We spent a day touring the Hanford Reservation in south central Washington. This was the location of the Manhattan Project's efforts to develop the plutonium bomb during WWII, and remained the site of plutonium production during the cold war. Today it is the site of the most expensive environmental remediation effort in history as the Department of Energy and their contractors attempt to deal with a half century's accumulation of highly toxic and radioactive wastes related to the production and processing of plutonium.
This is the "B" reactor, the first building constructed to be a nuclear reactor. (Enrico Fermi and co-workers hid behind a mountain several miles away when it was first activated). It is one of several reactors on the site. All lack the containment structures we associate with commercial reactors. In these reactors uranium was converted to plutonium via a process of neutron capture.
This is one of the "canyons", totally enclosed buildings in which plutonium-bearing fuel rods were dissolved in acid and processed to separate plutonium from remaining uranium and other isotopes. Because of the radioactivity of the rods, the process was totally enclosed and remotely manipulated.
This is the location of one of the million gallon storage tanks into which the caustic and radioactive waste from the chemical processing was pumped. Unfortunately, many of these tanks have leaked, and contaminated the groundwater with radioactive isotopes. One bizarre problem in the area is that plants such as tumbleweeds (against the fence in the foreground) send tap roots down to the contaminated water, and become themselves contaminated with isotopes such as strontium -90. The bulk of the tanks have been pumped out, but a radioactive and toxic sludge remains in many, and it is unclear how best to deal with this.
In sum, this visit was a sobering experience for us all.