Will first nuclear reactor become a national park?

Tri-Cities residents want the Hanford nuclear reservation's B Reactor--the world's first nuclear reactor--to be preserved as a museum in Hanford, Washington.
Tri-Cities residents want the Hanford nuclear reservation's B Reactor--the world's first nuclear reactor--to be preserved as a museum in Hanford, Washington.

RICHLAND, Wash. — He was simply known as Mr. Farmer, and for three days he sat at a drafting table in a small office off the control room and used a slide rule and graph paper to try to figure out why the world's first nuclear reactor wasn't working.

It was the dawn of the nuclear age and the B Reactor, at the Hanford Engineer Works in the desolate sagebrush prairie of south-central Washington state was the cornerstone of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build a bomb and end World II before the Nazis and Japanese could.

Mr. Farmer was the cover name for Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who'd helped design the reactor from scratch — a pile of 75,000 graphite blocks, 36 feet high, 36 feet wide and 28 feet deep, drilled through with 2,004 tubes holding enriched uranium fuel for a nuclear chain reaction that would produce plutonium. It was built in 11 months, a sort of seat-of-the-pants engineering feat that no one had done before.

Fermi and other scientists and engineers were confident it would work. But no one was sure.

The start-up problem was diagnosed as xenon gas curbing the nuclear reaction. Less than a year later, the problem solved, plutonium produced by the B Reactor was used in Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Japan surrendered days later.

For more than 20 years, through the tensest days of the Cold War, the B Reactor produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear stockpile before it was shut down in 1968.

"It was an engineering miracle, and the fact that it worked was mind-boggling," said Hanford historian Michele Gerber.

The reactor sits abandoned on the banks of the Columbia River. Volunteers offer occasional tours. Black widow spiders, bats, snakes and mice are the only regular visitors.

That could change.

A National Park Service advisory committee will decide in early December whether to recommend placing the B Reactor on the list of National Historic Landmarks. Final listing decisions are made by the interior secretary.

The National Park Service also is considering whether to include the reactor, along with the world's first uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Trinity test site at Los Alamos, N.M., where the first nuclear bombs were tested, in a national historical park that would tell the story of the Manhattan Project. A draft report is expected next spring and a final version at the end of 2008. Congress would make the final decision.

The proposed park isn't without controversy. Some are concerned that, in a rush to tell the story, the National Park Service might forget the downside of the development of nuclear weapons — ranging President Harry Truman's decision to use them on Japanese cities to the radioactive waste that's the legacy of plutonium production at Hanford and elsewhere.

The Park Service is grappling with the possibility of managing a site that includes a well-shielded but still radioactive reactor core in the 560-square-mile Hanford reservation, where billions of dollars are being spent to clean up contamination and tons of weapons-grade plutonium are stored in buildings requiring tight security. (Eleven pounds is enough to make a crude nuclear weapon.)

"The National Park Service doesn't really manage nuclear reactors," said Keith Dunbar, chief of park planning in the service's regional office in Seattle.

One possibility is that local groups could form a partnership with the National Park Service and the Department of Energy to manage and offer tours. Though the reactor remains radioactive, it's cloaked in an air-tight containment shell roughly 5 feet thick. Other contamination has been cleaned up or is stabilized underground.

"We check for radiation every time we do a tour," Dunbar said. "We know it is safe."

The Energy Department, which owns Hanford, has made clear that it isn't in the museum business. The department wants a decision on whether the reactor will be preserved in the next year or so. Otherwise, it will be "cocooned" — wrapped in steel and concrete — for the next 75 years while scientists study how to dispose of it safely. Five of the nine reactors at Hanford already have been stabilized this way.

"There's no debate about the reactor's place in history and the fact that it's an engineering marvel," said Colleen French, an Energy Department spokeswoman at Hanford. "The question is under what conditions a nuclear reactor could be made available for safe, long-term public access."

Dan McCullough, 93, of Richland, is the only person still alive who was in the control room with Fermi on Sept. 27, 1944, when the B Reactor went critical for the first time. After all these years, McCullough's memory has faded, but he recalled that Fermi was concerned about the sensitivity of some of the gauges monitoring the nuclear activity in the core and asked him to make some adjustments.

But what McCullough most remembers is that even as the reactor came to life, few, including himself, knew exactly what it was going to produce.

"It was a very secret mission," McCullough said. "People out there didn't know exactly what it was about."

McCullough, an instrument engineer from Salt Lake City, was one of 50,000 workers who started arriving at Hanford in the spring of 1943 as part of the rush effort to build a bomb. Hanford was selected because of its isolation, its proximity to the Columbia River to supply cooling water for the reactors and the vast amounts of cheap hydroelectric power generated at Grand Coulee and other nearby dams.

The workers lived in barracks and ate in eight mess halls, each the size of a football field. There was a dance hall where the top big bands played, a bowling alley, a movie theater and baseball and softball diamonds.

When the wind started to blow, as it often did, workers would line up at the pay wagon to receive their wages — and quit. The gusts were known as "termination winds," the last straw for many who were lonely and tired of the isolation.

Fermi's team at the University of Chicago produced the first sustained nuclear fission reaction at a small pile of graphite assembled under the stands at the university's stadium. As a safety precaution, a man with an axe was stationed nearby. In the event of an emergency, he could chop a rope to lower a control rod and dampen the reaction. He was known as the Single Control Rod Axe Man, or SCRAM. To this day, an emergency shutdown at nuclear reactor is known as a SCRAM.

But the B Reactor was scaled up a million-fold from that primitive reactor.

"It was a triumph for him," Gerber said of Fermi and the B Reactor. "It verified the physics and that you could create a machine to contain such a reaction. Whatever a person thinks about nuclear weapons, it changed U.S. and world history."

Many of the parts used in the B Reactor were the first of their kind. New tools had to be invented to build the parts. The control room had more than 5,000 instruments, many of them specially designed. Six operators monitored the reactor around the clock, recording data by hand. It was a time of slide rules rather than computers.

The father of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., grew up in the Tri-Cities, and she remembers hearing stories about Hanford when she was growing up.

"I heard about the sacrifices people made to win the war," she said. "The B Reactor and the people who made it a reality have played an indelible role in our nation's history, and that history must be preserved so that we as a society have the opportunity to reflect and learn the important lessons that this facility has to offer."