Politics & Government

Preserve B Reactor as historic landmark, board advises

Visitors check out the face of B Reactor core in Richland, Wash.
Visitors check out the face of B Reactor core in Richland, Wash. Paul T. Erickson / Tri-City Herald / MCT

WASHINGTON -- The world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, the B Reactor at the Hanford reservation in Washington state, took another step toward permanent preservation Tuesday as a key National Park Service board recommended its designation as a national historic landmark.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne will make the final decision on whether the reactor, which sits abandoned on the banks of the Columbia River, will receive the landmark designation. Such a designation would go a long way toward protecting the reactor. But the Department of Energy, which owns it, the National Park Service and likely Congress will all have a say in its ultimate fate.

Built as part of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret U.S. government program to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, the B Reactor retains a "time stood still" quality from the dawn of the atomic age and the beginnings of the Cold War, Park Service officials said.

The National Park System Advisory Board unanimously recommended national historic landmark designation for the reactor and 16 other sites. The board members had no questions about the B Reactor prior to voting.

"Touring the B Reactor is like stepping back in the 1940s, because it has largely been left intact," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., whose congressional district includes Hanford, said in a written statement submitted to the board. "For those who didn't live through World War II, the B Reactor tells the story of the time and the workforce that contributed to our nation's defense for so long. By preserving B Reactor, we will have an irreplaceable teaching tool for future generations."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the board had recognized the reactor represented an "important chapter in our nation's history. The B Reactor will give future generations a chance to learn about the important contribution this region made to the World War II effort and the service and sacrifice of the Hanford community."

The National Park Service is expected to complete, by the end of a year, a study of whether to create a Manhattan Project national park. The B Reactor along with other Manhattan Project sites could be included, but the park service has been reluctant to create new parks because of tight budgets.

Department of Energy officials have indicated it's not their job to operate historical museums, and they are prepared to wrap the B Reactor in concrete and steel in a process called cocooning. Five of the nine former plutonium production reactors along the Columbia at Hanford have already been cocooned, a move that will stabilize them for 75 years or until a decision is made about how ultimately to dispose of them. It's all part of the effort to clean up the Hanford site.

In 1943, only months after physicist Enrico Fermi showed a controlled nuclear chain reaction was possible, work began on the B Reactor. Eleven months later, workers finished assembling 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. No one was sure whether it would work.

But the reactor produced the plutonium used in the world's first ever manmade nuclear explosion, at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki and plutonium for the nation's nuclear stockpile for 20 years before it was shut down.

The reactor core, which is shielded, remains highly radioactive. But contamination elsewhere in the reactor building, adjacent buildings and outside has been cleaned. The public is invited to occasionally tour the B Reactor.

Other Manhattan Project sites have already been designated national historic landmarks, including the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the site in Chicago were Fermi built a small reactor to test nuclear reaction theories, and Gilman Hall in Berkeley, Calif., where plutonium was first discovered.

Among other sites recommended for landmark designation Tuesday were a part of the University of Mississippi where riots broke out when James Meredith tried to enroll as the first African-American at the college; The Forty Acres area in Delano, Calif., where the headquarters of Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers Union is located; two battlefields in Montana dating to the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877; the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the home of composer Aaron Copland in New York.