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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

70 Years Ago: First Full-Scale Nuclear Reactor At Hanford Starts Up

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U.S. Department of Energy

Seventy years ago Friday, an 11-month frenzied construction project went hot. It all happened in the remote southeast Washington desert.

Scientists pulled the control rods out of the first full-scale nuclear reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The startup of B Reactor is one of the key moments in the dawn of the Atomic Age.

In 1944, the headlines this week talked about: the presidential race between FDR and Thomas Dewey, the price of butter and Prime Minister Churchill predicting WWII might stretch into 1945.

There wasn’t a single mention of the Manhattan Project.

The goal was to make a nuclear bomb before the Germans. And even though they called the large-scale reactor at Hanford “The B Reactor,” it was first of the kind.

The reactor made the plutonium that was used in the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Maynard Plahuta is a retired federal manager at Hanford and president of the B Reactor Museum Association.

“You can read all kinds of books and histories on why we should have or should not have dropped the bomb,” Plahuta said. “But anyways that was the war effort.”

The B Reactor muscled through to see part of the Cold War. Then sat idle for decades. Now, there’s a push to make the site a national park.

For the 70th anniversary, organizers are busing around 250 people past federal guards and gates for wine and music of the era -- including women from the Mid-Columbia Master Singers.

The event sold out in three days.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.