Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington, operated by the United States federal government. The site has been known by many names, including Hanford Project, Hanford Works, Hanford Engineer Works or HEW and Hanford Nuclear Reservation or HNR. Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project in the town of Hanford in south-central Washington, the site was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.
Hanford’s B Reactor, pivotal in the development of nuclear technology, occupies a footprint of 14 by 12 meters (1,750 sq feet) and is approximately five stories tall. The reactor core itself consisted of an 11-meter-tall (36 ft) graphite box measuring 8.5 by 11 meters (1,008 sq feet) and weighed 1,200 short tons (1,100 tons). It was penetrated horizontally through its entire length by 2,004 aluminum tubes and vertically by channels for the vertical safety rods.
The core is surrounded by a cast-iron thermal shield, enclosed on its top and sides by masonite and steel plates, forming a biological shield for radiation protection. The bottom of the thermal shield is supported by a 7-meter-thick (23 ft) concrete pad topped by cast-iron blocks. The graphite composition was selected to moderate the nuclear reaction fueled by 200 short tons (180 tons) of uranium slugs, each approximately the size of a roll of quarters. The slugs were sealed in aluminum cans and loaded into the aluminum tubes.
As we begin a fresh new year, it seems fitting to ponder some past events that set the stage for nuclear weapons in today’s world. Here’s January, in atomic history:
First plutonium reprocessing production run at the Hanford Site in Washington. The site was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world.
January 1950 Klaus Emil Julius Fuchs, a German-British theoretical physicist and atomic spy, confesses to giving atomic secrets to the USSR.
Photo credit: Truman Presidential Museum and Library
President Harry S. Truman (pictured above) gives the order to proceed with building the H-bomb. The directive is said to have come in response to evidence of an atomic explosion occurring within USSR in 1949.
U.S.S. Nautilus is launched. She is the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine.
U.S. B-52 bomber crashes near Palomares, Spain carrying four unarmed H-bombs. Of the four hydrogen bombs, three were found on land near a small fishing village. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the bombs detonated and contaminated a 2-square-kilometer area by radioactive plutonium. The fourth (pictured above) was recovered from the Mediterranean Sea intact after a 2½-month-long search.
January 1967 Outer Space Treaty is introduced to ban nuclear weapons being placed in orbit.
The B Reactor at the Hanford Site was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. The project was commissioned to produce Plutonium-239 by neutron activation as part of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ nuclear weapon development program during World War II. The B Reactor was fueled with metallic natural uranium, graphite-moderated and water-cooled. It achieved criticality in September of 1944, and the Atomic Energy Commission directed its shutdown in January of 1968. The U.S. Department of Energy announced that the B Reactor would be open to public tours in the spring, summer, and fall in 2009. In July of 2011, the National Park Service recommended the B Reactor to be included in a national historic park commemorating the Manhattan Project.
*While the B Reactor’s design was similar to the design of the RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union, it is important to note that this reactor was used specifically for production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, while the RBMK design was used specifically for production of plutonium and later modified to generate power, making the RBMK design the only graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactors used for power generation.
The B Reactor, at the Hanford Site in Washington, was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. The project was commissioned to produce Plutonium-239 by neutron activation as part of the Manhattan Project (the United States’ nuclear weapons development program during World War II). It was fueled with metallic natural uranium, graphite moderated and water-cooled.
This area used to be filled with water behind the Hanford B Reactor. Irradiated fuel would be pushed out into a pool of water. Workers would peer through the gaps in the slat floor and use long, metal poles to pick up and move the fuel into steel baskets.