In early September, I took a trip with the Kumamoto Kenjin Kai to visit the nuclear reactor in Hanford, WA. The trip took about 3 hours from Seattle to Richland, then another 45 minutes from the visitor’s center to the historic site of Reactor B at Hanford.
I did not realize before the trip, but Reactor B is probably one of the most historic sites in the state of Washington. Reactor B is the world’s first nuclear reactor, and the plutonium from the reactor was utilized in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The Hanford site has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Parks Department. Ultimately there were three nuclear reactors constructed at Hanford.
Construction began in October 1943. Hanford was selected because of its remote location, gravel for concrete and Columbia River for cooling water. At the peak employment, over 100,000 people worked on the top secret project. Many people thought the project was an airplane plant. The reactor was completed on September 26, 1944, one year after ground breaking.
The reactor was a stack of carbon bricks 46 ft. wide by 38 ft. deep and 41 ft. high. The carbon bricks making up the reactor appeared to be about 9 in. wide by 9 in. high and 4 ft. long. You can imagine the number of carbon bricks needed to make the carbon reactor 41 feet tall. All the carbon blocks, the cooling pipes, and nuclear rods were hand machined. This was before the advent of computerized machine tools and computers, so all engineering design was done with slide rules.
The US Parks Department has done an excellent job in developing the site and providing docents to explain the construction and operation of the nuclear reactor. In the first photograph is the front face of Reactor B and in the second photo, I am sitting at the sole control panel that controlled the temperature of the reactor. The desk was manned around the clock in 2 hour shifts. It was critical that temperatures were maintained in a certain range to ensure the reactor would not have a “melt down” and release radiation. Visitors to the reactor site had free access to all parts of the reactor, control rooms, and cooling systems.
The planning for the atomic reactor was urgent as information indicated that Nazi Germany had advanced atomic bomb research. I was amazed at the speed in which the reactor was completed, less than one year and the number of people employed at Hanford during the War. It was a very educational trip and I highly recommend the tour.