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Firm Mulls Fate of Site That Fueled 1st Atomic Bombs

November 24, 1987|Associated Press

RICHLAND, Wash. — The eight reactors that helped put the punch in America's nuclear weapons arsenal today make up the nation's first Atomic Age ghost town.

Once buzzing with thousands of plutonium production workers, the reactors on the Hanford nuclear reservation now have few signs of life: only a handful of employees and an occasional guided tour of people curious about the origins of the Nagasaki bomb.

The idle reactors, spaced a few miles apart on the desolate government reservation, are shimmering columns of gray concrete and rusted metal ducts that date from the Manhattan Project and the Cold War of the 1950s.

Whether the reactors will be buried under mounds of dirt or become a shrine to the nuclear age will be debated soon when Westinghouse Hanford Co. issues its environmental impact statement on the reactors' disposal.

But one outcome appears certain: the outdated plants will never operate again.

"The main reason they were shut down was they didn't need the plutonium," said William Heine, manager of decommissioning and decontamination for Westinghouse Hanford. "They're all considered surplus."

Four options will be identified in the government contractor's impact statement, ranging from doing nothing to burying the radioactive reactor blocks at their present site, Heine said.

Other options are to put the reactors on huge tractors and carry them to another site for burial or to wait 75 years for the radiation to diminish enough so workers can dismantle the reactors for burial.

The final decision at Hanford could be a harbinger of the nation's response as more and more aging reactors go out of operation.

The eight reactors, designed solely for defense production and shut down between 1964 and 1971, represent the largest single concentration of closed nuclear plants in the country, Heine said.

Would Take Much Longer

Some think their history is worth preserving.

The richest legacy belongs to the so-called B Reactor, built in a fevered 15 1/2-month span of 1943-44 when the United States was trying to beat Germany in the World War II race for the atomic bomb.

"We'd be lucky to do it in 10 years now," said William Klink, a spokesman for Westinghouse Hanford.

The Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb included uranium producing facilities at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and three plutonium reactors at Hanford, since no one was sure which material would produce the best weapon, Heine said.

The Hanford site, including related processing facilities and accommodations for 51,000 workers, was constructed for $350 million by Du Pont, prime contractor of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The bombs were assembled at Los Alamos, N.M., with the Oak Ridge uranium dropped on Hiroshima, and the Hanford plutonium on Nagasaki, to knock the Japanese out of the war.

B Reactor lore includes the night of Sept. 26, 1944, when a team of scientists gathered to bring the reactor to critical mass.

Scientist Enrico Fermi, who had first demonstrated 20 months before in Chicago that a nuclear chain reaction could be sustained and controlled, was on hand to supervise the loading of fuel.

The start-up went well, but a few hours into operation reactor power began dropping.

The story is that Fermi went into an office adjacent to the control room, pulled out his slide rule and began calculating. He emerged a short time later with the news that xenon gas, produced during fission, was shutting the reactor down, and that adding more uranium would solve the problem.

The control room, looking like a set for a 1950s science fiction movie, is now open to tours.

A display inside B Reactor includes a 1956 poster of a goggle-wearing television actor named Ronald Reagan, taken at Hanford, urging workers to "Wear Safety Glasses Now!"

The reactor was designated a historic landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1976. Now supporters would like to see the plant declared a national historic site, open to the public, Heine said.

An experimental reactor at Energy Department facilities in Idaho Falls, Idaho, which was the first to generate electricity, already is a national monument, he said.

The B Reactor was followed by two others during World War II, and then five more reactors were constructed in the late 1940s and early '50s to meet Cold War plutonium needs. A ninth reactor, the still-functioning N Reactor, was completed in 1963.

Hanford's 14,000 remaining employees are divided among the N Reactor and other facilities in the complex, including radioactive waste burial sites and the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, a federal research lab.

Plutonium does not decay and can be recycled from weapon to weapon, so the nation's needs began to slacken. Starting in 1964, the government began shutting down the reactors.

After 1971, only the N Reactor continued operating, although that plant has been closed since January for safety improvements and may never reopen.

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