My brother Alan, who works at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, arranged for me, my husband, and our friend Sarah Webb, to tour the Manhattan Project B Reactor, which is now a national historic site. I grew up in eastern Oregon, south of Hanford, during the time the B Reactor was still producing plutonium. This was also the era when above-ground nuclear tests were going on south of us in Nevada. Every once in a while, the entire sky would light up, whoooom, when another bomb went off. At night, the sky sometimes showed auroras that were scarlet from the strontium 90 in the atmosphere. None of this was soothing to a child.
I can remember walking home from a movie with my brother John when I was ten or eleven. It was summer, around nine thirty at night, and no, two unescorted kids, ten and eight, would not be walking home in the dark today. As we walked, we saw the sky light up repeatedly. I screeched and ran home with John panting after me, imagining that World War III was at hand, only to find out that we were seeing heat lightning. I remember feeling both embarrassed by my terror and angry.
Touring the reactor that produced the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was not at the top of my adult list of places to visit, but curiosity overcame queasiness, and the three of us joined Al for the B Reactor tour a week ago. I must confess I’m a pushover for large engineering feats–bridges, dams, castles, cathedrals, the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower. I love them, even though castles are basically prisons, dams do rotten things to salmon, and folks jump off bridges and towers. So I was prepared to be awed by the reactor. Whatever else it might be, it was a major engineering achievement, translating the consequences of still theoretical physics into something concrete and menacing.
The first nuclear reactor–at the University of Chicago–“bred” two reactors, each aiming for a different process of nuclear fission. Together with the Los Alamos test site in New Mexico, they formed the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was to generate the components of the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Hanford site produced plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
The resident genius, Enrico Fermi, had won the Nobel Prize in time to finance his flight from fascism. His wife was of Jewish descent. With his prize money, he took her and their two children across the Atlantic to “found the American branch of the Fermi family.” By all accounts he was an amiable man, well-regarded by the people who worked with him, thumbing his slide rule and coming up with the figures that told them what to put where and what the margin of error should be if the result of error might be a very big bang. I have to wonder what that agreeable Italian family made of the flat, sage-brush studded scab-land where the grand experiment was carried out. That’s what it was, an experiment.
Our tour bus drove north from Richland, Washington, along what is called the Hanford Reach. At the time the reactor was built, Hanford Reach was the last undammed, free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River between Bonneville Dam east of Portland, Oregon, and Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane in northeastern Washington. (There are now half a dozen dams between the two.) Grand Coulee was not yet completed, but the two generators then operating produced the power necessary for the project as the river supplied the coolant. Oddly enough, the river flows north above this stretch–as far as the grand coulee–then bends east and south in a loop that takes it to its confluence with the Snake River, the border between Oregon and southern Idaho.
About ten thousand people were brought in to build the B Reactor. They were skilled workers–machinists, electricians, masons, pipe-fitters, and support personnel like cooks, as well as technicians and scientists. Most were single men but there were some families. They lived in barracks or hastily built houses, and they were not told what they were working on, just that it was ultra-secret and urgent. Apart from domestic structures, the Hanford site contains several other reactors and assorted pumphouses and cooling ponds. The reactors were placed far enough apart that an explosion at one would (they hoped) not damage another. The site is large and the buildings scattered. When we arrived at the B Reactor, the temperature outside was already approaching ninety, and during WWII there was no air-conditioning, just big fans. We scuttled inside and began our guided walk-through.
All forty of us sat directly in front of the reactor as we listened to the docent make his introduction. The acoustics were terrible and would have been worse sixty years ago with the big fans running. I spaced out and gawked at the huge graphite box towering at least three stories above us. It was as wide as it was high. What we saw resembled a giant window screen, each slug of uranium sealed in an aluminum tube through which water was pumped. Vertical rods slid in and out to control the reaction. When the slugs were spent, they dropped out the far end into a cooling pool, and each of them was monitored as it was used.
When the inaudible introduction concluded, we were divided into two groups, each led by a docent who had at some point worked on the site. In the first room we came to, our guide showed us where Russian scientists are brought to inspect the reactor to be sure it’s not in use. The guide was frank and informative, fielding and answering questions as we walked through the valve pit room where water was pumped in to a room with a back-up system for inserting rods hydraulically if the power failed. It did–once. A lightning strike took out the transmitter at Grand Coulee Dam. Power was restored almost at once, but the back-up system passed its test.
The control room, with the supervisor’s office and a small room Fermi used when he was on site, displayed an array of antique monitoring devices complete with vacuum tubes, dials, and cranks. Again we saw the reactor, side view, with its rods and pipes. The docent said that anyone bumping it would cause a “scram,” meaning that the reactor would have to be shut down and restarted. The next room showed videos of the fuel retrieval process that recovered the plutonium from the spent slugs. Again, the tapes were nearly inaudible because of an echo in the sound system. Afterwards, we returned to the reactor room for a final lecture and were then free to roam around looking at artifacts and talking to the half dozen docents who were there to explain things.
Riding back in our air-conditioned bus, I thought about what I’d seen. Two points struck me with particular force.
First, I was awed by the stunning insouciance of the personnel at the site during the war. They worked in what they had to know was a dangerous situation with almost no safety controls. They were all very much braver than I could ever be. Yet they lived there at Hanford nearly four years, freezing in winter as the winds blew down from Alberta and sweltering in summer, taking hikes along the river with their kids, and living it up at dances and bond rallies.
The second point hit me even harder. Disposal of nuclear waste is the main concern at Hanford these days. Later reactors deposited liquid waste in huge underground tanks designed to be safe for ten years. Now, sixty years on, much of that waste is still stored in those tanks. That is an appalling fact. But the B Reactor did not recycle irradiated coolant. The water used to cool it ran through the pipes into a pond–and out, directly into the Columbia River. For more than twenty years.
I grew up downwind of Hanford. I’m glad I didn’t grow up downstream.