Photo credit: Matthew Berdyck

Hanford B Reactor Tour Offers Glimpse Into The Beginnings Of America's Atomic Past

Richland, Washington — North of Richland, Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Facility, the site of a 2 billion dollar a year Department of Energy clean-up of the residual effects of the of country's largest Plutonium production facility, sits the B Reactor, or the world's first nuclear reactor, built in 1943, based on theoretical designs by physicist Enrico Fermi, constructed as a part of the Manhattan Project. 

Walking into the B Reactor building for the first time is like stepping into a time machine and being transported back into the United States' race against Germany to build the first atomic bomb.  

The B Reactor began production of Plutonium 239, in September of 1944, and would continue for the next 24 years, along with several other reactors scattered across the formerly 670 square mile site.  

The reactor building, a concrete-formed industrial facility, decorated in ancient hand-wired instruments, dials, buttons, lever, and knobs, is a somber, and sobering, reminder of the seemingly impossible technological achievements that were accomplished during a time when it took an entire building complex to hold the computational processing of a hand-held calculator. 

The Hanford B Reactor was the site of the first large-scale, self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, where rods of Uranium 238, encased in an aluminum cylinder housing, were inserted into the reactor, bombarded with neutrons, thus separating stable Uranium 238 from the unstable Uranium 239 that would ultimately be converted, through a process called nuclear transmutation, into the Plutonium 239, to be used in the first atomic bombs.  

Uranium 238, which is the type of Uranium found most abundantly on the planet, is so stable, stated one docent, that "the B Reactor was considered a shirt sleeve environment, wear protective suits were not needed, in order for workers to handle the fuel rods."  

Uranium 238 has a half-life of four-million years, giving it a low radioactivity, an element which is essentially only allegedly dangerous to human beings when ingested over long periods of time.   

The facility is a testament to the single-minded, and almost furious, efforts of the 1940's, to thwart the threat the of the global spread of the fascism of Nazi Germany, and the Axis Powers.  It only took two years for the B Reactor to be conceptualized and put into fully functional operation, where it ran for over two decades with zero failures or incidents, according to on-site staff.

During the tour, the mass deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that were caused by the Manhattan project, are buried in patriotism, and smiling propaganda laden American sentimentalism, while the tone of the docents is one of the triumphs of good over evil, with one even stating to me privately, "Japan killed far more of its own people than we ever did." 

There are also no mentions of the massive, widespread, environmental ramifications of the Manhattan Project, the post-World War II arms race, or the advent of nuclear power, which led the eventual 5,200 Department of Energy Uranium tailings clean-up sites, like the UMTRA project in Moab, Utah, where yellowcake Uranium was created and then transported to Hanford to be used in fuel rods.   

One docent stated,"Years ago we wouldn't have even able to have discussed any of the environmental issues that arose from this site," referring to the now 500 square mile complex, "but frequently we're asked if we're the people that polluted the river."

The site of the recent July 2018 evacuations of clean-up workers, who were evacuated from Hanford after being exposed to airborne particles of Plutonium, is miles away from the B Reactor, and equally distant from the narratives of the tour docents. 

The long, drawn out, descriptive, and entertaining responses to questions about the Hanford site are replaced with short, stifling statements, like, "Oh those are located over there in the 200 East and 200 West area, let's move on" when questions are asked about the 177 leaking underground tanks containing 53,000,000 gallons of radioactive water, located at the site, that are leaching radioactive isotopes into the aquifers, and Columbia River, that have been detected as far as 150 miles away, in Portland, Oregon.

Only a short time after the production of the first usable quantities of Plutonium at The B Reactor was achieved, the unstable element was loaded into the first atomic bomb, and tested at the Trinity site, near  Alamagordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, leading J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man in charge of the Los Alamos and the development of the bomb, to darkly quip, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." 

Oppenheimer, after seeing the results of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, roughly three weeks after the Trinity Test, would years later call for ban on the development of nuclear weapons, which would ultimately result in the loss of his security clearance, after being branded as communist sympathizer, during the Second Red Scare, when the FBI produced ten-year-old recordings of him making conflicting statements about communism, after following him around and monitoring his phone calls for over a decade.   

Even Oppenheimer's daughter would feel the effects of her father's now disproven pro-communist political activities when she was denied a security clearance, by the FBI, to become a United Nations Translator, leading to her suicide, at age 32, demonstrating the devastating generational effects that FBI harassment of so-called political dissidents can cause, making Oppenheimer's daughter collateral damage in U.S. government's mission to discredit her father. 

Eventually, in 1968, The B Reactor would be decommissioned, as the advent of new processes and new nuclear bomb technology developed.  The site was divided up into four separate Superfund sites and recommended for the National Priorities List (NPL), in 1988.  The NPL is the U.S. E.P.A.'s list of over 1,300 massive toxic waste sites in the US, which was created to clean up the worst of the hazardous waste dumps.

So far, only one of the Superfund areas at Hanford has been removed from the NPL, after being "fully remediated," according to the U.S. E.P.A.  Due to the nature of the materials at the Hanford Site, some parts of the clean-up will not be able to begin for another 75 years, in order to allow the offending elements to decay into a state that will be safer for workers to be around. 

The US EPA issued a Record of Decision, in 1999, ordering the clean-up of The B Reactor, in order for the site to be used as an historic landmark, and the site was made a part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which also includes facilities Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

Regardless of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park staff's lack of willingness to discuss the darker side of the Hanford site, my visit to the B Reactor was one filled with dumbstruck awe and an apparently macabre fascination that human beings could have even achieved such a seemingly impossible task of splitting an atom, and creating the atomic bomb, a task that ultimately preserved our American way of life.

Tours of the facility are held only during certain times of the year and visitors must register in advance.  

Anyone interested in visiting this utterly fascinating roadside oddity can visit the Manhattan Project National Historic Park website for more information.