Manhattan Project National Historical Park dedicated at Hanford’s B Reactor

Tyler Vincent, a fourth-grade student from White Bluffs Elementary School, sits in the operator’s chair in the control room of B Reactor during a tour Thursday.
Tyler Vincent, a fourth-grade student from White Bluffs Elementary School, sits in the operator’s chair in the control room of B Reactor during a tour Thursday. Tri-City Herald

The flag of the National Park Service flew over Hanford’s historic B Reactor for the first time Thursday.

More than 250 invited guests gathered at the front face of the reactor for its dedication as part of a national park.

President Barack Obama signed the legislation creating the Manhattan Project National Historical Park on Dec. 19, and this week an agreement signed between the Department of Energy and Department of Interior cleared the way for the celebration Thursday.

“Whoa,” said groups of fourth graders as they walked into the reactor and looked up at its 40-foot-high front face for the first time.

Also there were founding members of the B Reactor Museum Association. They have worked since 1990 to preserve the nation’s first full-scale production reactor. It produced plutonium for the world’s first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.

The conventional wisdom was that the reactor would never be preserved, said Colleen French, the DOE national park program director at Hanford. It was too old. No one would want to see it. DOE was not in the museum business, supporters of the reactor heard.

The turning point came in 2002 when DOE acknowledged it would consider saving the reactor, if a capable partner could be found to operate it long-term, said Del Ballard, a founding member of the B Reactor Museum Association.

“Who could be more dependable than the National Park Service?” Ballard asked.

Thursday was a day of firsts for the reactor.

A sign with the arrowhead emblem of the National Park Service hung above the entrance to the reactor. National park passport books were stamped with the logo of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park for the first time at Hanford.

And the rooms of the reactor were crowded with 9- and 10-year-old students as elementary school classes toured it for the first time. When the tour season opens in the spring, the 12-year-old age restriction will be lifted and families with children can visit.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has worked to get the reactor included in a national park since 2004, remembered touring the reactor for the first time.

“It actually brought the place to life,” she said.

That was the case for teacher Pam Hood’s White Bluffs Elementary School students, who have been studying the reactor to prepare for Thursday’s visit.

The pipes that brought water from the Columbia River to cool the reactor were much larger than he expected, said Isaac Fox. The whole reactor was bigger, said classmate Hadley Murphy.

Trent Walker got to sit in the operator’s chair in the control room, where 5,000 instruments were monitored when the reactor operated.

“It was super cool,” Trent said. “There were lots of little knobs and stuff, meters and everything.”

“This is where the nuclear age began,” said retired Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who brought three generations of his family to visit the reactor he worked to help save.

The world will never know how many lives were saved when Japan surrendered, and since then there has not been another world war, he said.

“Atoms for peace, it all started here,” Hastings said.

The National Park Service will work with the local community to tell the “deep stories” of the Manhattan Project. It also will work with the people of Japan, who suffered the devastation of two atomic bombs created during the Manhattan Project, said Chip Jenkins, acting director of the Pacific West Region of the park service.

The activities of the B Reactor Museum Association and others will provide a strong foundation on which to build, he said.

The first employee of the new multi-state park will be a superintendent based in Denver. Historic Manhattan Project facilities will be located at Hanford, where plutonium was produced; in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where enriched uranium was produced for a different kind of bomb; and in Los Alamos, N.M., where the weapon was developed.

Then site managers will be named to be based at each location. As money becomes available experts in conservation and interpretation will be added, not to take over efforts, but to work with communities, Jenkins said.

The effect of the new national park could be seen as soon as 2016. B Reactor had 10,000 visitors sign up for DOE tours of the reactor in 2015. By some estimates 10 times that many people may hear about the reactor and be interested in visiting it as a national park in 2016. New restaurant and hotel jobs are expected to be created.

The Hanford portion of the park will include not just B Reactor, but some pre-World War II sites, including the Bruggemann stone warehouse and the White Bluffs Bank. They will help tell the story of one of the first acts of the Manhattan Project — the condemnation of private property and eviction of homeowners and tribes to clear the way for the top-secret work.

Starting this week, tourists can learn about the national park at Hanford on the park service website. Go to www.nps.gov/mapr/hanford.htm.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews