A windowless concrete structure standing alone on a stretch of desert in the northwestern United States is now a National Historic Landmark. The structure is the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor and a key piece of the Manhattan Project. The federal government announced the landmark status late last month, and now the reactor will become more accessible to the public, The New York Times reports.
The B Reactor, part of the Hanford nuclear fuel fabrication site in Washington State, produced the plutonium used in the first man-made nuclear explosion, the Trinity test in the desert north of Alamogordo, N.M., on 16 July 1945. It also produced the plutonium used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on 9 August 1945. For years, the reactor faced an uncertain future. It had been shut down since 1968, but recent cleanup initiatives at Hanford called for “cocooning” the facility—demolishing most of it and sealing its nuclear core.
Back in 2005, with news that one of the most incredible pieces of technology from the World War II era could become a cocoon of concrete, my editor dispatched photographer Walter Whitman and I to the site. We spent two and a half days at the reactor, contemplating both its extraordinary technology—its design derived from an experimental reactor built by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago—and the horrifying consequences of its products. The result was a photo essay, “The Atomic Fortress That Time Forgot,” that Spectrum ran that year in April.
Some of Whitman’s photos show parts of the B Reactor that very few people had seen before. I recall that at one point during our visit, Whitman asked the two Hanford workers escorting us if he could get closer to the nuclear core, an enormous metal and graphite structure 12 meters tall. He wanted to get a better shot of the pipes that traverse the core and housed the uranium slugs when the reactor was active. I was a bit surprised when the workers, who carried Geiger counters everywhere, said, “No problem, sir. This way.”
They explained that we couldn’t climb on the platform that stands before the core’s front face, but they could show us the rear face. We followed the workers to another part of the building and they opened a heavy door leading to a staircase. At the top, we passed through a narrow, zigzagging corridor (designed, I believe, to reduce radiation leakage in case of an accident) and arrived at a suspended platform. We were now so close to the core, we could touch it if we wanted. Whitman, smiling, got to work, placing his Hasselblad as close as possible to the “pigtail” pipes protruding from the back of B Reactor’s nuclear heart.
My reaction was a bit different. I stood back there, just thinking that, were the core “hot,” flush with chain-reacting neutrons, the atoms in my body would instantly transmute into the whole periodic table. Hopefully the nasty radiation would be all gone? I only stopped worrying weeks later, when a letter from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory came in the mail. Its Radiation Protection Services division measures the dosimeters all Hanford visitors and employees have to carry. They had my results, which I read with relief: my “Whole Body Effective Dose Equivalent” was “.000” units of rem.
To see Whitman’s photos, along with descriptions of how the B Reactor worked and its history, you can download the pdf of the article. For more about site tours, check out this DOE Hanford web site. And if you ever go there, don’t forget to ask to see the rear face.