As the school bus of 33 Delta High School students drove away from Hanford's B Reactor, guide Russ Fabre asked the teens to describe their visit to the nuclear facility.
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Thursday's field trip was the first time anyone under 18 was allowed on the federal property since it was developed for plutonium production in the 1940s.
The students had a good time and enjoyed being with their friends as they toured an important part of American history, but they also realized the relevance of their visit.
"We are impacting history today," said Oleg Tyshchuk, a 14-year-old freshman.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy authorized visits to B Reactor by people as young as 12, coming about three years after the first opening the nuclear facility to limited guided tours.
Fabre, project support manager for Mission Support Alliance, a subcontractor charged with maintaining B Reactor, said relaxing the age restriction was a year in the making and is part of a larger effort to turn the area into a national park.
B Reactor was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, built as part of the Manhattan Project when the U.S. feared Germany was creating an atom bomb. It ushered in the atomic age, producing the plutonium used in the first atomic explosion and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.
Fabre noted there isn't a radiological danger to people visiting the reactor.
"I have a 3-year-old grandson and I'd have no issue taking him into the reactor," Fabre said.
The necessity of preservation was one of the key factors considered in lowering the age restriction. Numerous artifacts and installations at Hanford are irreplaceable and easily broken if picked up and dropped. Fabre added that it also is an industrial facility and comes with its own hazards.
But more than 25,000 people have safely visited Hanford since it was opened to the public. Staff addressed any possible industrial hazards and have a requirement that students under 18 have a chaperone.
On Thursday, students frequently asked questions ranging from the reactors at Hanford to how various components in the control room operated.
"It's so huge," said one female student looking at the reactor.
They snapped photos with pocket cameras and cellphones.
When given permission to sit in a chair in the reactor's control room or handle intercom handsets, they gladly obliged.
"Someone's got a new Facebook photo," joked 16-year-old junior Tyler Williams after a quick photo op.
While federal authorities and Hanford officials worked to open the facility to younger people, sophomore Regan Volk might have provided the nudge that got her and her classmates in.
The 15-year-old said she researched and studied Hanford as part of her studies and was disappointed when she found out she couldn't visit until she was 18.
Gov. Chris Gregoire visited Delta High last October, and Volk was her guide for the day. Eventually, the conversation turned to Hanford and whether Volk had visited there.
"I told her I couldn't because I wasn't 18 and she turned to her assistant and said they'd have to look into that," Volk said.
Delta High Principal Deidre Holmberg said she selected students for the trip to ensure Kennewick, Pasco and Richland were represented, along with all three grade levels at the school.
She said the trip was a big deal and was another way for her school to represent the Tri-Cities.
"Basically, we're changing the way people look at teenagers and high school students," she said.
More school tours already are planned. Fabre said four schools already have scheduled visits, with five more seeking tour dates.
Curriculum has been developed for schools to use in advance of the visits. Different tour programs are planned for middle and high school students, and the tours can be tailored somewhat to focus on science or history.
As for the students, many said they are eager to visit again, but that they always will remember this trip and its significance in history.
"We have bragging rights," said Talya Jackson, a 14-year-old freshman.