In September, I had a chance to go on a tour of the Hanford Site’s B Reactor. The tour departed from a building on the edge of the Hanford Site. It was my first trip out to Hanford, and I had no idea of the scale of the site until the tour guide announced that it would take forty minutes to reach the B Reactor. The drive was beautiful; to the south was the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, including Rattlesnake Mountain, a 3,500 ft. ridge that is mostly inaccessible to the public. To the north was the Hanford site, and the other passengers gawked and pointed at the indiscriminate buildings on the horizon.
We finally arrived at the B Reactor. The B Reactor was built over a thirteen month period from 1943 to 1944. Using uranium mined in the Congo it produced the plutonium that was used in the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The B Reactor continued operating until 1968, and the calendar from February 1968 still hangs on the wall of the reactor’s control room. Many of the contents of the reactor still seem frozen in the sixties; eerie gas masks from earlier decades are on display and posted signs encourage workers to put out their cigarettes. Old radiation warning signs made me wonder what it would be like to be part of the 99 percent of Hanford workers who had no idea what they were doing for the initial years of the reactor’s operation. I often wonder about what we know now about occupational safety that wasn’t taken into account back then and how many Hanford workers have experienced adverse health effects.
Though the construction of the B Reactor was an unimaginably huge accomplishment that occurred in a short period of time, its initial days of operation were not smooth. Workers needed to scram (emergency shutdown) the reactor 60 times in its first few months of operation. The B reactor also initially suffered from the effects of xenon poisoning, which occurred when accumulated xenon began absorbing too many neutrons and preventing the chemical reaction from continuing. Filling an additional 500 process tubes with fuel allowed the chain reaction to be sustained and the plutonium to be made. Despite its early issues, the B Reactor set an important precedent for the design of nuclear reactors.
Touring the B Reactor allowed me to see firsthand the space that Hanford workers occupied for so many years during WWII and the Cold War. I also began to understand in a far more real way the unbelievable size and complexity of a project that was done so quickly and without the aid of modern computers.
I do wonder how local Tribes view the preservation of historic sites like the B Reactor on the Hanford site, given that it contradicts the goal of restoring the site to its original state. It has been important to learn to be a critical consumer of information, always knowing that some viewpoints are underrepresented, especially in the context of official tours and publications. Absent in the tour for example were the perspectives of workers and community members who became sick as a result of their proximity to waste, the stories of Tribes in the area, and any contemplation of the effects of uranium mining on communities in Africa. Likewise, the ethics of nuclear weapon production went unquestioned. The tour was a fascinating, problematic, and thought-provoking experience, and I recommend that anyone who has a chance to go tour the site take the opportunity.
Tours are available both of the Hanford B Reactor and of the whole site. Tour reservations are in-demand, so be sure to reserve a spot as soon as possible when registration opens in March. More information on Hanford tours is available here.
By: Emily Bays