On a spring morning in high, dry southern Washington, a bright yellow bus rumbled to a stop in a lot at the Hanford Site near the Columbia River. The fourth-graders of Orchard Elementary School in nearby Richland were about to see one of this nation’s newest historical parks, surrounded by a valley filled with sagebrush, eagles and elk.
When the bus door opened, the kids rushed straight into a metal-and-concrete box of a building, almost 100 feet tall, neighbored by a 200-foot exhaust stack topped by a wind-whipped American flag. Inside, looming like a Borg ship in Star Trek, stood a massive cube of graphite bricks and aluminum tubes.
“Welcome to the B Reactor,” docent David Marsh said. Then he explained how in this room American scientists made “the nuclear weapon that was used to end World War II.”
“Fat Man,” the atomic bomb that detonated Aug. 9, 1945, over Nagasaki, Japan, originated here. The National Park Service, best known for its stewardship of peaks and valleys, is taking on the job of explaining how and why the U.S. built and used the deadliest weapons ever turned against mankind.
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The Manhattan Project National Historical Park, established in November, is a joint effort by the park service and the Department of Energy. Besides the Hanford Site it includes Oak Ridge, Tenn. (where the enriched uranium that fueled the Hiroshima bomb was produced), and Los Alamos, N.M. (where bombs and components were designed and assembled).
Congress voted in 2014 to create this park, and park service leaders describe it as a chance to explore history that not only shaped the end of World War II but also the advance of science and at least half a century of geopolitics.
“It changed the world,” said Anne Vargas, a DOE docent whose father worked at Hanford.
The B Reactor is the park’s focal point in Hanford and the only structure most visitors will enter. The building had stood idle since 1968 and was slated for closure until the B Reactor Museum Association, led by retired Hanford scientists and engineers, launched a preservation campaign. The association also built models on display at the reactor, and made videos detailing the science and history behind the structure.
To see it, you reserve a seat on an official tour bus and meet at the Hanford visitor center in Richland. The bus ride into the restricted site takes about an hour; visitors typically spend about two hours at the reactor with a docent. (Another tour focuses on remnants of communities that the secret project quietly displaced.) This year, for the first time, all ages are welcome.
“OMG,” said one boy, facing the heart of the reactor, which is known as the pile.
“So,” Marsh asked the fourth-graders, “what does a reactor do?”
“It makes plutonium to make atomic bombs,” said one boy.
“What would you use to make the plutonium?” asked student Gloria Caridad.
“Uranium,” another docent answered.
SO EAGER TO LEARN
The reactor tours, often led by docents retired from jobs at the Hanford Site, have been a hot ticket among local families since the Energy Department started offering them in 2009. This year’s tour season continues until Nov. 19.
“Does that red light always flash?” asked a mom, Colleen Lane, eyeing the equipment. (The answer was yes. The reactor is monitored full time to make sure radiation remains at “background levels.”)
“Do you know what nuclear fission is?” asked docent Marty Zizzi.
Another boy raised his hand, then froze.
“I forget,” he said. “We just learned it yesterday.”
“We’ve been talking about it for a week now,” teacher Liz Cronin said later. “They wanted to know why Japan bombed Hawaii in the first place. And they wanted to know why we needed plutonium when we had so many other bombs.”
Enthusiasm for this trip was so high, Cronin said, that from her class of 26 kids, 18 parents volunteered to chaperone. She had room for four.
Hanford’s Manhattan Project story started in 1943, when Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose the site for its remote location; the pure, cool water of the Columbia River; and the ample electricity generated by the nearby Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams.
Within weeks, federal officials took over more than 600 square miles of riverside land, emptied the small towns of Hanford, White Bluffs and Richland, and evicted members of several Native American tribes.
Then DuPont, the military contractor that designed and built the reactor, started construction. By 1944, 45,000 workers from across the country had raised and filled scores of mysterious industrial buildings surrounded by a secret city with barracks, trailers, Quonset hut neighborhoods (segregated by sex and race), baseball fields, an auditorium, eight mess halls and a brewery.
By September — just 11 months after groundbreaking — the B Reactor was built and began operations. By July 1945, Hanford had produced enough plutonium to power a practice bombing, the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, N.M. After the Aug. 6 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Hanford’s rank-and-file workers learned they’d been helping to make atomic weapons. Three days later, Fat Man landed on Nagasaki, fueled by Hanford plutonium.
During the Cold War, Hanford’s reactors cranked out about 67 metric tons of plutonium, fueling four decades of nuclear brinkmanship and, DOE now acknowledges, creating one of the Earth’s biggest radioactive messes.
You may not see signs of it from your B Reactor tour bus, but a guide may mention DOE’s cleanup efforts. The agency has 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste in storage tanks at Hanford, along with more than 80 square miles of contaminated groundwater. There’s a separate DOE cleanup tour that takes 4 1 / 2 hours.
Confronting the B Reactor pile today is like stepping into the orchestra pit of a theater, then gazing up at a metal monster at center stage: 75,000 graphite blocks, 2,004 aluminum tubes running through them. In operation, the tubes were full of immensely hot uranium cylinders — about 64,000 of them, cooled by water from the Columbia, which eventually drained back into the river.
“The power of the place is incredible,” said visiting park service ranger Denise M. Shultz, chief of interpretation and education at North Cascades National Park Complex. “I had goose bumps all over.”
Just down the hall from the pile is the control room, with a central seat for the reactor operator, surrounded by dials, monitors and wiring.
“You guys know The Simpsons on TV?” asked Marsh. “You know how Homer Simpson operates his nuclear reactor from his seat? This is the seat he would be in.”
Later, somebody pulled the kids together for a group picture and hollered, “Smile and say, ‘B Reactor!’ ”
Nobody asked about the atomic bombs’ effects in Japan. Nor were death or injury statistics offered. In fact, the 28-page document that docents use as their main source doesn’t include information on deaths and destruction.
But now, said Kirk Christensen, manager of B Reactor preservation for DOE contractor Mission Support Alliance, “we’re going to have these conversations.”
With about 12,500 visitors expected this year, DOE is footing the costs of the Hanford tour program while the park service waits to see how much funding the next federal budget will include. Tracy Atkins, interim superintendent of the Manhattan Project park, said she would make her first hires soon.
The park service will spend the next 18 to 24 months developing the park’s first round of interpretive materials, drawing on input from scholars and community members in New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington and Japan. A separate approach for kids younger than 12 will probably be included, Atkins said.
The park service may also print some materials in Japanese, Atkins said, but “we can’t change everything overnight.”
Other Manhattan Project sites
Besides the Hanford Site, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/mapr) includes two locations that are owned and operated by the Department of Energy.
The Los Alamos, N.M., site (www.nps.gov/mapr/losalamos.htm), which sits on a plateau 33 miles northwest of Santa Fe, includes three main areas within Los Alamos National Laboratory. At the Gun Site several buildings are associated with the design of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped in August 1945 on Hiroshima, Japan. At the V-Site two buildings were used in assembly of the Trinity Test bomb detonated in New Mexico in July 1945. The Pajarito Site was used for plutonium chemistry research during World War II, then weapon assembly in postwar years. No tours are offered, and there’s no public access to Energy Department facilities. The neighboring town of Los Alamos includes the Bradbury Science Museum (www.lanl.gov/museum), which tells the history of the laboratory and the Manhattan Project. Atomic history also is a dominant feature of Los Alamos walking tours (www.visitlosalamos.org/historic-walking-tour). Also in New Mexico but not included in the Manhattan Project park are the Army-controlled White Sands Missile Range (which includes the Trinity Test site, open to the public twice yearly; www.lat.ms/1MDYyPz ); and the adjacent White Sands National Monument, www.lat.ms/1WwjXwh.
The Oak Ridge, Tenn., site (www.nps.gov/mapr/oakridge.htm), a city and industrial complex 25 miles west of Knoxville, was home to more than 75,000 people. Locations there include Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the X-10 Graphite Reactor (which produced small amounts of plutonium), the Y-12 Complex (home to the electromagnetic separate process for uranium enrichment) and the site of the K-25 Building (where gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment technology was pioneered). Uranium for the Hiroshima bomb was enriched in the Y-12 Complex and K-25 Building. Those sites are included on a DOE bus tour (open to U.S. citizens only) that’s offered March through November, two to five days a week. The tour is included in the $5-per-adult entrance fee to Oak Ridge’s American Museum of Science & Energy (amse.org). Since early this year park service rangers have been answering questions at the museum.