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N Reactor demolition a bittersweet moment

Watching the videos of this past weekend's demolition of a 200-foot tower at N Reactor and its steam-generating equipment revived memories of the first time I ever saw that old workhorse, nearly 32 years ago.

In 1976, N Reactor still was a shining example of the promise of the nuclear age. President John F. Kennedy attended its groundbreaking in 1963, and it became the nation's only reactor ever built to produce plutonium and electrical power.

At the time, its steam plant, the Hanford Generating Project, proudly was cranking out 860 megawatts of electricity, regularly described as enough juice to power Seattle. And at the same time, it was adding to the nation's ever-growing stockpile of plutonium.

Folks on the west side seemed more than eager for its power, especially during the 1977 drought, when a winter cold snap and low water combined to make N Reactor vital to keeping Seattle on the power grid.

Until the weather eased, N Reactor stayed on line, even though it was scheduled to shut down for maintenance, because if it did Seattle would have gone dark.

Nowadays, nuclear is as popular as a skunk at a picnic on the wet side of our state, but in the mid-1970s, we still were pinning our hopes on nuclear to get us through the energy crisis.

Folks could easily recall the long lines at gas stations in the early 1970s when the supply was short and Jane Fonda was famous for wearing not much of anything in Barbarella and infamous for her less-than-patriotic stance on the Vietnam War. The anti-nuclear movie The China Syndrome wouldn't come out until 1979 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident still was 10 years in the future.

Anyway, my first visit to N Reactor came soon after I arrived at the Herald in 1976, and even in retrospect, it was impressive. We arrived to find the reactor's marquee - some might think it strange that a reactor would have one - contained a note of welcome for us visitors, and for the first and last time, there was my name "in lights."

From the outside, N Reactor was massive but appeared to be no more than a giant industrial plant, which in a sense it was. On the inside however, maintenance work was in progress, and we got to see the reactor core's impressive and huge face and even got a quick peek at the back of the core, where the spent fuel was pushed out, slid down a slide into a pool of water before eventually being collected and sent off for processing to extract its plutonium.

It was heady stuff for a young man who had grown up reading avidly about World War II and the bombs that ended it.

And even at the distance of three decades, the current demolition of the hopes, dreams and accomplishment that N Reactor represented for the United States of the mid-20th century leaves a bittersweet taste.