Touring the first full scale nuclear reactor
Trip Start Jul 23, 2012
1Trip End Jul 23, 2012
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What I did
The B Reactor
Recently I went with Larry Mattingly to Richland, Washington where he had some business to conduct. While we were there we took the "B Reactor Tour" at the old Hanford Nuclear facility.
The "B" reactor was the worlds first full size atomic reactor and was assembled to make the element Plutonium. This element was the explosive heart of the Atom bomb. It's ultimate power was unknown and beyond imagination at the time.
Just before, and during the early stages of WW2, a group of scientists conceived and proved the probability of an "Atomic Bomb". Initially there was a fear that Germany was on to it also, and might develop the bomb. There was real fear that Hitler would use it if he had it. After the war ended it was found that the Germans were well behind in the development of Atomic weapons. Following the first sustained nuclear reaction in a small scale under the grandstand at Stagg Field in Chicago, the US effort towards getting the bomb began. The Hanford area in SE Washington State was selected as the site for several planned reactors to make Plutonium. The very remote area, and with the electrical power from the Grand Coulee Dam, and the cold clean water of the Columbia River for cooling the reactors made the site ideal.
With only a few actual blueprints to begin with, construction of B reactor was started in June 1943. It was a massive construction effort and everything about it was a closely guarded secret. Only a handful of Scientists and Engineers actually knew what was being built. It was loaded with fuel and started up in late 1944. It's first Plutonium was separated and sent to Los Alamos in early 1945. B reactor plutonium was used in the Trinity test and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki Japan. It was the first of 9 reactors at the Hanford site. It was permanently shut down in February of 1968. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in August of 2008. After considerable clean-up work it was opened as a museum.
When we arrived there was a short movie of the history of Hanford, filled with photos, animations, charts and first hand accounts by past employees of the past. This was followed by a short talk by our soon to be tour guide. Then we piled on a tour bus where the tour guide talked about the things we were going to see and pointed out things of interest along the way.
The tour was great. The Guides and Docents were knowledgeable, and their explanations were in terms easy to understand. We were broken into two groups, one went on the walking tour while the other sat through another informative multi-media presentation. Then we switched with the opposite group. After the formal tour and lectures we were free to wander about and take all the pictures we wanted to.
I swear if the people who prepared and executed this tour were commissioned to design school curriculum, everyone would graduate with high grades. The number one reason I went on the tour was because of Larry, to see some of the things he talks about from the days he worked at Hanford, and I left with at least a reasonable understanding of how a nuclear reactor works. They kept you interested by alternating charts and graphs with first hand account videos and 2 docents and guides. You never sat for to long for the wiggly and never walked for to long for the impaired, with adequate time at the end to pursue things that interested you the most.
While they gently reminded everybody that this was previously a working facility not just a museum, the rule was "Look but don't touch" - they encouraged everybody to get there photo taken in the seat of the control center.
The rear face/discharge areas still have some clean-up work and so are not open yet. And of course ladders and overhead gratings were not for tourists. Otherwise it was all there and open to see.
I would highly recommend anybody having the opportunity to go to Richland, Washington make an attempt to go on this tour, Whether you are interested in the history of Washington State, Nuclear Power, or just how to design a fabulous tour or curriculum! You won't be disappointed.
You must register in advance. We were told that they just added 2400 additional seats to this years schedule so if you don't find openings on the online schedule you might call the office.
They also lowered the age requirement from 16 to 12 so students can go on field trips to the facility so if you have young people going with you don't be dissapointed by the 16 or older statements.
More information can be found at: