lord Ernest Rutherford.
Lord Ernest Rutherford.

We were at the Interpretive Center, also known as The Reach museum, on a shore excursion as part of Un-Cruise Adventures' Four Rivers of Wine and History cruise up the Columbia and Snake rivers of Oregon and Washington on board replica steamship SS Legacy.

The museum, a 10-minute drive from where the Legacy docks in Richland, is split into two very different galleries. One has excellent displays of the area's natural history, whereas the other concentrates on the Hanford Site and its role before and after the Japan attacks.

Ironically the latter was partially responsible for the former, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The three sleepy Pacific Northwest townships of Richland, Hanford and White Bluffs were busy minding their own business in the 40s when the American military came to town.

The three towns were swiftly "depopulated" to make room for the ensuing nuclear production complex that also operated until after the Cold War, and which eventually grew to include nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium-producing facilities.

The area was chosen for its remote location and sparse population but mostly because of the natural cooling properties of the nearby Columbia River. The population exploded from a few hundred to 50,000 in just a year. Job ads for a "war construction project" were deliberately vague — only 1 per cent of the people involved in the facility knew about the atomic bomb it was helping to build. The others were concentrated on specific tasks with no clue as to the bigger picture.

Housing was thrown together, with workers set up in "alphabet houses" (i.e. you could choose from House A, B or C, etc, off the plans), trailers (one is onsite done up in the style of the time, and with its woodburner, stove and white picket fence, is quite pleasant) and dormitory-style accommodation segregated by gender and race. Other interesting relics on display include propaganda posters, old photos, and newspaper front pages of the time.

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There is another side to the Hanford Site story: the environmental consequences of the project.

A "reach" is an uninterrupted stretch of water, and in Hanford's case it refers to the last 80km of free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River not dammed or tidally influenced.

To create a security buffer around the facility, the lands around it were allowed to remain wild. This led to the happy creation of a unique habitat diversity, and the river and surrounding area is home to 45 species of fish, 42 types of mammal, 725 vascular plant species, and more than 200 species of birds.

It has officially been declared a protected area, or "national monument".

On the flipside, the operation released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air and the river. Clean-up and decontamination efforts are still taking place today.
An uncomfortable visit it may be, but it makes you all the more grateful for the strong anti-nuclear message our country's leaders have sent repeatedly to the world since the late 1950s.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Un-Cruise's journeys along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest run from April to November.

DETAILS
The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center (or The Reach) is at 1943 Columbia Park Trail, Richland, Washington. Entry is US$8. (NZ$11) visitthereach.org
ONLINE
visittheusa.com
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