RICHLAND -- School children will be allowed inside Hanford's historic B Reactor for the first time this year.
The Department of Energy announced Friday that the age limit for visiting B Reactor has been dropped from 18 to 12.
That will allow teens to visit with their families, and middle school and high school classes to tour the reactor.
Registration for this year's tours, which will include more of the reactor areas than last year, opens March 20, with registrations accepted by phone or on the internet. More information also will be available then on how schools can arrange a class tour.
"The B Reactor National Historic Landmark stands as a testament to American ingenuity in science and engineering," said Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement. "It's important for our young people to understand the role this facility and the Hanford Site played in world history."
More than 25,000 visitors have safely toured the reactor in recent years and it is carefully maintained for public access, said Matt McCormick, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.
"Making this change is an important milestone for this community," he said in a statement. "It's time we expanded its ability to connect with people on both Hanford's storied past and the importance of completing cleanup."
B Reactor was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, built as part of the Manhattan Project when the United States feared that Germany was creating an atomic bomb. It ushered in the atomic age, producing the plutonium used in the first atomic explosion and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.
DOE is expecting about 20 school tours of the reactor this year, mostly in April, May and September, but also could offer summer tours if classes are in session then, said Colleen French, DOE Hanford government affairs program manager.
Curriculum has been developed for schools to use in advance of the visit. Different tour programs are planned for middle and high school students, and the tours can be tailored somewhat to focus on science or history.
Some changes have been made to the reactor before students are allowed, but they are primarily steps such as putting up more barriers, such as at stairways. Children will be required to stick with their tour group and not wander.
Those under 18 who come on the public tours this year must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
"This is great news for families," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. "The B Reactor played a critical role in the history of our nation, and families now will have the opportunity to come out together to learn about and reflect on the contribution made by Hanford and the Tri-Cities during World War II and the Cold War."
B Reactor continued to operate during the Cold War, and eight more plutonium-production reactors were built at Hanford along the Columbia River.
"Touring B Reactor is an unparalleled experience that makes history come alive more than any textbook ever could," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in a statement. "It's particularly important that our young people who didn't live through World War II understand the critical work done at Hanford in the defense of our nation."
The reactor looks much like it did when it started up in World War II, with the reactors' original front face work area ceiling lights restored this year to return that area to its original appearance.
Visitors this year will be able to walk into the front face electrical room and see the intricacies of the individually hand-tied systems that modern electricians have called a "work of art," according to DOE.
This year's tour also will include for the first time a look into the rear face water sampling room, where workers tested the water coming off the fuel rods and stood on a designated "safety dot" on the floor in case that water was more radioactive than it should have been.
Visitors also will see the locomotive and cask cars used to haul irradiated fuel from Hanford reactors to central Hanford. They have been moved to B Reactor rather than being destroyed.
Since DOE began offering tours in 2009, it has had visitors from all 50 states and 39 countries.
Registration for B Reactor tours opens March 20
Registration for this year's 104 free tours of Hanford's historic B Reactor opens at one minute past midnight March 20.
Registration will be accepted online then at www.hanford.gov.
Click on "Hanford Tours" under the "Quick Links." Information also will be posted there March 20 on how school groups may arrange tours of the reactor.
Registration also will be taken by telephone and in person at the B Reactor Tour Headquarters starting March 20. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The phone number is 376-1647 and the address is 2000 Logston Blvd., Richland. Tour seats often fill quickly.
A limited number of walk-ons will be accepted for the approximately 5,000 tour seats being offered this year. Buses leave from the Logston Boulevard address.
The free tours will be offered at 8 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays. Each tour lasts four to five hours. The tour is not restricted to U.S. citizens.
Tour seats for children ages 12 to 18 may be reserved online when a parent or legal guardian registers. However, because the federal government is barred from collecting electronic data about children, some additional steps will be required.
Tour dates are:
April 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 16, 17, 21 (8 a.m. only) and 30
May 1, 2, 5, 14, 15, 29 and 30
June 2, 11, 12, 13, 16, 25, 26 and 27
July 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 and 28
Aug. 6, 7, 8, 11, 20, 21, 22 and 25
Sept. 4, 5, 8, 17, 18, 19 and 22.
DOE also tries to accommodate group tours if a bus and guide are available. Call the tour headquarters for more information.
DOE also offers tours of the Hanford nuclear reservation, which include a stop at B Reactor. All seats for 2012 have been claimed for those tours.
But seats that become available through cancellations are reposted without notice at www.hanford.gov.