Hanford, Wash, Plutonium Production Site for Manhattan Project, Draws Tourists

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Aplatoon 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 between 1943 and 1963, including the historic "B" plant 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 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

As odd as it may sound, the idea seems to be working at Hanford...

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