Along the bank of the Columbia River in south-central Washington, an expanse of windswept desert plateau teems with wildlife, despite being designated as the “most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere.” At Hanford, where Native Americans fished and lived off the land for eons, the U.S. government created the most powerful, dangerous materials humankind has ever known, and the largest environmental disaster the country has ever confronted.

All that’s taken place at Hanford, birthplace of the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, has indisputably changed the course of humanity.

Robert Franklin.

“There is a world before atomic weapons and a world after atomic weapons, and we live in that world, and the B Reactor is the point where that shift happened,” says Robert Franklin, a history professor at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus. Franklin is also the assistant director of the Hanford History Project and president of the nonprofit B Reactor Museum Association.

By reflecting upon the entirety of Hanford’s history, Franklin hopes current and future generations can learn from its far-reaching impacts. To start, those interested can visit Hanford itself, where tours of the decommissioned B Reactor offer an up-close look at how the Atomic Age was born. Also, a new exhibit by the Spokane County Library District — on display next month, alongside a series of local events — will explore the complex history and legacy of Hanford.

“However [people] think they might feel about it, come and see the place and give yourself time to reflect both on the achievement it was to build that on such a short time, and to understand the nature of the country in 1942, ’43,” Franklin says. “And to reflect on the scale of loss that it created and to reflect on a world that was forever changed.

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