World's first nuclear reactor now a landmark

Image: Tourists on bus arrive at the Hanford nuclear reservation
Passengers on a bus tour of the Hanford nuclear reservation view the site's famous "B" reactor near Richland, Wash., in April.Ted S. Warren / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, built in 13 months to produce plutonium for an atomic bomb during World War II, is now a National Historic Landmark, the federal government announced Monday.

The Hanford nuclear reservation's B Reactor produced plutonium for the first man-made atomic blast, the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. The designation doesn't guarantee that the reactor will never be torn down but very likely opens the door for more public tours and moves it closer to becoming a museum.

"Building the B Reactor was a feat of engineering genius. So, too, was the construction a testament to the excellence of working Americans," said Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Department of Interior. "There was no wiggle room for error."

History buffs, former weapons workers and local officials have been seeking recognition for the plant for six years to help save it from being dismantled or permanently cocooned as part of the cleanup of the highly contaminated complex in south-central Washington state.

Centerpiece of Manhattan Project
Hanford and B Reactor were the centerpiece of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret effort to build an atomic bomb in the 1940s. More than 50,000 workers moved to the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco for the massive project on the banks of the Columbia River.

Construction began on June 7, 1943, six months after physicist Enrico Fermi turned the theory of nuclear power into the reality of the Atomic Age. Eight more reactors were built at Hanford to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, leaving a legacy of pollution that has made Hanford the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.

Five reactors have been dismantled and cocooned, a process in which buildings around the reactors are removed, all but the shield walls surrounding the reactor cores are leveled and the cores are sealed in concrete.

The B Reactor was shut down in 1968 and decommissioned. Under a cleanup schedule managed by the Department of Energy, dismantling could have begun as early as 2009. However, the department said it would maintain the reactor while the National Park Service decides whether it should be preserved and made available for public access.

A Park Service advisory board last month recommended designating the reactor a National Historic Landmark, recognition currently granted to fewer than 2,500 sites. Four other Manhattan Project sites have been similarly recognized, including the Trinity site.

'Since B Reactor, nothing's been the same'
Hank Kosmata, president of the B Reactor Museum Association in Richland, noted that achieving National Historic Landmark status for Reactor B took longer than building it.

"There's an enormous amount of things that can be learned here, whether it's about Enrico Fermi, the history of nuclear energy or how a nuclear plant works," said Kosmata, 78, who went to Hanford as a reactor design engineer in 1954 and now helps lead tours there. "We want people to be able to stop in and spend some time here."

About 2,000 people have visited the complex this year. Next year, Energy Department officials plan to expand the number of tours of the building without impeding cleanup, said Jeffrey Kupfer, acting deputy secretary.

B Reactor ushered in a nuclear age that not only altered the course of World War II, but also created an important source of power and made innovations in science and medicine possible, said Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian.

"Before B Reactor, there was nothing like it," Gerber said, "and since B Reactor, nothing's been the same."