DOE endorses B Reactor for historical park

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerMay 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Hanford's historic B Reactor should be included in any Manhattan Project National Historical Park, along with key Department of Energy property in Tennessee and New Mexico, DOE has told the National Park Service.

Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, has written a letter to Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, to resolve its concerns about including B Reactor or other nuclear facilities in the park system.

"Given the nature of the properties currently under NPS ownership and/or operation, and the different missions of our two organizations, we fully understand your agency's caution," Triay wrote.

But a partnership between the two agencies could resolve any issues and would best tell the story of the Manhattan Project, she wrote.

In December, the National Park Service issued a draft report that considered only Los Alamos, N.M., for a proposed Manhattan Project National Park. The only things the park service considered at B Reactor were possibly providing technical assistance or educational programs.

Supporters of saving B Reactor as a museum have pushed to get the park service to reconsider the reactor's future in its final report, despite park service concerns that including B Reactor in the park service could be expensive and risky.

"If it is part of the park service, it gets all the national and international advertising," of other national parks, said Gary Petersen, Tri-City Development Council vice president of Hanford projects.

Triay's letter assured DOE that any Manhattan Project facility, including B Reactor, would remain under DOE ownership even if they became part of the park service.

"DOE will maintain them, preserve important resources at these sites, ensure visitor and employee safety and request necessary funding from Congress to do so in the future," she wrote.

That should ease park service concerns about the cost of drawing B Reactor into the park system, Petersen said.

The National Park Service also said in the draft study that it was concerned it would need to make judgments "regarding safety issues arising from the proximity of visitors and employees to radioactive materials." Potential risk to future park service staff and volunteers also was a worry, it said.

"We think the solution is a strong and permanent partnership between NPS and DOE in which roles and responsibilities are clearly delineated and each agency plays to its strengths," Triay wrote.

DOE is prepared to bring to the partnership its radiological expertise, safety culture and in-depth knowledge of B Reactor and other Manhattan Project facilities it manages, she wrote.

"We look to NPS for its unparalleled interpretive and educational skills, understanding of the visiting public and ability to tie facilities at the three DOE sites together to tell the Manhattan Project narrative to future generations," she wrote.

During World War II, the United States rushed to build the nation's first atomic bomb, fearing that its enemies had a head start in developing the weapon.

As part of the Manhattan Project, Hanford workers built the world's first full-scale production reactor, B Reactor, in little more than a year.

The reactor ushered in the Atomic Age, as it produced plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert and for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II. It continued to produce plutonium in the Cold War.

Last year, more than 6,300 people visited B Reactor, which looks much as it did in WWII. This year, the first 4,000 seats available for B Reactor public tours were reserved in less than 12 hours.

"Our visitor surveys and public discussions tell us that the B Reactor will continue to be of interest to the public, particularly as we move toward lowering the current age limit to enable visits by school groups and families with minor children," Triay wrote.

Interest should only increase if the reactor is added to the park system, Petersen said.

DOE already is using a new security system that eliminates the need for security badging for the tour and allows international visitors in the reactor in addition to U.S. citizens.

"In summary, the facilities from the three original DOE properties should be included in any future designated Manhattan Project National Historical Park in order to give visitors the full appreciation for what tens of thousands of patriotic men and women accomplished on behalf of the United States," Triay wrote.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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