RICHLAND, Wash. — It wasn’t long ago that Washington’s Tri-Cities area was synonymous with the successes and dangers of nuclear-energy production.

In a once-remote, semi-desert region cupped within a turn in the Columbia River, the top-secret Manhattan Project reached fruition here in the mid-1940s. And for 45 years thereafter, weapons-grade plutonium continued to be produced here, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, to serve American armed forces through the Cold War.

The byproduct, of course, was radioactive waste. As one of the most contaminated sites in the United States, Hanford has for years been the focus of a massive environmental cleanup.

Built in 1943-44, the Hanford Nuclear Reservationís B Reactor was the worldís first full-scale nuclear reactor. Hanford was chosen for the Department of Energy site because it had ample Columbia River water, electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam and a sparse population.

But that hasn’t stopped the adjacent Tri-Cities — Richland (population 51,000), Kennewick (76,000) and Pasco (65,000) — from emerging as world-class centers for technology. An estimated 1,600 Tri-Cities residents hold doctorate degrees, among the highest per-capita rate on the West Coast outside of California’s Silicon Valley. The largest employer in the region of a quarter-million people is the esteemed Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by the Battelle Memorial Institute.

Now that the cleanup is under way, this region of southeastern Washington, a 4½-hour drive from Bend, is emerging as a destination in its own right. And it has a lot more to exhibit than an old nuclear reservation — which, by the way, is open to guided tours. There are also national monument lands that once buffered the nuke site, a thriving wine industry that complements long-existing orchards and other agriculture, and a bustling trio of cities, each with a character of its own, surrounding a broad bend in the Columbia River.

Just this month, a new museum, one of the finest in the Pacific Northwest, opened to tell the intriguing story of the Tri-Cities’ growth. Officially the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, known locally simply as “the Reach,” it succeeds in putting the region’s unique geological, natural and human history into a single tidy package.

Photos by John Gottberg Anderson The riverfront face of the Tri-Citiesí new Reach museum was built to reflect the legacy of Ice Age floods that contributed to the regionís unique geology.

Exploring the Reach

“The Reach is like a big house with a lot of rooms that are very different from one another,” Lisa Toomey, the museum’s chief executive officer, told me two weeks ago when I visited for a media preview. “They’ve all got their different personalities.”

Indeed, the 14,000-square-foot museum (it has nearly that much additional space in an unfinished basement) displays very different faces — quite literally — depending upon one’s perspective from the outside.

Sitting atop a low hill overlooking Columbia Park where Richland and Kennewick meet, the museum has a riverfront aspect with a carved façade to reflect striations left by Ice Age floods of 11,000 years ago. Its more formal entrance looks like a polished nuclear reactor from the Hanford reservation.

The main entrance of the Reach museum resembles a nuclear reactor from the nearby Hanford reservation. Formally the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, the museum was built for $12 million after a much larger initial outlay.

Other faces are reminiscent of a prehistoric Native American longhouse or an irrigation device from one of the Tri-Cities’ prolific farms.

But 10 difficult years passed from the time of its conception before the Reach became a reality. Once projected as a $42-million riverside museum, its funding fell victim to recession economics, and an original building plan failed after $15 million had already been pumped into it. Faced with a make-or-break decision, the Reach was reconceived two years ago and completed at a cost of an additional $12 million. Local architect Terence Thornhill won the bid for a pre-engineered metal building, and DGR Grant Construction broke ground in March of 2013.

The new museum has two permanent main galleries and a lot of peripherals. Gallery 1, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was still in the final phase of assembly late last month, but by the time the Reach opened to the public on July 3, everything was in place. Colorful interactive exhibits with lots of touch screens focus on geology and natural history, along with the cultures of the various tribes that once settled this area. The development of the Hanford reservation takes a back seat here to the “save the Reach” movement that led to the creation of Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000.

Workers place final touches on Gallery I of the Reach museum in preparation for its July opening. Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also administers Hanford Reach National Monument, this gallery explores the region’s unique geological and natural history.

Gallery 2 brings to fore the historical component, once formally presented at Richland’s Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology (CREHST), which closed last winter to be incorporated into the Reach. In particular, it describes the genesis of the Manhattan Project, which employed nearly 100,000 people between 1943 and 1945 but was so top-secret that workers couldn’t share details with anyone, not even their spouses, until the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.

But the most important function of the new museum, said Toomey, is education. The Reach is home to a Center for Agriculture Education and Sustainability and a Center for Environmental and Natural Resources Education. It displays locally produced fine arts and photography and offers regular performing-arts programs. And dozens of organized field trips are scheduled, from jet-boat excursions into the national monument to bus tours into the nuclear reservation to see the fabled B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor.

The B Reactor

I was able to take a four-hour Department of Energy tour of the B Reactor site, joining a group of about 20 other visitors — most of them local citizens — beginning at 8 a.m. one weekday. (School tours welcome ages 12 and up; the DOE hopes to eventually turn it into a national historic site and museum.)

The tour began at the DOE’s Richland Operations Office, on the northwest side of Richland nearest the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation. We were oriented with a 16-minute video presentation, “The Hanford Story,” which is available on YouTube. It provided background before we drove half an hour, past long, barren Rattlesnake Mountain, to the decommissioned reactor.

I found the background crucial to an understanding of the nuclear program, which was directly linked to American fears of German aggression in the World War II era. German scientists had first split the uranium atom in 1938; within three years, they were experimenting with more powerful plutonium, a byproduct.

A visitor photographs a replica of a 1945 newspaper article that revealed to Tri-Cities residents the purpose of the top-secret Manhattan Project. The Reach museumís Gallery II focuses on the genesis of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on 586 adjacent square miles.

When famed scientist Albert Einstein wrote a personal letter of warning to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, the American government established the Manhattan Project, so named because uranium mined in the Belgian Congo was being delivered directly to New York before being transported onward.

By early December 1942, refugee Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, working at the University of Chicago, had produced a nuclear chain reaction that could be sustained and controlled. Within weeks, the government had chosen Hanford as the place where they could build large versions of the Fermi reactor to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Hanford, my bus guide explained, was a perfect location. Not only was population sparse (residents of two small agricultural villages, White Bluffs and Hanford, were given 30 days to move), but the Columbia River provided the abundant water needed to cool the reactors, and the new Grand Coulee Dam, just upriver, offered more than enough electricity for the project.

Radioactive rods

Work on the what Department of Energy officials called the largest scientific-engineering-construction project in American history began at Hanford in March 1943. Construction of three reactors began in June. Fifteen months later, in September 1944, the B Reactor began producing plutonium.

A retired nuclear engineer describes to B Reactor visitors the process by which plutonium was extracted from uranium in a three-story wall of more than 2,000 fuel rods that stands behind him. The plutonium was then shipped to Los Alamos, N.M., for use in the first nuclear bombs.

Our group was ushered into the reactor building, where retired nuclear engineer Joe Guyette, a three-decade Hanford employee, described the process of extracting the radioactive U-235 element from uranium-238, the element taken from mines. Before us was a three-story wall of process tubes — more than 2,000 in all — into which uranium slugs were loaded for fission to take place.

Elaborate control systems, including those for cooling and safety, assured a smooth and efficient operation, Guyette told us. By the time the fuel rods were pushed back out of the reactor, they were highly radioactive, he said; the plutonium was then separated and transported to Los Alamos, N.M., where the first nuclear bombs were tested before their use in Japan in August 1945, ending World War II.

I and the other B Reactor guests were encouraged to wander through main-floor areas of the facility, studying archaic gauges and wiring systems, wondering about signs that warned of a “danger zone” and “contaminated materials.” Indeed, the facility was still producing weapons-grade plutonium for Cold War armaments as late as 1968, and it was 1989 before Hanford switched its focus from manufacturing nuclear energy to cleaning it up.

The task is formidable. Two-thirds of all high-level American radioactive waste may be found at this site. That includes 56 million gallons of liquid waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. A $12-billion factory to solidify liquid waste through “glassification” and dispose of it in a massive new landfill is one first step.

The monument

Surrounding the Hanford reservation is the 195,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument, administered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife as a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System. No one has lived here since the Hanford site was created in 1943; this off-limits buffer zone of shrub-steppe habitat was left relatively untouched.

Ringold Road winds through Hanford Reach National Monument at the foot of the White Bluffs, an area homesteaded in the 19th century but evacuated in 1943. The arid steppe-shrub region was declared a federal reserve by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

A wide variety of large and small mammals, reptiles, birds and fish make their home in the Hanford Reach. As well, there are scores of wildflowers, especially in spring and early summer. Remains of early 20th-century homesteads and archaeological evidence of erstwhile Native American fishing camps contributed to President Bill Clinton’s declaration of the national monument in June 2000.

There are six separate units including the riparian Columbia River Corridor, which takes in the river and its islands. Most easily visited is the Wahluke Unit (East), which includes part of the historic White Bluffs Road and river crossing, a busy transportation hub as far back as 1860. An 1890s log cabin at the White Bluffs boat launch is the oldest remaining structure.

On a half-day’s drive north from the Tri-Cities, I entered this unit of the national monument via Ringold Road. (There’s another access point, well to the north, at Milepost 63 off Washington State Highway 24.) Mule deer crossed the gravel road as it wound past backwater sloughs to an overlook on the White Bluffs, a legacy of the great floods of the Ice Ages.

There are no facilities here or elsewhere in the national monument. Many areas, including the Rattlesnake Unit to the west of the Hanford site, are strictly managed ecology reserves with no public access. And on the north side of the monument, the Saddle Mountain Unit offers spectacular views for visitors in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The cities

Pasco, Kennewick, Richland and the growing enclave of West Richland take great pride in their individual identities. As gateway to the vast agricultural lands north of the Tri-Cities, especially including stone-fruit orchards and dry-land wheat, Pasco has a large and highly visible Hispanic demographic, along with a stretch of beautiful riverside homes.

A thriving pear orchard in Franklin County, northwest of Pasco, has a view toward Rattlesnake Mountain, across the Columbia River and Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The orchard abuts Hanford Reach National Monument, a 195,000-acre preserve.

Richland, where I spent most of my time on my recent visit, has the strongest links to Hanford and federal government offices, largely because it lies immediately southeast of the reservation. Kennewick, meanwhile, has grown as the middle-class hub of the Tri-Cities — and as home to the fabled Kennewick Man.

The 9,500-year-old skeletal remains of a prehistoric man were discovered here, beside a riverbank, in 1996. Determined by scientists to be physically unrelated to other Native American tribes, the bones are presently held at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle. A cast of the skull is displayed at Kennewick’s East Benton County Historical Society Museum.

Kennewick is also home to the new Gesa Carousel of Dreams in its Southridge Sports and Events Complex. Located high on the rolling hills in the southern part of the city near Richland, the historic carousel is now in final preparation for its public opening late this month.

Board chairman Eric VanWinkle poses with the lead horse on the Gesa Carousel of Dreams, a newly restored 1910 merry-go-round at Kennewickís Southridge Sports and Events Complex. Originally from Michigan, the carousel has 45 basswood horses, plus a husky and a cougar

An original, hand-carved Charles Carmel carousel that stood in Silver Beach Park in St. Joseph, Mich., from 1910 to 1972, the carousel was tended by a collector in Roswell, N.M., for three decades after its dismantling. In 2002, its 45 basswood horses and three chariots were purchased for $1 million and transported to the Tri-Cities, where they have slowly been undergoing full restoration, including new paint jobs, for their new home.

“We are not a carving club,” Eric VanWinkle, board chairman of the carousel project, told me. But two new animals give this merry-go-round a uniquely Washington flair: Local woodcarver Michael Thornton shaped a cougar, to represent Washington State University, and the Missoula (Mont.) Carousel Carvers organization gave Kennewick a Washington Husky.

Wine country

Surprisingly, despite sitting in the geographic crux of Washington’s prime wine regions (the Yakima Valley to the west, Walla Walla to the east), the Tri-Cities have been slow to embrace the agricultural bounty provided by vineyards and wineries. Few hotels and restaurants, for instance, have built their business around wine tourism.

That is now slowly changing — as it should. The 22 vineyards of the tiny, 4,000-acre Red Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA) come right up to the urban boundary of West Richland on one side, little Benton City on the other, barely 10 miles from downtown Kennewick. Yet Red Mountain vineyards are acclaimed worldwide for the concentrated flavors of the tannic red wines they produce, including cabernet sauvignons and merlots.

Red Mountain, hub of one of the Northwestís mostly highly acclaimed American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), rises above one of the 22 vineyards that flourish in its 4,000 acres. The AVAís grapes are renowned for the tannic flavors of their cabernet sauvignons and merlots.

Red Mountain grapes were pioneered in the 1970s by John Williams of Kiona Vineyards. Today his winemaker son, Scott, and businessman grandson, J.J., sell Kiona wine in 42 states.

“We produce 30,000 cases a year from 260 acres on Red Mountain and another 100 in Kennewick,” J.J. Williams told me during a sampling of his soon-to-be-released 2012 Red Mountain Reserve, a blend of cabernet sauvignon with merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc.

Calling himself the “One Eye Wine Guy” — he lost his left eye to a teenaged illness, and today wears the hollow orb like a badge of honor — the younger Williams spoke of the unique flavor of grapes from this particular AVA.

“A cabernet grown on Red Mountain is going to taste more like a merlot grown on Red Mountain than a cabernet grown in Bordeaux,” he said.

Kiona Vineyards manager J.J. Williams ó whose grandfather, John Williams, pioneered Red Mountain grapes in the 1970s ó samples a glass of chardonnay near his vines. The self-titled ìOne Eye Wine Guyî runs the modern operation with his winemaker father, Scott Williams.

I also tested the theory down the hill at the Cooper winery, where proprietor Neil Cooper specializes in delicious cabernets and blends.

Like other area winemakers, he credited a unique geology and the warm, dry climate with providing the elements for successful growing. But I can’t help but wonder, just a little bit, whether the nearby presence of nuclear energy might have something to do with it, as well.

— Reporter: