Politics & Government

Panel: Manhattan Project-era nuclear reactor should be a historic landmark

Some 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.
Some 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. Mike Siegel / Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — A National Park Service advisory committee recommended Wednesday that the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, the B Reactor at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state, be designated a National Historic Landmark.

While a designation as a site of "national historic significance" would be an important first step toward preserving the reactor, where the plutonium for the nation's first nuclear weapons was produced as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, it wouldn't guarantee that the reactor would be protected.

"This is huge," said Hanford historian Michele Gerber, after the National Park Service Landmarks Advisory Committee made its unanimous recommendation.

But Gerber cautioned that unless Congress takes action, the current Department of Energy plan still calls for it to "cocoon" the reactor in concrete and steel for the next 75 years until a decision is made on how to dispose of it.

A National Park Service official said the eventual placement of the B Reactor on the registry of National Historic Landmarks could make it easier to preserve the reactor.

"Because it is on federal land, we would be highly discouraged from demolishing a National Historic Landmark," said Elaine Jackson-Retondo, who headed the park service study of the reactor.

Even a designation as a National Historic Landmark isn't a given.

Another National Park Service committee has to review Wednesday's recommendation; the secretary of the Interior Department will make the final decision.

On a separate track, the park service will complete a study next year on whether to include the B Reactor with other Manhattan Project sites — 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 new national park.

The Energy Department has indicated that it'll wait only until 2009 before moving forward with cocooning. Five of the nine reactors at Hanford already have been stabilized this way.

The B Reactor, a pile of 75,000 graphite blocks 36 feet high, 36 feet wide and 28 feet deep drilled through with 2,004 tubes to hold the nuclear fuel, was built in 11 months. It was the dawn of the nuclear age, and no one was sure whether a reactor of its size would work. The initial plutonium from the reactor was used in the world's first nuclear explosion at the Trinity Test Site and in the "Fat Man" bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

"When you go into the control room, you feel as if you are back in the 1940s," Gerber told the advisory committee. "It's hulking, dark, big. It's a weapon of war. There is nothing white coat or push-button about it."

After producing plutonium for more than 20 years, the B Reactor was shut down in 1968. The reactor sits abandoned now on the banks of the Columbia River within the 560-square-mile Hanford reservation in south-central Washington. It's open for occasional tours. Though the reactor core is still radioactive, it's well shielded, and the rest of the reactor building and grounds has been cleaned of contamination.

In telling the story of the B Reactor, Gerber said, there would be no attempt to whitewash history and ignore the downside of the nuclear age.

"We will not tell a triumphalist history," she said. "We will tell the entire story."

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