Hanford’s historic B Reactor appears close to becoming part of a new national park after the U.S. House Rules Committee released the annual bill that authorizes military policy late Tuesday night.
The bill includes language that would create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, along with requiring public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain and making 1,641 acres of unused Hanford land available for industrial development.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told the Herald that she “felt really good” about the prospects for the House and Senate passing the bill.
The version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2015 worked out this week in conference by House and Senate negotiators is the closest the national parks bill has come yet to passage, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.
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Supporters of the new park consider the final days of the current session this month as the best chance to pass the legislation, before the retirement of Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The House, which already approved an earlier version of the bill, could vote on the latest version this week. The legislation is expected to go to the Senate for a vote next week.
Murray, Hastings and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have led the effort to create the park, which would include Manhattan Project sites at Hanford and in Tennessee and New Mexico.
Months of work and negotiations behind the scenes to craft a legislative package fell apart Monday night when some Senate Republicans opposed including land and conservation provisions in the bill.
But Murray said she was not letting the provisions go without a fight and went to work in the Senate with Cantwell, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and others to forge a bipartisan compromise to retain the language creating the historical park.
Murray has wanted to save the reactor as long as she can remember, she said.
Her father, who grew up in Kennewick and was in high school during World War II, talked about settlers forced to leave their homes to make way for the secret wartime project to produce plutonium.
B Reactor was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, ushering in the atomic age. It produced plutonium for the nation’s first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert and then the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end the war.
The proposed new national park could also preserve T Plant, where plutonium was chemically separated from fuel rods starting during WWII, and the buildings used by pre-Hanford settlers, including the stone Bruggemann warehouse, the Hanford High School and the White Bluffs Bank.
Hanford continued to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War, but now a massive environmental cleanup program is under way at the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation.
“I don’t want Hanford remembered just as a cleanup site, but for what the country can do when it pulls together,” Murray said.
Manhattan Project scientists produced the world’s first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in December 1942, and the next month, Hanford was picked as the site to produce the nation’s plutonium. Eighteen months later, B Reactor began producing plutonium.
“Congress passing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park will allow millions of Americans to better understand the tremendous scientific achievements of men and women at Hanford,” Cantwell said in a statement.
The National Defense Authorization Act also includes language to create five other new national parks and expand nine parks, “effectively shaking loose a five-year stalemate on public lands measures in Congress,” according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
The parks legislation covers land with Ice Age fossils in Nevada, the train station where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address and the marble caves in Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains.
The additional park sites help create support from lawmakers across the nation for the land conservation provisions in the bill. But the proposed Manhattan Project park was the provision that had the most interest and support, helping keep conservation measures in the bill, Petersen said.
Under the legislation, a Manhattan Project National Park would be established in one year.
The park would focus on land and facilities, such as B Reactor, that are already owned by the federal government, so no new federal funds are required to purchase property, the Atomic Heritage Foundation pointed out in a letter sent to lawmakers in advance of the vote.
“This three-site park could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by avoiding costs of demolishing the remaining Manhattan Project properties,” said the Energy Communities Alliance in a letter Wednesday to lawmakers. Putting B Reactor in temporary storage, called “cocooning,” and eventually tearing it down would cost $100 million alone, said the alliance, which includes Hanford-area local governments.
A national park that includes Hanford sites would help attract more visitors to the Tri-Cities, Cantwell said. More than 7 million people visited Washington’s national parks in 2013, which pumped $430 million into the economies of nearby communities and supported 5,269 jobs, according to her staff.
Supporters of the national park and land conservation provisions, which also include expanding wilderness areas, are arguing that the bill creates jobs as some Senate Republicans remain opposed to quick passage of the bill next week.
In other provisions:
• The bill would direct the energy secretary to transfer 1,641 acres of unused land in south Hanford to TRIDEC for industrial development before the end of September 2015.
The land would be transferred at low cost or no cost to TRIDEC, which is the Department of Energy’s designated agency for the reuse of unneeded Hanford assets. Money would need to be spent to develop water, electric and sewer service to the site, plus provide roads, curbing and street lights.
TRIDEC expects to transfer the land to the city of Richland, Benton County or the Port of Benton. It does not intend to make any money from the land, Petersen said.
• The bill would ensure that some public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain be allowed, which Hastings has worked to require for years.
The mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument but is closed to the public, with the exception of some spring wildflower tours arranged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, which manages the national monument.
Fish and Wildlife could enter into agreements with DOE, which owns the land, or interested local agencies for guided bus tours to the summit or to maintain the access road to the summit, according to the bill. Nonmotorized access to the mountain also would be required under the bill.
• Two new Hanford projects would be authorized in the bill, although they would still need money appropriated.
The bill would authorize spending $26.3 million in fiscal 2015 toward removing radioactive sludge from the K West Basin and $23 million toward a new plant, the Low Activity Waste Pretreatment System. The new plant would allow some low-activity radioactive tank waste to be prepared for treatment at the Hanford vitrification plant as soon as 2022, rather than waiting to start glassifying waste when the vit plant’s Pretreatment Facility technical issues are resolved and that facility is operating.