The B Reactor is the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor located at the Hanford site in Richland, Wash. The three-story-high block of graphite contains about 2,000 "process tubes" arranged in a grid. These tubes contained uranium, and when enough uranium was brought together, a chain reaction of neutrons turned some of it into plutonium — which became the fissile core of nuclear bombs.
The facility has been carefully restored with vintage warning signs leading visitors to the reactor. Today, there is minimal danger of radioactivity.
Tour guide Paul Vinther (left) began working at the B Reactor in 1950 and spent 38 years at this and other plutonium-production facilities that sprang up nearby during the Cold War. He also managed the B Reactor when it was shut down in 1968.
Vinther, a physicist, spent a lot of time here in the reactor's control room. The inventor of nuclear reactors, Enrico Fermi, also had an office here.
During Vinther's early years, his main job was as a human calculator. Whenever the reactor shut down, they'd call him in to calculate how long certain elements took to dissipate so they could restart it.
Today, from the outside, the B Reactor building is not much to look at, but during World War II and the Cold War, this was one of the most secret, closely guarded places in America. Now, you can sign up for free tours with the Department of Energy.
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People tend to remember that the atomic bomb was developed at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., but they often forget about a third nuclear production complex — the Hanford Site in Richland, Wash. It's where they built the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor.
The "B Reactor" is a windowless, cinder block hulk out in the middle of nowhere. You might mistake it for an abandoned cement plant. But inside, it's a lovingly preserved time capsule of the Atomic Age. If you're lucky, your guide will be one of the people who worked here when the place was still new.
Paul Vinther signed on at the plant in June 1950. He's a physicist, and his first job was helping to fine-tune the nuclear reaction that turned uranium into the highly radioactive plutonium that went into bombs, such as the one that fell on Nagasaki. He got here during Cold War, when B Reactor was churning out the raw material for America's growing nuclear arsenal.
Take a tour of the Hanford site, a nuclear production complex in Richland, Wash., and you'll see the hundreds of mechanical water pressure gauges wired to the process tubes inside the core. Tour guide Paul Vinther warns that bumping these gauges could throw off the readings enough to trigger a an emergency shutdown of the reactor.
The control room is very midcentury. It's government-issue green, with hundreds of analog gauges wired to the reactor core. No computers screens here. A vintage, hand-lettered sign warns against bumping into things.
"Well, the idea is that if you bump it, you might cause the electrical connection of this thing to vibrate. It might activate. You don't want to shut the reaction down because you bumped it!" Vinther says.
Did that ever happen? "It must have at one time because they wouldn't have said that," he says. "But people were very careful."
Vinther seems torn: He knows tourists want tales of hair-raising near-misses. But he insists his co-workers did their jobs safely. Still, there's no getting around the fact that the potential danger is what makes this place interesting. It's a point made by the hacksaw hanging on the wall in front of the reactor itself. The hacksaw has a very long handle.
"That shows when [people were] working on something hot that had to be cut, they could stand quite a distance away and still do the job," he says.
"Hot" — as in radioactive.
Sometimes tourists ask Vinther why he participated in the production of such frightening weapons. For him, it's simple: He says the A-bomb saved American lives. But when asked about all the radioactive waste produced here, he sighs. He calls it "a sad situation."
"Here we were, worried about Germany and Japan, and then we worried about the Cold War situation with Russia," Vinther says. "The idea was, 'Well, we'll just put the waste into tanks, and we'll handle it later, when we have time.' "
Later is now. Hanford no longer makes plutonium. The reactors that followed B have been shuttered and sealed up, and now the sprawling, 586-square-mile Hanford site has become synonymous with a giant remediation effort. Government contractors are billions of dollars into the process, with no end in sight. In fact, when it comes to cost and sheer technical complexity, the reactor is actually less impressive than the modern-day cleanup — and they offer tours of that, too.