Can the B Reactor at Hanford nuclear reservation be an A attraction? Some say the dormant facility could have an active retirement — as a museum.
RICHLAND — Stuck in time and place, B Reactor at the Hanford nuclear reservation is a monument of world history few get to tour.
Built in secrecy during World War II but dormant since 1968, B Reactor ushered in the atomic age as the world’s first nuclear reactor, producing the plutonium for the first full-scale nuclear test explosion in New Mexico and the bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki.
For generations, Hanford has been the bread of life for the Tri-Cities, from when nine reactors produced plutonium to now, when billions of dollars are paying for the world’s largest environmental cleanup.
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Proud of their nuclear heritage, Tri-Citians want the U.S. Department of Energy to give new life to B Reactor by turning it into a museum.
If that happens, several thousand more visitors a year will be able to stand face to face with the reactor core — and confront the issues of the soul that color the atomic age.
“Even if you disagree with the principle of this, even if you believe this reactor never should have been built, you have to admire the complexity of what they built here — the genius of it,” Hanford historian Michele Gerber said while leading a tour of B Reactor.
Without question, the reactor is a marvel of science, engineering and craft. B Reactor was constructed in a mere 11 months, a millionfold scale-up of an experimental reactor built on a Chicago sports court.
But the reactor’s place in the sociopolitical history of the U.S. and the world is more volatile and open to debate.
Dr. David Hall, of Seattle, a past national president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the story told at a B Reactor museum must include a fair accounting of the human and financial costs of developing nuclear capabilities. He isn’t sure that side of the story would get a full airing at a museum on the Hanford site.
“It depends on who’s writing the history,” Hall said. “I want to honor the good intent and patriotism of the people who worked at B Reactor. On the other hand, science needs to be honest about its consequences and understand the Pandora’s box that was opened.”
Did the bomb on Nagasaki save tens of thousands of U.S. lives by forcing Japan’s surrender? Or did it needlessly sacrifice tens of thousands of civilian Japanese lives?
Are advances in nuclear energy and medicine outweighed by the environmental contamination from nuclear wastes?
“Those debates ought to start in this room,” Gerber said, while standing in front of the reactor core. “The mission of Hanford is never complete until the waste is managed and properly disposed of — and that requires the same amount of innovation that went into building this reactor.”
Origins in secret mission
Lacking in aesthetic, B Reactor rises 120 feet from the Southeast Washington desert about a quarter-mile from the Columbia River, sharing the landscape with the sagebrush that grows on the 586-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation.
In early 1943, more than 1,500 residents of two desert towns — Hanford and White Bluffs — were ordered to immediately vacate with no explanation. Native Americans who knew the land for generations no longer had access to it.
At the peak of construction, more than 50,000 workers converged upon Hanford to dutifully carry out their war effort. Told little about their mission, they completed a highly classified project under an extremely tight deadline.
Rumors spread as to what was being manufactured at Hanford. As legend has it, a child was sure he figured it out — toilet paper!
His father, who worked at the site, came home every night with a couple or three rolls, the boy unaware his dad was pilfering to provide his family more than its wartime ration.
Tri-Citians tell that tale and want to be the ones to tell B Reactor’s story for the museum, figuring who better than those who lived it.
“What happened at B Reactor is roughly equivalent to the discovery of fire and putting a man on the moon,” said Wally Greager, 80, who worked five decades at B Reactor and other Hanford facilities. He is among a group of Hanford retirees who 17 years ago launched an effort to preserve B Reactor. They see the museum as a tool to promote the nuclear industry.
“People need to recognize what they get out of it,” Greager said. “If you’re not afraid of it, good can come from it.”
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican who represents the Tri-Cities, said B Reactor ought to be viewed in the context of when it was built — as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the first nuclear bomb.
“We were in an all-out struggle at the time and thought Nazi Germany had the technology to build an atomic bomb,” he said. “From a historic standpoint, we won the war in a large part because of efforts at Hanford.”
Reactor tours popular
The Reactor is always accessible to bats, spiders and rats, and — three times a year — it’s open to people.
Tours are advertised on a Hanford Web site about a month ahead of time, with the 300 or so available spots filling up in minutes during the online sign-up.
“Very many people are turned away,” Gerber said. “One guy compared getting a ticket to winning a lottery.”
Visitors arrive by bus, but if B Reactor becomes a museum, tourists also could arrive by boat as part of a dinner tour or buy a package tour combining B Reactor with visits to area wineries.
At the reactor, visitors can gaze up at the 46-foot-high front face of the core and the 2,004 nozzles protruding from it — access points for loading solid uranium fuel slugs that entered the graphite-block middle that caused the complex nuclear chain reaction that produced the plutonium.
They also can see the office where Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the mind behind the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, sat for three days with his slide rule, trying to figure out why the reactor kept automatically shutting itself down after its initial startups.
Tourists are barred from contaminated areas, but the mint-green interior walls of the reactor still have the original evacuation alarm and evacuation-route signs.
Operated without computers, the control room features a wall of gauges where workers constantly monitored water temperature and pressure in each of the 2,004 fuel process tubes to avoid meltdown.
Below a metal grate is a pit where giant intake pipes supplied 30,000 gallons of Columbia River water per minute to cool the reactor core.
Congress will have a say
If B Reactor is not saved, the government will demolish most of the building, wrapping the highly radioactive core with steel and concrete, buying 75 years for scientists to figure out how to dismantle and dispose of it safely.
Five of Hanford’s nine production reactors already have been “cocooned” this way, with three more scheduled over the next few years.
B Reactor’s fate rests with Congress, which awaits a study on whether to preserve Manhattan Project sites. The National Park Service report is due next fall.
Park Service authorities say operating B Reactor as a museum would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, compared with an estimated $12 million to cocoon it.
The local goal is to increase the number of annual bus tours to B Reactor from 18 to 125 and run them out of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center, which is set to open in 2010 on the banks of the Columbia near Richland. A basic tour would cost $20.
Kimberly Camp, center executive director, said B Reactor exhibits should make no value judgments but that history must be viewed through history’s eyes.
“Too often, we like to look at history through contemporary eyes because it allows us to change the script,” she said. “Exhibits should pose the evidence, ask the questions and inspire people to have the discussion.”
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org