As you remember from our last adventure, the Hanford Site is a mostly shuttered nuclear production complex that was part of the Manhattan Project. The Hanford Site housed nine reactors. Of the nine, six have been cocooned,1 two are aging away in the Eastern Washington sunshine, and one, the B Reactor, is being preserved in its Atomic Age splendor.
The B Reactor was not the second reactor, as its name implies, but was simply built on the B Site, and, get this, was the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Ever. It was built by the folks at DuPont, based on Enrico Fermi’s2 experimental design of the Chicago Pile 1 (C3PO), which was a pretty crazy reactor in its own right. C3PO was built under the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, which just sounds wackadoodle, along the same lines as David Hahn building the breeder reactor in a shed in his mom’s backyard. But, I guess C3PO was built at the right time and place, because it actually worked and helped birth the Atomic Age rather than create a backyard superfund site where mom’s flowers should be!
C3PO was a pretty small reactor—only 25 feet wide by 20 feet tall, and shaped like a flattened Krispy Kreme (a flattened ellipsoid for you geometry nerds). This was the world’s first foray into plutonium production so there weren’t any blueprints or instruction manuals. We essentially had to make up the whole thing on the fly. And we were quite ingenious. I mean, as a shield, we had the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company build an enormous rubber balloon to surround the reactor; because that’s what I want between me and fission. The reactor was also built without a cooling system (okay, it was apparently “air cooled”, which isn’t everywhere?), which, I think these guys knew that this would create a lot of heat, so… that’s an interesting choice.
Considering the crazy McGyvering of the whole affair, we’re damned lucky we didn’t end all life on earth with this little stunt, or at least incur some awful radiation burns. Instead C3PO produced 1/2 watt of power, and proved that we could probably make plutonium. To put this in prospective, LED headlamps of the strap ’em to your forehead variety, emit about the same amount of power. An incandescent light bulb in your living room puts out 120 times the power. And Doc Brown needed approximately a billion times the output of C3PO to send Marty McFly back to the future. We needed to produce plutonium on a large enough scale to power a war, not just a headlamp (I know headlamps aren’t powered by plutonium, smart guy—just a comparison of the energy.) Now remember, C3PO was built without any plans. And now we needed something much larger, that could produce a lot of plutonium. So what did we do? Take our time and meticulously plot out the new reactor? Nope. We ran headlong into the future without so much as a sketch.
Construction for the B Reactor began in earnest on June 7, 1943, and was completed in an incredible thirteen months, with the reactor going critical for the first time on September 26, 1944. Think back to your last thirteen months—what have you accomplished? When the project was in full swing, there were nearly 50,000 people working at the site, with most of the laborers housed on-site in a sort of Mad Men meets Burning Man camp, with the white-collar folks living in relative luxury in the government town of Richland. Now, 50,000 is a lot of people. And this was at the height of the war. And Lose Lips Sink Ships. So, workers were ordered not to discuss their work with anyone, and were simply told that they were doing important war work. Less than 1% of the workforce at the site knew what they were working on, and if they asked, they were relieved of their duties and transferred off the Hanford Site. Loose Lips.
What did the nearly 50,000 workers do in thirteen months, you ask? Well, they didn’t have any plans to begin with. The concepts for the B Reactor were based on very little practical experience, and were taken mainly from Fermi’s C3PO which was completed a mere six months earlier. Can you imagine? I mean, sketches and blueprints were literally being created as foundations were being poured and graphite being piled. Workers often worked with hand-written notes with drawings in-hand. This was such unknown territory that most of the tools didn’t even exist that were needed for the project, so had to be created or at least modified from existing tools. And the math! Think about the math these folks had to use? And all with nary a computer or TI graphing calculator. I mean, sometimes I have to use my iPhone to figure out tips, so…
When it was all said and done, they had created an engineering marvel. I know that sounds super cheesy, but it really is a marvel, and the reactor has the awards and plaques and designations to prove it.
We drove through the prison-style fence surrounding the B Reactor and were greeted by the site staff and led to the fanciest porta-potties I’ve ever seen. The bus docent, Ann, had even prepped us for their awesomeness by noting that we wouldn’t want to use the bus bathroom because these porta-potties simply put it to shame. And they were nice! Kind of like the ones Hollywood types use while filming on location or get to use at music festivals with their fancy VIP passes while the rest of us wait in line, hoping that the mud on the outside is actually mud, and that maybe, just maybe the entire interior doesn’t look like the Golgothan’s abode. Celebrities—they’re just like us.
After we’d all received the star treatment, we were ushered into a hallway very reminiscent of a Cold War era elementary school. The highly polished linoleum and packed bulletin boards blanketing the length of the hallway practically screamed, “The wheels on the bus…” except nuclear. The bulletin boards contained several enlarged photographs and other graphics illustrating daily life at the site. My favorite was the much enlarged pic of the dining hall in full-meal mode. There was also an infographic (were they called that back then?) noting the food quantities consumed on-site between March 1943 and August 1944. There were staggering amounts, like 2,289,761 loaves of bread, 3,531,389 lbs of pork, and 10,785,600 eggs. Each total was accompanied by a great line-drawing of the food.
The schoolish hallway ended at a set of gray metal doors, the type with the push-bar across the front. The doors completely chameleoned the awesomeness on the other side. The doors opened to the biggest, brightest high school gym looking room I’d ever been in. This enormous space butted up against the face of the reactor core. This was very much like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and I imagine what the Pevensie siblings felt when the stepped through the back of the wardrobe for the first time. It was stunningly beautiful.
Here’s an image that doesn’t really do much for the awesomeness factor, but does provide a sense of scale—the people at the bottom right of the image are normal sized people, not our third scale scientist friends from the last column.
It’s pretty damned amazing, right?
At first glance, this all looks very much like the wine wall vault at some 2001-themed restaurant, complete with a pretty awesome bottle-retrieval scaffolding spanning the front of the core. But no—each of the 2004 “bottles” is actually an aluminum tube surrounded by a hollowed-out chunk of graphite. Uranium slugs the size of rolls of quarters were sealed in aluminum cans (do you think the Ball Blue Book has a section on this?), along with spacers of the same size, were loaded into each tube. The slugs and spacers look a lot like the radioactive glowstick thing that ends up stuck to Homer during the The Simpsons’3 intro. Except the real-life slugs aren’t glowing. Yet.
While still reeling from the overall awesomeness of the scene, the staff asked us to sit and we then listened to a presentation and watched a video about the reactor. Now, I know this sounds awful, but I was so distracted by the science not-fiction sitting right in front of me (and Tour Guide Assistant McHottypants) that I really didn’t retain much of the information being fed to me. But, fear not! There was much more awesome learning to come!
The B Reactor was a water-cooled, single pass, graphite moderated reactor. Phew. What does that mean in normal people terms? Well, the name is essentially describing how the reactor was controlled. It was cooled by water (water-cooled). Then, we know that the cooling water made one pass through the system (single-pass) before it exited to the Columbia River (at 150 degrees, by the way). We also know that graphite was used to moderate the reactions—remember how chain reactions work? The neutrons cascade and hit other atoms and them neutrons from the new atoms cascade, and so on, and so on. Well, graphite is highly neutron absorbent (neutrons like graphite like pre-teen girls like Justin Bieber), and absorbs some of the neutrons allowing (some) control over the reaction. This is one of the things that ensures that the reactions don’t go all Chernobyl.
Remember, this entire project wasn’t just for funsies. We wanted plutonium. And plutonium comes from uranium, when we force it.4 Essentially, this is what happens. Uranium fuel elements are loaded into the reactor. The elements are then subjected to a nuclear reaction for about six weeks. During the six weeks, some of the uranium changes in composition into plutonium. Once this happens, the fuel elements are pushed to the back of the reactor and dumped into a pool of water for cooling and to dispel some of the radioactivity. Then, the post-reaction fuel elements are taken by train (at Hanford, anyway) to a plutonium processing plant where the plutonium is extracted and formed into hockey puck sized blobs to use in nuclear weapons. Easy, breezy, Covergirl.5
After we basked in the glow (ha!) of the reactor core’s awesomeness (including the beautiful tour guide, whose name I really should have written down, because how else are we going to make nuclearphile babies?), we were divided into two groups and taken on a tour of the just-as-awesome other systems. Or those that were open to the public, anyway. (Some areas are not quite ready for primetime, radiation-wise.) There was so much cool stuff to see, including the kitchen sink.
I would steal this sink. I love that the basin and drainboards are one single piece of enamelly goodness. Also in the kitchen was an amazing lunchroom table, that reminded me of the metal table/chair combo outside this burger stand in Barstow that we always used to stop at on the way to my grandma’s in San Diego. One stop, I smashed my finger so smartly in the table/chair combo that I barfed up my lunch and couldn’t stop crying. Anyway, I want the sink and the table. They would fit perfectly in my fallout shelter home a la Blast From the Past where I would rear my nuclearphile babies with my tour-guide love.
The kitchen is painted in a lovely shade known in my circles as submarine green. I love this color so much that my living room is painted this color. Really. I think it stems from dating a nuclear submariner who wouldn’t let me paint anything this color because it reminded him of being underway. Tiny rebellion.
After the lunchroom we made our way through other areas of the building, and I know we saw some awesome things, but I was already pretty overwhelmed—one can only consume so much atomic goodness in a single sitting. But, because I’d essentially spaced-out on the tour after the kitchen, I had plenty of room in my brain once we reached… The Control Room! And guys? It’s just as amazing as you’re thinking it is. More amazing than the pervious titleholder for Most Amazing Nuclear Plant Control Room, (not a real title) EBR-1. This room practically screamed, “Shall we play a game?” even though everything was disconnected. It was the coolest of the cool.
Here’s a pic of the temperature gauges for all 2004 process tubes in the core.
The control room was the brain of the reactor. In this room, Mr. Farmer and the other engineers brought up the reactor to full power for the first time on September 26, 1944, but it didn’t work extra well, and was only able to sustain a reaction for a short period. During this first powering-on, only 1500 of the process tubes were used. Because the engineers were all Mr. Smartypants, they figured out that this number of tubes couldn’t sustain a nuclear reaction because another element, Xenon, was poisoning the reaction by capturing too many neutrons (that’s graphite’s job, yo). So, through a lot of complicated, non-computer-aided math, the scientists added another 504 tubes to the reaction and overcame the Xenon poisoning. And just like that, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”6 Or almost.
After being involved in a nuclear reaction for nearly six weeks, the irradiated slugs were removed from the reactor and taken by train to the plutonium separation facility, where it underwent a series of complex chemical processes to extract the pure plutonium from all of the other crap. The refined plutonium was then sent to Los Alamos where it was used in the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. So, plutonium from the world’s first atomic detonation was created by the fine folks at the Hanford Site. Plutonium from the Hanford site was used a few weeks later in the bomb detonated above Nagasaki, and lots of other nuclear weapons.
After WWII, operations were suspended at the B Reactor until 1948. The reactor was then restarted and used to make tritium (tritium is a radioactive type of hydrogen) for use in hydrogen bombs. Tritium for the B Reactor was used in the first bomb detonated at the Bikini Atoll in 1952, and we all know what happened to the sponges, squids, starfish and squirrels living there when this happened—they were immortalized as fantastic cartoon characters.
The B Reactor continued cranking out weapons-stuffs until 1968 when it was shut down for good, and that’s exactly how it looks today—as if the controllers initiated a planned shutdown, went home for the evening, and then The Rapture happened. It looks exactly as it did when it was shutdown for that final time in 1968. I mean you can practically hear Mrs. Robinson and see the glorious facial hair. An interesting note: the green, white and wooden color scheme of the control room came along later in the reactor’s life. It was originally an all black affair. Could you imagine? Sitting in your very own version of a Bond villain’s nuclear reactor.
Until next time! Happy atom smashing!
1 In cocooning, old reactors are completely coated in cement, kind of like fondant on a wedding cake, and left to cool off for usually 75 years. Kind of like a big fat nuclear time-out. After time-out the still hottish components are moved to permanent storage. Or that’s the plan anyway, as we haven’t really gotten that far with any reactors.
2 Enrico Fermi was a badass. He and Robert Oppenheimer are both referred to as the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Fermi was an Italian scientist working with atomic chain reactions. He and his Jewish wife Laura emigrated to the US in 1938 to escape that increasingly horrific race laws. Fermi continued his work with atomic chain reactions at the University of Chicago, and eventually played a very large role in the Manhattan Project—he essentially held the keys to the nuclear kingdom for a good while. Because he was THE man when it came to the Manhattan Project, he went by the code name, Mr. Farmer, while on-site. He was also protected by a bodyguard at all times. #themoreyouknow
3 I know, I’ve made a point of saying that the image of the fuel rod from The Simpsons is not accurate. And I stand by that. However, Homer’s rod does look a whole lot like a uranium slug.
4 Mostly. There have been trace amounts of plutonium found in the wild, that have likely come from uranium too. Which makes me wonder, are there nuclear reactions happening in nature, all the time, all over the place, without our even knowing it? I mean, I know about the Oklo fossil reactors (Google it), but maybe it’s happening a lot more?
5 I know. I didn’t tell you how to extract plutonium from uranium. I don’t know how the hell it’s done, and I assume that only a handful of people in the world know the entire process. And I’m very okay with that.
6 Robert Oppenheimer reportedly thought of this line of Hindu scripture during the Trinity test, which as the first atomic weapon detonation, and powered with plutonium from the B Reactor.