When summer boredom hits, you’ve got options. Sure, you can watch a movie or build a water balloon arsenal, but we didn’t want to mess around. We decided to go nuclear.That’s right. We visited the nuclear reactor on the Washington State University campus. Not everyone knows it exists, and even fewer have seen it for themselves, which is all the more reason to take a nuclear field trip.
Trip type: Indoor, learning, all ages
Total time: One to two hours, plus drive time
Stop 1: Washington State University Nuclear Radiation Center Research Reactor
The reactor is located in a multi-story, nondescript building on the edge of campus neatly named the “Dodgen Research Facility.” I guess “Nuclear Reactor of Awesomeness” was already taken. That, or maybe it’s important to keep your radioactive know-how on the down-low. Either way, the whole place feels pretty top secret. I regret not singing/playing the “Mission Impossible” theme song as we walked up to the entrance and used the intercom to notify staff of our arrival.
They were expecting us, but not because we’re in a spy network. Visitors must arrange reactor tours at least a couple weeks in advance. At the time of scheduling, you’ll also need to supply some personal information, presumably to make sure you’re not one of the bad guys.
Before our tour, we got set up with a device that measures radiation levels and sounds an alarm if they get too high. It’s just a precaution; because of the cement construction, radiation levels inside of the building are actually higher than outside of it. It turns out you’re exposed to more radiation eating a banana — a fruit that naturally emits a low level of radiation, staff said — than taking a nuclear reactor tour.
Our first stop was in the control room, which looks like something straight out of the 1960s, because it is: the reactor first went critical in 1961. It was built largely for research purposes, but also to assist Hanford Site, if need arose. It currently operates as a teaching and research facility; it doesn’t make bombs or provide power. In fact, the reactor keeps the same hours as the government employees that run it: it’s shut down every night and weekend.
The tour talk featured a lot of big, science-y words. Our nuclear education to this point had largely been provided by Hollywood, so we had to ask a lot of questions. I still wouldn’t want the fate of the world relying on my understanding of nuclear fission, but it would have better odds now than it did before.
Are you going to understand everything in the tour? Maybe, maybe not, but you’ll learn something, like why this reactor is boringly safe. It’s constantly monitored, and the plan for the worst-case scenario is to turn off the reactor and leave the building. There are no explosions or radiation-spreading meltdowns in its future.
Regardless of what you learn, visiting a nuclear reactor is weirdly memorable and undeniably cool. Especially once you get into the reactor room where the energy core glows blue from the bottom of a 30-foot pool. It’s like the movies, only better because it’s real.
Since the tour, we have not grown extra appendages, become Russian spies nor been tailed by the same. Can me and my kids tell you everything about nuclear radioactivity? Nope. But we did enjoy a hearty serving of science, we sing “Radioactive” with more authority than we used to, and when we watched “Lego Batman” for the first time a couple days later, we enthusiastically identified the energy plant as nuclear in nature. And that’s a win.
Stop 2: Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe
It couldn’t be helped. We drove by it upon leaving the reactor; it would’ve been wasteful not to take the opportunity to stop, grab some ice cream and stock up on cheese.
Stop 3: Porch Light Pizza
If you’re going to have lunch after eating ice cream, it helps to go someplace delicious and Porch Light Pizza is. They offer a thin-crust, fire-baked pizza that’s quick, affordable and good. We tried the Porch, which has pulled pork, onions, cheese and cilantro on a barbecue sauce base; the Garden, which has a pile of veggies and cheese on a red sauce; and a build-your-own pie of pepperoni and olives. Porch Light’s simple, real flavors earned it a place on our “favorite pizzas” list. Pizzas come in one personal-but-generous size ($8.35), and kids can get something smaller ($4.17). Salads are also on the menu.