Historic Nuclear B Reactor
Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington
An averted war rarely gets appreciated. The Cold War, however, does -- in weapons that we didn't have to use, such as the atomic cannon and mortar, and at destinations such as the Titan Missile Museum and the B Reactor. It's a legacy that's messy, but people forget that it kept something even messier from happening.
B was "the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor," according to a plaque at its entrance. For almost 25 years it pumped out plutonium for atom bombs, and was surrounded by other reactors in a government facility called the Hanford Site that produced most of America's nuclear explosives. That's a lot of filth, not only from radioactivity but from asbestos, solvents, acids, lead, and mercury. The ground here is so contaminated that even flower-picking is forbidden.
The U.S. government spends $2 billion a year to clean up the Hanford Site, and by its own estimates will have to haul away 53 million gallons of radioactive sludge and 12 tons of plutonium. It won't become a golf course or water park in our lifetimes, so the government instead hosts free tours of both the reactor and of the entire Hanford Site. These jaunts into formerly secret recesses are prized by atom-age tourists and by the Department of Energy, which is anxious to show U.S. taxpayers how it's spending their money.
(A tour of the entire Hanford Site includes drive-bys of all nine of its reactors, a visit to the ghost towns that were depopulated to build the Site, and a stop at its 11-million-ton-capacity toxic waste landfill.)
Visitors travel by bus to the reactor, and it's a long ride. The Hanford Site covers 586 square miles of stony scrub land, a real Forbidden Zone where summer temperatures can soar above 100 degrees (Tour-goers are encouraged to bring snacks and water). No one lives within the Site. It's patrolled by paramilitary contractors. Trespassing is extremely ill-advised.
B Reactor -- ugly, gray, and blocky -- stands on a nearly empty plain. All of its auxiliary support buildings have been demolished and buried. The only other structure in the neighborhood is C Reactor, which has been "cocooned" in cement and steel to keep its radiation in and the bugs, bats, lizards, and snakes out.
After a safety briefing (The tour is safe, radiologically speaking. "Flashing lights," we were reassured, "are only for display.") visitors enter the B reactor building, which has been preserved to look as it did during World War II. Michelle Gerber, the Hanford historian and our tour guide, told us that she wants to pump music into the building "like the Andrews Sisters singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to heighten the impression of stepping back in time. "We have a lot of great ideas."
The reactor is 36 feet tall, a knit pattern of fuel tubes, cooling pipes, and control rods. It looks like a giant curtain of chain mail. It doesn't glow or throb. People in the reactor room speak in hushed tones, as if they're standing in the Cathedral of Bomb, or are afraid that any loud noises might make it explode.
Glass cases along the walls display Geiger counters and exotic equipment such as the "Flange-Forming Gun," a sawed-off rifle that was jerry-rigged by Hanford workers to explosively reshape reactor parts. Tags hang off of everything, as everything in the B Reactor building is an official federally-protected cultural resource.
At our prompting, Michelle hoisted aloft a sign board with large equation to explain how pokey uranium-235 is transformed into powerful plutonium-239. "Many people don't come here to learn science," she said, but the equation is handy for those who do. "This place has something for everyone."
The tour winds its way past displays of dummies in hazard suits and face respirators, a Portal Monitor that sounded an alarm if radioactive people tried to leave the building, and the dun-colored Valve Pit. Michelle said she wants to install "a huge obnoxious sub-woofer" in the pit that will replicate the sound of the 75,000-gallons-of-water-a-minute that was continually pumped through its pipes to keep the reactor from exploding.
At one of several push-button monitors scattered throughout the building we watch a video that describes other meltdown-prevention systems, such as "boron balls" that would tumble into the reactor to absorb its radiation. Michelle then showed us the "last resort" system in the event of a catastrophic power failure: huge suspended barrels, each filled with 45 tons of rocks, that would crash into pools of hydraulic fluid to force control rods deep into the reactor, "scramming" the reactor and stopping the chain reaction.
The control room for the reactor bristles with mechanical gauges and dials, toggle switches and colored lights, and is painted in insane asylum green. Tour groups get to peer into the office of famous atomic physicist Enrico Fermi, and Michelle said with a sigh that young adults on the tours sometimes don't know who he is. "It makes me feel like Betsy Ross." No children are allowed on the Hanford Site. The simple chain barriers used in the reactor building wouldn't be enough to stop little Johnny or Jane from going somewhere that they really, really shouldn't.
Michelle told us with pride that B Reactor had been named a National Historic Landmark, "on the same footing as the White House and the U.S. Capitol." We were unaware at the time, but that designation has also been bestowed on another nearby Washington attraction, the Teapot Dome Gas Station.
"We're improving the reactor every week," said Michelle, who noted that the reactor's spent fuel rod pool would soon be added to the tour. Our suggestions for improvements -- historical reenactors ("I'm-a Enrico Fermi!"), Halloween tours, novelty weddings, a boron ball bounce pit for kids -- were met with polite smiles. "This is about learning and discussing," said Michelle. "We don't want it to be too fun."