Backyard Boondoggle: Hanford Nuclear Site

 

“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement.  If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”

Enrico Fermi

It is safe to assume that most stories of adventure do not begin in row F of a burgandy motor coach, exception being the 1994 blockbuster ‘Speed’ starring Keeanu Reeves. That being said, envision a well worn charter bus, me comfortably sitting in the tattered seats of row F eating peanuts, and then add a steady stream of retirees shuffling down the aisle to take their seats. Note one in particular, he is wearing a baby blue ‘I heart Hanford’ hat clutching a walker*. This sets the stage for the latest Backyard Boondoggle: Hanford Nuclear Site.

Nuclear power conjures up visuals of Chernobyl, The Cold War, Homer Simpson, the grand finale of WWII, Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, Trinity, and on-and-on, but who really knows where it all started? Well the residents of Washington State and more specifically the Tri-Cities are all too aware.

The Hanford Nuclear Site is 586 square miles of scrub brush that at one time was booming, like 50,000 employees on-site building top secret shit booming. Based on a 1942 experiment conducted by Enrico Fermi under the bleachers at Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus, which clearly showed that humans could create and control a nuclear chain reaction. This experiment paved the way for the ‘acquisition’ or ‘condemnation by eminent domain’ by the Department of Defense of the land now know as Hanford. This displaced numerous settlers and copious Native Americans and was ultimately the home to B Reactor as well as some dangerously poisonous deer, water fowl, and fish.

B Reactor was built in an impressive 11 months and was completed in late 1944. It was so top-secret no one knew what was being built on the property. Workers were constantly shuffled about the massive construction site to ensure the secrecy of the project. Even the Vice President of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman, was not privy to what was taking place at Hanford until he was appointed as President upon Roosevelt’s untimely death in April of 1945, nearly a year after B Reactor went active.  It is believed that B Reactor was built without blue prints, it was purely based on sketches and a hypothesis. In theory the reactor would produce plutonium 239 by irradiating uranium 238 by placing large uranium rods into 2004 holes in the face of the massive reactor core. This would knock off extra neutrons and create uranium 239, the end product after decay being plutonium. The graphite core, massive water cooling system, and 9 boron control rods allowed for the reactor to work at a constant state of fission. Using a staggering 75,000 gallons of river water per minute to cool the reactor, B Reactor soon was the work horse in creating the plutonium used to create both test and war time nuclear bombs.  B Reactor was also the template to which the other reactors on the Hanford site were built.

Currently Hanford is run by the Department of Energy and is the home to a massive clean-up effort.  Employing thousands of people, Hanford is still creating nuclear power from one small reactor.  The other reactors on the property are either entombed to allow the radiation to dissipate or are being taken apart and buried.  Nuclear energy, although clean when running, is a disaster when decommissioned.  Much of the waste created in the early years of Hanford was buried in undisclosed locations, with those persons in the know long passed on.  Today, Hanford is a nuclear recycling center, housing all the cores from decommissioned military vessels. Each ‘cask’ or nuclear power plant is placed in rows after being barged from the ocean to the Hanford property. Like a graveyard, these casks, are the size of small buildings, patiently awaiting future burial or decontamination.

With a 2 billion dollar vitrification plant underway at Hanford, the Tri-cities region continues to flourish in the nuclear age.  Time will tell, however, at what cost…

But if you have an interest in history and want to take a bad-ass tour in the middle of the week of a former double top-secret nuclear power plant that once produced the fuel for nuclear weapons, B Reactor is the spot, and its FREE!

Learn more at:

http://manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov/?tour=registrationStart

*The guy with the walker and Hanford hat, he and his brother were both operators of B Reactor for decades…

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In Memory of Albert Pontarolo

“It was a time of timber and toil…with men as tough as their ax handles…and more mountains in every direction…that I would ever see again.”

-Norman Maclean- 

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Albert Pontarolo was born June 1, 1922 and passed away in peace surrounded by his family around 9:30pm on July 21, 2014.  He was 92 years of age.

As a young man his days were spent shoving coal for the Northern Pacific Railroad. As a railroad fireman he would shovel coal 16 hours a day and cool off with a swim across the Columbia river. Needless to say he was a man of unknown strength, with hands like a catchers mitt and a grip that of a bench vise.

As tensions grew in Europe Albert Pontarolo enlisted in the Navy and spent his time at Midway and Guam as a mechanic and seamen. Although he spoke little of his encounters at war, like most of his generation, it was clear that he made and lost friends who molded him into the man, father, husband, and grandfather be soon became. Upon his return from WWII Albert met and married Alice Fazzari in 1946 who he cherished for 67 years until his death. Albert and Alice had two sons and three daughters, raising them on a small farm in Walla Walla, Washington.

After returning from war he briefly returned to the railroad but ultimately found himself behind the bar with his brother-in-law, Arturo Fazzari, serving cold beers and 30 cent salami sandwiches to local patrons. Albert was consigliere to Art Fazzari and The McFeely Tavern – ‘the biggest little tavern in town’ for over 50 years. He stayed involved with the McFeely but ultimately he returned to his true vocation, being a railroad man.

After working as a fireman, brakemen and passing his railroad engineer test, Albert, rode the rails in the Pacific Northwest as an engineer until his retirement.  Always a tinkerer and mechanic he devoted his retirement to repairing anything that needed fixing and helped run the McFeely.  Albert, like many men of his generation, lived by the simple code, ‘don’t be afraid to get started’. Tearing into motors, radios, building homes, plowing fields, picking onions, and cracking walnuts with his bare hands, my Grandpa was a goddamn man.

He defined brawn and grit, but I could always see a tear well in his eye as I left after my frequent visits.

Albert Pontarolo 

June 1, 1922 thru July 21, 2014 

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The Next Chapter

“All change, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

-Anatole France-

After four years at Cheney Farms it is time to pass the baton.  It has been a great run and I am so pleased to know that Douglas LaBar of the Mason Jar (http://themasonjar101.com) in Cheney, Washington will continue the tradition of farm to table sustainability as well as cultivating the Slow Food movement in Eastern Washington. Thus with a bittersweet good-bye from the Farm life I have taken residence in a single room and will follow my heart to the next chapter in the book of life.

A special grazie mille to Mike Pontarolo for all his hard work at Cheney Farms over the past four years.  I know this sale saddens him more than me, but there will be another Farm in my future where he can toil away in the soil, cultivating what Mother Earth provides. Thus it is fitting to release the farm on May Day, a celebration of Spring.

Thank you to all those who contributed to the Farm over the years: pasta dinners, Wednesday night volleyball, sausage making, basil harvest, canning;  these memories will always be cherished.

Dare Greatly,

Nick Pontarolo

 

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Ski Boots On the Ground: Afghanistan

* Recent Spokesman Review Article regarding the Trip after posting the following story on Cheney Farms*

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2014/apr/15/ski-afghanistan-cheney-resident-hopes-to-inspire/

 

The wheels touched down at Kabul International Airport and the raspy voiced pilot announced that we had all safely arrived in Afghanistan, current time 1:15pm. He reiterated the obligatory “please stay in your seat until the fasten seatbelt sign has been turned off” but he must have been speaking a dead language.  It impacted no one. Everyone unbuckled and milled about the cabin collecting their military issue rucksacks or tattered parcels wrapped in bed sheets, secured with hemp rope, as the plane taxied to the shelled Kabul Airport. All were either elated to arrive home or devastated to be returning to duty.

Arriving in Kabul for many Afghan people is a return home from a long journey on business, to see family in Pakistan or Iran, or a homecoming from near exile due to the turbulent political and violent conflicts that have mired Afghanistan for decades. For westerners it is another unwanted tour of duty, high paying security contractor job, or middle aged adventure seeker, seeking to make a change in the war zone through one of the copious NGO’s and government agencies established to stabilize this amazing land and its diverse and kind population.

For me, when Emirates 640 landed at 1:15pm I took the first breath of semi-fresh, stress free air is far too long.  I had arrived at a destination I had been dreaming about for years. My best friend had been living in Kabul and Kandahar the past 5 years working numerous jobs for NGO’s and government agencies.  We had long talked about me visiting and skiing the north central region of the country called Bamiyan but it had never come to fruition until flight 640 landed.

With ski boots on the ground we were off for another adventure that would reinforce a bond between friends that is so rare in a world of social media, cell phones, text messages, and Skype.  We; friends, neighbors, hooligans since the 4th grade, ski buddies since 49 Degrees North had $49 season passes, hell we both received our first passport stamps years ago on the same day, and here we were, once again, on deck to see what the world had to offer us and what we could give in return.

Although it would take pages, maybe a book, at the very least a photo essay, and for the corporate type, an elaborate PowerPoint with Fiji water and gluten free muffins to explain what I saw, felt, and experienced in Afghanistan.  But I am resolute in saying Afghanistan, its people; the Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, the expats, and so many others are kind, giving, fun, and full of grit.

I will return to Afghanistan for it was the best adventure I have ever been a part of and possibly the best month of my life.  I am a better person for the experience and a more compassionate individual for continuing to seek how we, humans, fit together on these floating tectonic plates that make up planet Earth.

So in the words of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I leave you with this:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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Bamiyan: Sar-e-Qol-e-Chapadara