Hanford’s B Reactor will open for the first time as part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park on Nov. 12 with something new — crowds of fourth-graders.
Eight classes of fourth-graders have been invited to the opening ceremony, the first time that children under 12 have been allowed to tour the historic reactor.
“I want to see the huge container where fission happened,” said Ethan Clifford, one of the fourth-graders in Pam Hood’s White Bluffs Elementary School class in Richland, which has been learning about the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. Students from Canyon View Elementary in Kennewick also will visit.
The students will be the first of thousands of children expected to tour the reactor.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Department of Energy and National Park Service plan to announce Nov. 12that age restrictions are being lifted on reactor tours when the seasonal tours start up again in the spring. It will be the first year that the reactor is officially part of the park system.
They are places where school kids can come and walk where events that changed our country, that changed the course of human history took place.
Chip Jenkins, deputy director of Pacific West Region of National Park Service
“The units in the National Park system are places where people — children, fourth-graders, parents, grandparents — can visit authentic places and learn about our country,” said Chip Jenkins, the deputy director of the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service. “They are places where school kids can come and walk where events that changed our country, that changed the course of human history, took place.”
When the Department of Energy began B Reactor tours in 2009, participants had to be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old. In 2011 the tours were opened to people of any nationality. A year later the age restriction was dropped to 12 years old.
“Our intent is to look, feel and act like a national park,” said Colleen French, the DOE national park program manager at Hanford. “A hallmark of the national park sites is they are accessible to the public.”
The memorandum of agreement signed Tuesday, the step that made B Reactor’s status as part of a national park official, commits DOE to provide universal access, French said.
The B Reactor tour office gets frequent calls now from families who are disappointed to hear their children aren’t old enough to tour the reactor. The issue would only increase as more people learn about the reactor through the national park system, arriving in the Tri-Cities only to learn of age restrictions.
Interest in school field trips also is high, French said.
Federal officials have taken a close look at the tour process to date, focusing on how older school children have behaved on the tours and how closely parents have monitored the older children allowed to tour. They also will be considering what the required ratio of escorts to visitors should be as they prepare for the start of 2016 tours.
Biggest visitor hazard at B Reactor: slips, trips and falls
Now the biggest hazards to visitors are slips, trips and falls on the uneven floors of the reactor, which was built during World War II. About 70 percent of the reactor, an industrial facility, is open to the public.
Federal officials are responsible both for protecting the safety of visitors and to protect parts of the reactor from being touched or items pilfered. The reactor is a National Historic Landmark.
French is hoping the tours will become popular for fourth-grade classes, the grade that studies Washington state history, as age restrictions are lifted.
The reactor is not only part of the state’s history, but part of world history. Hanford was selected in 1943 to become a secret site to produce plutonium as the nation raced to create an atomic bomb, knowing that Nazi Germany had the same goal.
B Reactor was built in 11 months and produced plutonium used in the world’s first atomic explosion, a test in the New Mexico desert, and in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end WWII.
“This is an engineering feat, a marvel of science, and the human story is appealing to people of all ages,” French said. “People came together under difficult circumstances in total secrecy to work on a project that changed the world.”
Hood’s class can tell you all about it.
“They made people move out of their houses,” said student Mariah Munoz.
The nuclear reservation was built on land where settlers lived at the start of the war. Those towns were named White Bluffs and Hanford, said Sarah Vorpagel.
“They got a note that said they had to leave in 30 days,” said Mia Beightol.
The reactor was built next to the Columbia River so water was available to cool it, said Alyssa Marsh. And Matthew Jensen knew that hydropower from the Columbia River was essential for the reactor.
Students kept coming back to talk about the fact that the wartime Manhattan Project to create America’s atomic weapons was top secret.
Workers did not know what they were building.
Ulyana Tarasyuk, White Bluffs Elementary fourth-grader
“Workers did not know what they were building,” said Ulyana Tarasyuk.
The students said that out of 51,000 workers in the peak of construction of Hanford facilities during WWII, only about 500 knew what was being built.
“Even the workers’ own wives did not know what was going on,” said Lance Robinson.
The reactor was built in a remote area so people would not know were it was and fences were put up, said Kietan Waldo. “You could only see from planes.”
America wanted to keep the Germans from finding out it was being built, said Dallas Bennet.
There were eight dining halls each as big as a football field.
Simon Henderson, White Bluffs Elementary fourth-grader
Keeping so many workers housed and fed in the desert was a major undertaking. “There were eight dining halls each as big as a football field,” said Simon Henderson.
Students also know their science.
The reactor used fission, the process of splitting apart a uranium atom to produce plutonium, said Isaac Fox.
On Nov. 12, when the students step inside the reactor, they also will become a small part of history, their teacher said.
“You will be the first elementary school students at B Reactor,” she said.