A Four Hour Tour

September 18, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

My day started out at 9 a.m. with heading to Richland, WA for the Manhattan Project B-Reactor tour. It is a four hour tour and remembering one of my old favorite TV shows that started out with a three hour tour, I prepared. I stopped for a value pack of protein bars and some Smart Water which ironically, is false advertising (which I will get to later).

This is the tour room where we met before loading the bus. I was struck by how much smaller people were 65 years ago. 

The B-Reactor tour started out on a 40 minute bus ride (more like an airplane without wings) with a tour guide educating us on all the geography, history and biology of the area. 

As we drove past vast open areas of scablands, the tour docent teased me with stories of Burrowing Owls in the area. This would lead me into phase two of this adventure in a few hours.

The reactor building is both massive and small. Massive in content yet kind of small in size. I was expecting a more substantial building for the impact it had on human history.

The tour had about 40 people and that was just right to fit into the military feng-shui of B-Reactor.

Our first stop was sitting in front of 2,000 fuel rods. It was awe inspiring and yet heartbreaking. I was looking at what precipitated 60,000-80,000 deaths in Nagasaki, Japan. A feat of human ingenuity, and a monument to the depths we must go to when ideas get out of hand.

These are water pipes that brought in hundreds of thousands of gallons of water an hour to cool the reactor. At this point in history, environmentalism was not as important as the war effort. Waste water being pumped back into the Columbia left measurable radiation all the way to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.  I found this part very striking. The covers to the water pipes are left open for annual inspections by the Russians as part of our nuclear arms treaty. They photograph them and compare with last years photos to make sure the access hatches have not moved. Let's see if I can remember these facts. These are massive metal containers filled with tons of rock (as reflected in the mirror). They were hoisted to the ceiling and held in place by an electric switch. If the power failed, which could lead to meltdown, the switch would open and these containers would drop to the ground acting as big pistons, putting pressure on a hydraulic system that inserted boron rods into the reactor to absorb neutrons and stop the chain reaction. I was quite interested in the simplicity of the mechanical build of this facility. Lots of gauges and pipes that now, would be minimized with inline censors.  An array of pipes, each one leading directly to an individual fuel rod case. The back side of individual pressure sensors for the cooling system of each fuel rod. The front side of the previous image with a pressure gauge for each cooling unit. If the pressure dropped, a fail-safe system pushed boron rods into the reactor and shut it down. Simplistic technology that amazed me with the responsibility it carried. SCRAM is an emergency shutdown. Quite a vulnerable panel of pressure gauges. SCRAM means Safety Cut Rope Axe Man. Google it for more info. I would half expect lots of beeps and boops, with Captain Kirk at the helm and Scotty saying "I'm given' her all she's got capt'n!" Manual switches for each fuel rod. Amazing yet frightening in simplicity. A reminder of the workplace safety issues. Hardwired circuitry. Note the backup D cell battery on the right. The "Hightech" office in the control room. Glad they kept their toilet paper in a safe. With 50,000 people onsite during construction, it was probably a hot commodity.  Up close on a section of the core. All two thousand rods. It was like standing in front of a star gate. In case you've wanted to know where this is. More detail of the core area with a scaffold that went up and down for servicing, much like a window washer on a high-rise. There were several enormous fans that were designed to suck the air out of the reactor area in the event of an accident. Note the tall chimney in the previous photo I took of the building. That is where these fans vented so that the radiation would reach the winds and blow away instead of falling on the facility and workers. That meant anyone downwind would get the radiation instead of the people who chose to work in a dangerous facility. Lawsuits are still pending over this. This sign really stood out in the fairly colorless and bland industrial facility.  RUN! Duh! I like the spelling of the warning sounds, too. Is that coming from a horn or from the people as they run? The reactor building with radiated-air chimney for downwind dispersal. Onsite train that hauled atomic waste to a disposal area. A legacy. The toxic waste chamber. They put spent fuel rods in here and would fill it with water to transport to another area of the reservation. They would have to stop on the way and refill the water as the heat was so intense. The backside of B-Reactor. The tour is over. Now, off to find those Burrowing Owls, or so I thought. I stopped at Horn Rapids Dam and found this large American Bullfrog. It appeared normal from on top, but I suspect it had 5 legs and another head underwater. A Western Sage Lizard. There were dozens of them in a small area a mile west of the dam. This looked like a relaxing spot to catch the last warmth of the receding light. The shrub-steppe landscape with the Yakima River in the background. A boat docked on private property across the river. I ended up looking at this over the next few hours thinking how close, yet how far, help was. I was rather proud of myself for navigating this terrain in my low-clearance sedan. That pride would shift into a variety of emotions by days end. As I was leaving I decided to take a new route that by satellite image appeared to be a short direct route back to the highway. There were other tire tracks going up it, and the soil felt firm when I test-walked the road. 20 feet in, the front tires sank in. I managed to back up 10 feet with multiple stops and digging in the sand with my hands. I finally high centered so much that the front left tire was just hanging there, spinning. Now my four hour tour was looking more like the old ill fated three hour tour. And my Smart Water had not held up to its promise. What was I thinking driving into sand?! I grabbed my cell phone and was going to look up local tow shops. My phone battery was on yellow. I plugged in the cell phone car charger. It wouldn't work. The plug, which had been sporadically not working, finally quit all together. I sent a text message to Tracy asking for her to call around for a tow. I wanted to send her my GPS coordinates but there was no digital service. After many frantic attempts to describe an area I did not know while suffering a dying cell phone battery, I finally found one of my apps that would send GPS in a plain text message. Then, my phone died. 

I sat there for a couple hours waiting for help as the sun sank, along with my spirits. I had no way of knowing if Tracy found anyone to get me. Her last text message before my phone died said that the first tow guy wouldn't go off road, and she was looking for someone else. And later on I found out that she called for nearly two hours and couldn't find one tow shop that would go on a dirt/sand road, nor one with any GPS technology to locate me. Both of which surprise me to no end. I decided to make the most of it: take some photos and enjoy the beauty. This shows the post sunset glow over the Yakima River with Rattlesnake Ridge in the background. I would alternate from sitting in my car, frustrated, to walking around looking at things. I've always wanted to explore the desert at night and look for critters, particularly scorpions.

I found two scorpions within ten feet of my car! I was, and am, so excited!

I began to contemplate my emotional reaction to my dilema. Self reflection is a passion of mine. And self-actualization a very real goal.  What was my reaction telling me about myself? I had a few distinct feelings. Anger and stress. Regarding anger: what was the injustice at hand? Regarding stress: what was the threat? The injustice was that I did not deserve bad things to happen to me. "Why me?" The way I deconstructed that was to ask, "What am I assuming in order to create the arbitrary label of 'bad'?" This was neither a good nor bad experience; it just was what it was. I should not take it personally as that leads to my stress reaction. I was not accepting it was so. I couldn't possibly be stuck in the sand with a dead cell phone. What kind of idiot would do that? I can't be an idiot. That is invalidating. But I was stuck. Resistance creates suffering. So once I accepted I was stuck, the threat to my ego over being an idiot passed and I said, "I am not an idiot, I am stuck." And that lead to having to ask for help.  But asking for help is a vulnerable thing to do.  I had managed to get my GPS coordinates to Tracy, who then relayed them to my father, who then relayed them to my uncle Fred and his family. As I'm sitting in my car, hypnotized by hazard blinkers in pitch black, I see flashlights coming over the hill. It looked like a scene from ET with flashlight beams crisscrossing trails in the dusty air. I had become my family's first human geocache. With Fred, Roxy and Adam's help, we dug for about 3 hours and finally broke the car free. And as with all shared vulnerability, I now felt closer to my family. It was a great bonding experience. During the process of navigating the roads with my family's van, I somehow spotted this little Wind Scorpion (Camel Spider) running across the desert. It, and the two scorpions I found earlier, have been tops on my list of species to find in the wild. That is a grain of sand from my car's floor mat, tracked in during my adventure. Such a tiny thing. It, and trillions of its kind, held a 3,500 pound, 173 horsepower car, and myself, prisoner for five hours. A reminder that even if we feel insignificant we are part of a bigger picture that can, and does, accomplish big things.