“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”
It is safe to assume that most stories of adventure do not begin in row F of a burgandy motor coach, exception being the 1994 blockbuster ‘Speed’ starring Keeanu Reeves. That being said, envision a well worn charter bus, me comfortably sitting in the tattered seats of row F eating peanuts, and then add a steady stream of retirees shuffling down the aisle to take their seats. Note one in particular, he is wearing a baby blue ‘I heart Hanford’ hat clutching a walker*. This sets the stage for the latest Backyard Boondoggle: Hanford Nuclear Site.
Nuclear power conjures up visuals of Chernobyl, The Cold War, Homer Simpson, the grand finale of WWII, Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, Trinity, and on-and-on, but who really knows where it all started? Well the residents of Washington State and more specifically the Tri-Cities are all too aware.
The Hanford Nuclear Site is 586 square miles of scrub brush that at one time was booming, like 50,000 employees on-site building top secret shit booming. Based on a 1942 experiment conducted by Enrico Fermi under the bleachers at Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus, which clearly showed that humans could create and control a nuclear chain reaction. This experiment paved the way for the ‘acquisition’ or ‘condemnation by eminent domain’ by the Department of Defense of the land now know as Hanford. This displaced numerous settlers and copious Native Americans and was ultimately the home to B Reactor as well as some dangerously poisonous deer, water fowl, and fish.
B Reactor was built in an impressive 11 months and was completed in late 1944. It was so top-secret no one knew what was being built on the property. Workers were constantly shuffled about the massive construction site to ensure the secrecy of the project. Even the Vice President of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman, was not privy to what was taking place at Hanford until he was appointed as President upon Roosevelt’s untimely death in April of 1945, nearly a year after B Reactor went active. It is believed that B Reactor was built without blue prints, it was purely based on sketches and a hypothesis. In theory the reactor would produce plutonium 239 by irradiating uranium 238 by placing large uranium rods into 2004 holes in the face of the massive reactor core. This would knock off extra neutrons and create uranium 239, the end product after decay being plutonium. The graphite core, massive water cooling system, and 9 boron control rods allowed for the reactor to work at a constant state of fission. Using a staggering 75,000 gallons of river water per minute to cool the reactor, B Reactor soon was the work horse in creating the plutonium used to create both test and war time nuclear bombs. B Reactor was also the template to which the other reactors on the Hanford site were built.
Currently Hanford is run by the Department of Energy and is the home to a massive clean-up effort. Employing thousands of people, Hanford is still creating nuclear power from one small reactor. The other reactors on the property are either entombed to allow the radiation to dissipate or are being taken apart and buried. Nuclear energy, although clean when running, is a disaster when decommissioned. Much of the waste created in the early years of Hanford was buried in undisclosed locations, with those persons in the know long passed on. Today, Hanford is a nuclear recycling center, housing all the cores from decommissioned military vessels. Each ‘cask’ or nuclear power plant is placed in rows after being barged from the ocean to the Hanford property. Like a graveyard, these casks, are the size of small buildings, patiently awaiting future burial or decontamination.
With a 2 billion dollar vitrification plant underway at Hanford, the Tri-cities region continues to flourish in the nuclear age. Time will tell, however, at what cost…
But if you have an interest in history and want to take a bad-ass tour in the middle of the week of a former double top-secret nuclear power plant that once produced the fuel for nuclear weapons, B Reactor is the spot, and its FREE!
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*The guy with the walker and Hanford hat, he and his brother were both operators of B Reactor for decades…