Touring B reactor at Hanford nuclear waste site

Touring B reactor at Hanford nuclear waste site. Photo: Caryn Littler / KING.
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Hanford is America’s most contaminated nuclear waste site, but how did it get that way?

The tours given by the Manhattan Project (now in partnership with the National Parks Service) might not answer that question directly, but gives you insight into the largest construction project in US history.

I took a tour of B reactor, one of nine on the site. I thought that I would be bored, as I’m no nuclear physicist, and we would have two hours to explore the site. It was the only one of three tours that fit within my schedule, and I was determined to learn more about the site that is now causing so many to get sick.

I learned DuPont (the company that invented nylon), had to be convinced to take on the project, as the government thought that it was the only company with the expertise and knowledge to bring online a nuclear facility in a short time. Remember, we were very, very afraid of what technology the Germans may or may not have had during WWII. DuPont relented and agreed to construct Hanford, under the terms it must be completely in charge and that six months after the war ended, it would be relieved of duty. In addition, it would only profit from this project by $1. The materials and labor cost, of course, was provided for — and it today’s standard, I believe cost in the billions of dollars.

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PHOTOS: Touring B reactor at Hanford

The world’s first plutonium production nuclear facility was intended to be built in Tennessee, but was rejected by the General in charge due to it’s proximity to Nashville. So, another site was chosen, which lead the government to the desert of Washington State. Three towns were evicted to make way for the sprawling facility (in fact, there’s a separate tour just for show this!)

I could go on and on about the facts I learned on the tour, most of which was refreshing my high school-level chemistry, but I’ll try not to.

After driving the 40 minutes from the tour base to the reactor, you can understand why this desolate location was so desired: miles from anywhere, if something were to go wrong, harm would be minimized. Turns out I also passed by Hanford on my drive into town — I was wondering what those factories were, but now I knew: reactors B and C (now entomed in concrete), the separation facility, the electrical plant, and on the mesa above everything, the site where hundreds of contractors work every day to attempt clean up . There are now more people working on the cleanup than were ever employed at Hanford during its heyday.

B reactor was built in complete secrecy, so much so that work was done in parts: bricklayers hired to place the granite blocks to hold the uranium, welders sometimes blindfolded while shuttled from their home to the work site. When you walk through the doors and into the reactor’s main chamber, you are simply dumbfounded: it’s massive. When I think all that work was done with only a handful of people knowing it’s true purpose, I’m once again speechless. Apparently one girl told her teacher at the time she knew what was going on at the site: a toilet-paper factory, she said, because her dad came home with two rolls every night. In reality, it created the materials that would end up in the bomb dropped Nagasaski, Japan.

Built in only 11 months, the reactor was supposed to stay online for only three years. However, it ended operations in 1968 after 24 years of service and has been decommissioned ever since. As part of an international agreement, Russians come to Hanford every year to inspect the site, to make sure it says that way. This means that even the lids on the giant water tubes must stay unhinged. While the Russians don’t think after all these years we’d put the reactor back in service, they continue to visit: this past year, they remarked on the ‘new railing’ put on as part of the new National Parks guidelines.

RELATED: What is Hanford?

Touring with graduate students studying nuclear security was a pretty interesting experience in and of itself: not only did I get mistaken for one, I think the science portion was taken up a notch. I now know more about uranium 235 and 238 than I did just a few days ago!

For every ton of material taken out of the reactor, only 1/2 lb of it was plutonium. Depending on the ‘recipe’ for that batch, the uranium would ‘cook’ in the reactor for approximately 11 weeks (I believe), before the product was released out the back, dropping 20 feet into a tub, where it would rest 90 days before being shipped to the separation facility a few miles away on the site in specially designed rail cars. It truly was a feat of engineering, especially considering it stemmed from a small mock up at the University of Chicago and was brought to projection on such a large scale so quickly. As the docents repeated so frequently, ‘it worked.’ While most of us wanted to see where the nuclear material went after it was released from the machine, I guess it’s better we didn’t: locked behind a gate and several locked doors, all I could see was an alleyway. Workers couldn’t even get back there due to radiation concerns, so why should I?

There was a lot of science and engineering lessons learned, but amidst all the cool designs, I just couldn’t help but imagine what the site would’ve looked like in 1944, bustling with people, packed onto the Hanford Energy Works site. While likely a dozen or so people might’ve worked at B reactor, it must’ve been loud: the roar of the fans to cool the reactor combined with the rush of the water needed to cool it (I was told at least the amount in an Olympic sized pool every five minutes), you’d be lucky to hear yourself think. However, workers didn’t get to experience the awe that I saw upon seeing the reactor, as a curtain was drawn while it was operating, to help with the flow of air.

I also learned that according to legend, the Northwest’s tie to the reactor wasn’t just it’s location in Washington: SCRAM, which means a nuclear reactor must be shut down immediately, has it’s origins from an Oregon logger. The term stands for safety control rod axe man, and as it has been told, while doing the original experiment at the University of Chicago creator Enrico Fermani hired an experienced logger from Oregon to swiftly cut the control rods in case something were to go wrong at the plant and it needed to be stopped. The moniker has stuck ever since.

While the docents expertly glossed over the complexity of the cleanup, I was given insight into what makes this site so different and so much more complex than similar sites across the country.

When someone asks you why you’re headed to Hanford, don’t ever feel bad to say ‘for fun!’ Sure, you might get some funny looks, but you’ll learn a lot about US nuclear history. Just don’t bring too much radiation back with you as a souvenir.

While I could go on and on with what I learned (I apparently talked about my trip for 20 minutes without interruption earlier), I’ll end it here. Meanwhile, I’ll still be making up stories for the cool tools I saw on display.