Category: Memoir

Stuck in a Hanford reactor building elevator

Nuclear physics fascinates me. The creative potential of nuclear power intrigues me. The destructive potential of nuclear weapons repulses me.

French Licorne thermonuclear test, 1970

Photo from Pierre J‘s collection of French nuclear test photos taken in 1970

Back in the mid-90s, I toured the Hanford Site in eastern Washington State with a small college class. (In the contemporary national security climate, I’m surprised to learn that tours of the Hanford Site are still available from the Department of Energy.) Eight or nine of us piled into a van and drove around the site unrestricted, stopping a few hundred yards from the plutonium production reactors that the Manhattan Project used to create the core of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The reactors themselves (in the photo below) had long since been retired and their cores “entombed.”

Hanford Site in 1960

Photo of Hanford Site taken in 1960

Our professor drove us past the trenches in which sections of nuclear submarines were stored, awaiting disposal of their reactors. We stopped again in the abandoned town of Hanford, where the only structure left standing was the high school.

Hanford High School

Finally, we arrived at the commercial power generation plant, Washington Nuclear Power Unit Number 2, where we were met by a PR man from the Department of Energy. He guided us through security checks and into the reactor building, where we were issued little badges to wear that measured our radiation exposure.

Eight stories up in an elevator, we emerged into a room overlooking the pool, control rods hanging over the water and the reactor itself immersed below.

We didn’t spend much time chatting or asking questions. We quickly turned around and stepped back into the elevator. Halfway down, the elevator stopped with a jerk.

For 20 minutes, we laughed at each other’s increasingly outlandish hypotheses about an impending catastrophe, as the PR man grew increasingly drenched in sweat. The elevator finally jolted back to life and we descended to the clinically white lobby, handed in our dosimeters, and headed back out into that unique light that seems to hang over Eastern Washington in the fall.

More than a decade later, I would write a poem that incorporated the entombed reactors, the abandoned town, and the submarines. The DOE PR man and his flop sweat didn’t make the cut.

UPDATE: Read “Cathedrals” here on