Visitors mark Hanford B Reactor's 70th birthday

The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers perform "America the Beautiful" as images of the American flag are projected onto the outer walls of B Reactor. The event Friday night marked the 70th anniversary of the startup of Hanford's B Reactor.
The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers perform "America the Beautiful" as images of the American flag are projected onto the outer walls of B Reactor. The event Friday night marked the 70th anniversary of the startup of Hanford's B Reactor. Tri-City Herald

Kaye Hopkins was a little girl living in Kennewick when an influx of 150,000 workers began pouring into the area for a top-secret project during World War II.

But it took her until the 70th anniversary of the start of B Reactor operations Friday night to see what they had come to build.

"I was expecting a big, empty dome," she said, as she walked into the boxy structure that housed the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor.

B Reactor was built in about a year as the nation raced to produce an atomic weapon during World War II before Germany could. It produced the plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion, the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert, and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end the war.

More than 200 people gathered Friday night to mark the anniversary. They walked through the reactor, listening to early Hanford workers tell stories. They heard the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers perform Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and other hits that evoked the 1940s as historic images were projected through the dark onto the outer walls.

Visitors sipped on Plutonium Porter and Half-Life Hefeweizen from the Atomic Ale Brewpub in Richland. It was perhaps the first time that beer legally was consumed at Hanford since the workers who built B Reactor crowded into the on-site construction camp taverns to down 12,000 gallons a week.

"There was nothing like B Reactor before and nothing has been the same since," said former Department of Energy Hanford manager Keith Klein, quoting Richland historian Michele Gerber.

Every high school student studying history needs a chance to see the reactor, said David Klaus, DOE deputy undersecretary for management and performance.

"It really reflected a unified nation," Klaus said.

Fifty thousand workers at a time helped build the reactor.

It was so secret they could be told only that they were aiding the war effort.

They lived in tents, barracks and dormitories in the desert, worked long days, sent their paychecks home to the families they missed and suffered through the "termination winds" that kicked up dust from the massive building program.

B Reactor continued to operate for 20 years, producing plutonium during the Cold War.

"The work at B Reactor saved thousands of lives and cemented this country as the world's most powerful nation," Klaus said. "It led in many respects to the rest of the world embracing and finding democracy."

The reactor also created an understanding of the power of nuclear energy, and today 20 percent of the baseload electricity in the nation comes from nuclear power, he said.

That B Reactor still stands is somewhat of a wonder, speakers said. A decade ago the roof leaked, radon built up within its walls and piles of debris littered its hallways.

"It had a death sentence. It was scheduled to be destroyed," said Colleen French, DOE Hanford government programs manager.

But every time it looked like the reactor had a date with a wreaking ball, its supporters saved it.

"Many, many people thought we couldn't do it," said Doug Shoop, acting manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office. "But we took a hazardous facility, a nuclear production facility, and opened it up to the public."

Former DOE Hanford manager Mike Lawrence helped craft the Tri-Party Agreement as the DOE Hanford manager 25 years ago.

The state's initial plan was to attack reactor cleanup early in the process, knocking down all nine Hanford plutonium-production reactors to little more than the cores and then hauling those off, he said.

Instead, the schedule for work on the reactors, including B Reactor, was pushed out to later years, giving supporters of B Reactor time to preserve it and perhaps make it part of a national park, Lawrence said.

When each new Hanford manager would take the reins, supporters of B Reactor would have to start again to win support amidst pressure to focus every federal dollar available on cleaning up the massive contamination left at Hanford from more than 40 years of weapons plutonium production.

Former manager Dave Brockman once asked what would be wrong with just building a model of B Reactor in town, remembered Matt McCormick, who retired this year as manager of the Hanford Richland Operations Office.

But Brockman, who could not attend the Friday event, became one of the visionaries for saving the reactor, McCormick said.

One of the key turning points was getting the reactor designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008, requiring it to be cared for in a way that preserved its history.

The initial nomination forms were prepared by the B Reactor Museum Association, whose members started talking about how to save the reactor in the late 1980s.

The association, which continues to accept new members, had some major setbacks through the years, said Del Ballard, a founding member.

A National Park Service study looking at saving Manhattan Project landmarks proposed leaving Hanford and its B Reactor out of a possible new historical park. But people applied pressure and officials reconsidered.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has three times passed House legislation to have a Manhattan Project National Historical Park formed to include Hanford's B Reactor and historic sites in Tennessee and New Mexico.

He plans to do everything in his power to get the bill to the president's desk for a signature in the remaining months before he retires, he said.

"I may have a few tricks up my sleeve," he said.

"Because of this reactor, we won the Second World War. And because of this reactor we largely won the Cold War," he said. "If we can preserve Gettysburg and Antietam, we can certainly preserve the Manhattan Project in the three states that won the greatest struggle of the 20th century."

It is the responsibility of the nation to memorialize the work undertaken there, said Michael Matthias, in a message read to the audience.

His father, Col. Franklin Matthias, oversaw construction of B Reactor and other Hanford WWII facilities.

"If my father and many of his colleagues were here today, they would say they knew this was a very dangerous business and that the precautions they took were balanced by the urgency they felt," the message said. "But to a man, I think they would say, 'Do not let these matters be forgotten'."

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tri cityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews