New virtual tour guide available to B Reactor visitors

Visitors to Hanford's B Reactor have a virtual park ranger to help them learn about the history of the reactor and life in early Hanford as they visit it.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation has started a Ranger in Your Pocket program that allows visitors to play videos or audio on their smartphones or tablets that they bring on tours of the reactor.

The program displays like an app on phones or tablets, but it was designed as a website to avoid taking up memory on personal devices, said Cynthia Kelly, president of the foundation. The website is at RangerInYourPocket.org.

Visitors can watch segments to learn about Hanford before they visit. Then they can click on information for each major room open to the public as they tour the reactor, listening to scientists and workers explain how the reactor works.

In the control room, visitors can hear a recording of Leona Woods Marshall, one of the few female scientists on the Manhattan Project, remembering the startup of the world's first production-scale reactor.

"You could see the water getting hot. It's going through the brown recorders and you could hear it rushing in the tubes," she said. "You could see the control rods coming out and out and out."

But the reaction failed.

"The reactor was dead, just plain dead," she said. "Everybody stood around and stared."

The problem was traced to xenon 135, which was absorbing too many neutrons, stopping the reaction.

Ranger in Your Pocket goes beyond the mechanics of the reactor to give visitors a sense of life at Hanford as the United States raced to produce plutonium there for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping to end World War II.

"It's really great for the classroom if teachers are bringing students out," Kelly said.

Several of the segments posted are memories of people who were children during Hanford's early years, such as Herb Depke.

Schools were so crowded in 1943 that they were running morning and afternoon shifts.

Depke started third grade assigned to the morning shift, and a school bus picked him up in the dark, he remembered. But when he was dropped off that afternoon in the daylight, all the houses built for workers looked alike, he said.

"I had no idea which one was mine. It scared me to death," he said.

In another segment, Henry Petcher remembered being in charge of the work to prepare 55-cent boxed lunches that would be delivered to construction workers on 10- to 12-hour shifts. The boxes included sandwiches, cold baked potatoes and salt tablets.

"At my peak we were making anywhere between (50,000) to 55,000 box lunches a day," he said. "It was a 24-hour operation. I had 370-some-odd people working there, mostly women that were wives of construction workers."

The website also touches on Native American issues, including a deal made with the Wanapum band to allow them to continue fishing in the Columbia River.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation used grant money for the project, including money from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and money from hotel and motel taxes collected in Richland to be used for tourism promotion. The amount of city money was not immediately available Monday.

"This is the first in what we hope will be a series," Kelly said.

The foundation plans a virtual guided tour that will feature Hanford's prewar history, T Plant and the 300 Area just north of Richland.

Another tour will focus on scientific and engineering innovations that came out of the Manhattan Project, including those at Hanford. The project "demanded extraordinary ingenuity" and resulted in about 5,000 patents, Kelly said.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation is hoping that a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which would include B Reactor, will be created through legislation approved this year.

But visitors already can take tours of B Reactor or tours of the entire Hanford site, which include a stop at B Reactor.

Seats on 2014 tours of B Reactor remain available through website registration at www.hanford.gov or by calling the B Reactor Tour headquarters at 509-376-1647.

The 2014 bus tours that cover other Hanford sites in addition to B Reactor are only available now as cancellations are received. Sign up for the few openings available or to be notified as seats become available at www.hanford.gov.

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