Nuclear Pollution

Public tours resume at historic Central WA nuclear reactor, where the atomic age began

The public this week can once again step inside the world’s first production scale nuclear reactor, a facility that launched the atomic age.

The Department of Energy is resuming free public tours of the historic B Reactor, part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at the Hanford site near Richland in Central Washington.

The tours had been closed for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Touring the B Reactor is like stepping back into the WWII era,” said Colleen French, DOE program manager for the national park at Hanford. “It’s certainly a marvel of science and engineering, but it represents so much more than that.”

B Reactor was built in just 11 months as the Allies feared Nazi Germany would beat them to the production of an atomic bomb.

It produced the plutonium used in the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, in July 1945.

It then made plutonium that fueled the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, that led to the end of Word War II.

“Visitors will have the opportunity to learn from docents at the reactor and to spend time on their own as they ponder the questions raised by the Manhattan Project and its profound impacts,” French said.

Visitors can stand beneath the towering face of the reactor, where 200 tons of uranium slugs were loaded into aluminum tubes.

Registration is now open for tours that start Thursday and continue into November. The tours will be offered six days a week through the summer and during the Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day holidays weekends.

Visitors also will get inside the control room, where a crowd of scientists and engineers gathered to start up the reactor for the first time in September 1944. They were unsure if the reactor would power up as hoped or whether a runaway chain reaction might blow it up.

Neither happened, as visitors on the tour will learn.

The B Reactor tours are a significant tourism draw, said Michael Novakovich, chief executive of Visit Tri-Cities.

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park, created in 2015, includes historic properties at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, in addition to Hanford, all of them key to the dawn of the atomic age during World War II.

The Hanford portion of the park also includes a high school, bank, water pump house and fruit warehouse still standing after settlers were ordered to leave in 1943 for the secret military project.

A pre-World War II historic tour is also offered at Hanford, but has yet to resume post-COVID.

Registration for the B Reactor tours is available at manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov. Visitors with questions can also call the visitor center at 2000 Logston Blvd., Richland, or call 509-376-1647.

Buses for the tours will leave the Richland visitor center for a walking tour of the reactor. They take about four hours total.

Hanford cleanup tours

DOE also has offered bus tours in the past of the secure areas of Hanford where environmental cleanup is being done. But those are not scheduled to resume.

The Department of Energy is instead offering virtual tours at hanford.gov.

The Hanford site produced nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War. Now about $2.5 billion a year is spent on cleanup of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste and contamination at the 580-square-mile site.

Interest in the tours had decreased as some projects had been largely completed and there was less to see as cleanup work has focused on fewer, but significant, projects.

For instance, most cleanup of the area along the Columbia River has been completed, highly radioactive sludge has been transferred out of underwater storage at the K Reactors and the Plutonium Finishing Plant has been demolished.

There also is concern that tours not distracting workers on key projects, such as retrieving radioactive waste from underground tanks and preparing waste to be glassified at the $17 billion vitrification plant as soon as the end of 2023 for permanent disposal.

The virtual tours highlight 20 Hanford projects with program descriptions and offer 360-degree camera views.

They also allow people inside facilities, such as the vitrification plant and a large central Hanford groundwater treatment plant, that people on bus tours could not see.

The virtual tours have been popular, with more than 99,000 visits since January 2021, according to DOE.

In some cases, DOE has provided a person to act as a guide and answer questions for online tours for organizations taking the virtual tour.

Some in-person tours have resumed for limited groups of people with a specific interest in the site, such as government officials, advisory boards, tribes and the news media.

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