Hanford’s B Reactor, a brutally bleak building on the Columbia River, was born in the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. Seventy years later, Congress is poised to turn the floodlights on.
Under legislation championed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the B Reactor and atomic bomb sites in two other states would be preserved and opened to the public as the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. They would take their place alongside other parks fraught with the nation’s past, including Valley Forge and Independence Hall.
The B Reactor belongs in that company, though its historical role has been far more sobering. The world’s first non-experimental nuclear reactor, it produced the plutonium that devastated Nagasaki and ended World War II in August 1945.
On the outside, the reactor looks like an assemblage of immense concrete boxes. It’s not pretty; a plant that helped kill 60,000 people shouldn’t be pretty. President Truman might have ultimately saved more lives – other lives – by destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but those bombings will always rank among history’s grimmest episodes.
A thorough study of the B Reactor – everything that led to it and came of it – becomes an exploration of many of the 20th century’s defining events.
The reactor embodied staggering breakthroughs in physics – made by the likes of Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi – that continue to revolutionize modern science and technology.
It was a direct response to Adolf Hitler. Nazi Germany had its own nuclear scientists, and they too were exploring the explosive potential of nuclear chain reactions. They didn’t succeed in building a reactor of their own, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Manhattan Project was driven by fear that Germany would be the first to create a bomb.
The B Reactor set the cold war arms race in motion. The first Russian nuclear reactor – also used to fuel atomic bombs – was almost a carbon copy of the B Reactor; it was built from designs stolen by Soviet spies.
Many advances connected to the B Reactor weren’t so bleak. Radioactive isotopes created in its successor plants have been used for radiation therapy, many kinds of diagnostic scans, treatment for heart disease and other illnesses.
For decades, NASA has used a form of plutonium created in the B Reactor’s progeny to power America’s deep-space probes. The Curiosity rover now crawling around the Gale Crater on Mars is powered by the isotope.
The B Reactor, like the other Manhattan Project sites, will be a place for contemplation, not celebration. There’s no shortage of things to contemplate there.