Hanford's T Plant being marked for preservation, piece by piece

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 23, 2013 

Two domed lights guard a narrow doorway deep inside Hanford's T Plant, protecting workers since World War II.

If the red light is shining, workers beware.

If the green light flashes, they pass the concrete shielding and enter the work area.

When workers inside need help, they reach around the entrance and press a call button. The ringing echos the length of the building, which is longer than the Space Needle is tall.

"We're going to need that bell," said Colleen French, the DOE government affairs program manager, on a recent treasure hunt at T Plant.

French also wouldn't mind salvaging the red and green lights. The Department of Energy's goal is to save potentially historic items as Hanford's buildings are rapidly demolished -- or, in the case of T Plant, dedicated to different work.

For more than a decade, fans of Hanford history have sought to save from the wrecking ball the facilities that ushered in the Atomic Age during World War II, producing plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

That includes B Reactor, the world's first production-scale reactor, and T Plant, which DOE says is arguably the second-most historic building at Hanford.

It ran B Reactor's irradiated fuel rods through a series of chemical processes to extract plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion and the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. It continued to help produce weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War.

The stuff of everyday life

It will take more than buildings to preserve Hanford's history. The artifacts also need to be saved to tell its story.

Safety signs, first-of-a-kind equipment, the desk of famed WWII physicist Enrico Fermi, original reactor-area phone booths and the coiled aluminum tubes, or pigtails, that were part of B Reactor's cooling system -- all are examples of items that should be preserved, said Matt McCormick, manager of DOE's Hanford Richland Operations Office, in a memo to employees.

Some artifacts tell the story of Hanford's technology, such as the government-green panels used to operate T Plant's chemical processes. Lights, dials, gauges, charts of rolling graph paper and "bubblers" -- lantern-shaped glass enclosures that showed bubbles when the volume in tanks was being measured -- cover the panels.

But some of what DOE wants to save was the stuff of everyday life for Hanford workers, some if it already tucked away for safekeeping.

Standing in the T Plant operations gallery, which runs the 800-foot length of the plant, is the sign that once stood outside the plant's gate. One arrow on its wooden post pointed to the administration building and another to the shoe and glove store.

"Signs were a part of life out here," said Tom Watson, the curation services lead for DOE contractor Mission Support Alliance.

As a Herald reporter looked on, items were examined by Watson, Connie Estep, curator of the CREHST museum, and Mona Wright, the DOE Hanford archaeologist. When they saw something they liked, they wired on a yellow tag commanding "do not move, alter or destroy."

"Think of all the hands that would have touched this gate," French said, after a T Plant worker closed the slatted wooden gate on the elevator that's been used for 65 years. The shape of hands have been worn into the bottom of the gate from so many workers pulling it.

Seeing those divots is evocative of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have worked at T Plant and their service and dedication, their loyalty and patriotism, French said.

The 8-by-5 foot-gate got a yellow tag.

'Queen Mary' still in use

T Plant not only was the first plutonium processing plant at Hanford, it also is the only one that remains in operation.

Seven-foot-thick walls separate the operations gallery from the deck of the plant, nicknamed the "Queen Mary" by workers because of its size and shape, long and thin like the ocean liner. Below the deck, under 6-foot-thick concrete lids, were the chemical processing tanks.

Now the deck provides a space for workers cleaning up Hanford contamination. They treat and repackage radioactive waste, as well as sample gases trapped inside drums of waste removed from burial grounds. T Plant also might be used in the future for treatment of radioactive sludge removed from Hanford's K Basins.

The yellow tags are intended to protect artifacts that cannot be removed as the plant continues to be used or in case the building is not preserved. It is being considered along with B Reactor for inclusion in a proposed new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

DOE has been required to protect historic items since a 1996 agreement was reached with the Washington State Historic Preservation Office and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on Hanford. The agreement allowed DOE to move forward with the demolition of Manhattan Project and Cold War buildings at Hanford if artifacts were identified and collected.

But history buffs grew concerned that not enough was being done, particularly as an infusion of almost $2 billion in Recovery Act money helped speed up demolition of buildings in recent years.

"Not enough people were educated on what to save," said Maynard Plahuta, president of the B Reactor Museum Association and a member of the Hanford Advisory Board.

Creating French's position, which includes work to preserve Hanford's history, two years ago was a major step, Plahuta said. In addition, the Hanford Advisory Board recommended a year ago that DOE take care to preserve elements of buildings planned for demolition that could be used to interest and educate future generations on Hanford's history.

The board envisioned saving air lock doors, radiation counters for hands and feet, a decontamination wash station, a hallway with caution signs and other items that could be arranged so that visitors might walk through a replica of the Hanford work environment.

Partly in response, McCormick sent a memo in September to all Hanford employees asking for their help and encouraging them to notify Mission Support Alliance's Curation Services if they knew of a possible artifact that has not been tagged.

Goal is to display items

Workers have been protective of Hanford history, and some have squirreled potentially historic items away in desk drawers or taken them home rather than allow them to be thrown away, Plahuta said.

Mission Support Alliance has created a pick-up service, collecting items that are identified to be saved.

If an item cannot be saved because it is radioactively contaminated, a photograph is taken and information collected.

In the past, artifacts have been sent to CREHST, and now a Hanford warehouse is being filled with items.

The goal is to display those items that are true artifacts in a community-based facility, French said. Duplicate items may be made available for hands-on exhibits and traveling exhibits.

"We think it will be a draw for the public to see things that have been behind closed doors since the '40s," French said. "We believe strongly that people should enjoy it -- teachers, researchers, students, the general public."

The 1996 agreement laid out the buildings that should be searched for historical items. But DOE is more committed today and places a higher value on Hanford history, French said.

The buildings have been walked through, but by the end of this year, DOE plans to complete a second examination of all the buildings.

Many more tags were added during the recent visit to T Plant.

Officials were accompanied by Steve Buckingham, who started work at the analytical laboratory for T Plant in 1950.

He shared his memories, saying one nuclear operator used to wear roller skates to travel down the long operations gallery until safety managers "had a fit."

One slow day, Buckingham came into the plant and rode the crane that traveled back and forth down the canyon-like interior. He climbed a steep set of stairs to join the operator, and, with no video cameras at the time, enjoyed the view through a monocle.

The 1938 bridge crane was brought from the Seattle shipyards during WWII and still is used to move heavy items.

"It was one of the first things they got going as part of construction, and it's still going today," Buckingham said, getting a little misty-eyed.

Hanford workers, some of them now third-generation employees, identify strongly with the facilities they work at, French said.

Saving artifacts "is a really meaningful way to honor their predecessors, whether it's family members or the workers who came before," she said.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service