Gnomes and Reactors

The world's first plutonium-making reactor is photographed along with a Gnome


It is early morning on a cold January day in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Photographer Walter Whitman is staring pensively at a huge concrete building half a kilometer away. He then turns to his tripod-mounted Hasselblad camera, peers through its viewfinder, and after a few adjustments...Click!

Framed in that shot was B Reactor, the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor and a fundamental piece of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government's World War II program that produced the first atomic bombs. B Reactor now faces an uncertain future: if a plan to convert it into a museum is not successful, it may be demolished as part of a sprawling cleanup effort at the Hanford nuclear site, where the reactor sits.

Photo: Ha Huynh

The shot Whitman took that day, along with other images of B Reactor, are reproduced in this issue's "The Atomic Fortress That Time Forgot." Making the gelatin silver prints from the negatives, says Whitman, required 25 hours in a darkroom and painstaking adjustments of contrast, exposure, and other parameters. "That makes each print a true one-of-a-kind piece of art," he says.

Whitman and his assistant, Ha Huynh, even had access to the reactor's rear face, an area where very few visitors have been permitted - and the closest you can get to the massive nuclear core.

Before leaving, the pair took one last picture of B Reactor [above]. It shows the reactor as a backdrop for a toy gnome they had found at a local supermarket and had promptly named "Hanford." Then it was time to go. For Whitman, the two and a half days he spent exploring the place didn't seem nearly enough. "I could spend weeks there," he said ruefully, a few weeks after the shoot.