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Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Part I: B Reactor

June 29, 2016

In November 2015, the US National Park Service and Department of Energy came to an agreement outlining a new national park, one that would focus on the history of the American effort in World War II to develop nuclear energy for warfare (the “Manhattan Project”).  B Reactor at Hanford is already open with scheduled tours managed under this arrangement.  It was the world’s first plutonium production reactor, designed and built under truly remarkable wartime circumstances, and it operated from 1943 to 1968.

By special arrangement with Colleen French, the DOE’s park coordinator at B Reactor, I was able to visit the reactor at my own pace with a small group of nuclear enthusiasts in March.  Geiger counters, scintillators, and gamma spectrometers also came along, although there was some official resistance to their presence.  And this brings me to the two questions I hoped to answer in visiting this place: firstly, how are the NPS and DOE handling the interpretive challenges inherent in opening a radiation facility to the general public of all ages; and secondly, will hardcore “nukeheads” like me find a sufficiently authentic and engaging experience given the constraints imposed by preparing the site for the public.  My experience at B Reactor was heartening.  The reactor remains an interesting radiation environment (see photo galleries below), and its staff have made rational choices in seeking balance between public safety and respect for the authentic realities of the place.  For nerds with the right instrumentation, the radiation signatures in various parts of the building tell little stories about what happened there.  Reactor equipment has been lovingly left intact throughout–down to the decommissioning tags from 1968.

The radiation signatures at B Reactor were thrilling to me, like little ghosts of the past jumping out to whisper their secrets, but of course, radiation is sometimes feared and loathed.  I empathize with administrators who worry that the crackle of a Geiger counter might repulse or anger some visitors.  My own view is that all kinds of genuine reactions, ranging from enthusiasm to fear, are valid, and all should be tolerated.  Scientifically-informed judgement should guide how safety is established at such sites, but it is still possible to be welcoming and accommodating toward visitors expressing a broad spectrum of reactions, including both the occasional phobia and the occasional super-demanding “nukehead” (e.g., me).  The sites in the nascent Manhattan Project National Historical Park belong to all of us–the enthusiastic and the timid, the plant operators and the “downwinders,” the bombers and the bombed.  Uniting us all is interest in the history, and I am encouraged by the respect for history I witnessed at B Reactor this year.  Best wishes to the other Manhattan Project park sites as they open doors to the public.

Now what you probably came here for: captioned photo galleries!

Reactor operating position and safety systems

B Reactor offers a window into the minds of reactor designers who had never before worked at the power scale envisioned for plutonium production, but who still thought of a surprisingly comprehensive suite of instrumentation, controls, and safety systems, many of which have analogous descendants in modern reactors.  Notable are multiple ranges of power measurement instruments, flux profiling and distribution control in the core, gravity-dropped safety rods, a backup gravity-operated shutdown system in case the core sustained mechanical damage, emergency core cooling tanks in case of a water delivery failure, electrical and hydraulic redundancy in the horizontal control rod system, seismometer SCRAM in case of earthquake or war; and individual fuel channel pressure measurements.

Horizontal control rods

Horizontal control rods were used to regulate the reactor power and adjust the flux distribution in the core.  Some of the rods were hydraulically driven, others electrically driven.  The “inner rod room” lies directly above the control room and is still quite radioactive and off limits (even to me).  This is where withdrawn rods would actually reside after exiting the core.  Their drive mechanisms are on the other side of a heavily-shielded wall, the “outer rod room” (shown in most of these photos).  Radiation is detectable in the outer rod room, and particularly in a floor drain under it.  The radiation here mostly comes from cobalt-60, a product of neutron activation of steel.

Reactor discharge face

Irradiated nuclear fuel slugs would be pushed out the back of B Reactor into a water-filled trough.  This is a truly exciting part of B Reactor, since the radiation levels are bordering on high even today.  The gamma spectra reveal the activation nuclide europium-152, which we know accumulated in the cooling water system (see below) but could also be formed in the pile graphite and shielding concrete; and long-lived fission product cesium-137.  The Cs-137 was formed in fuel and subsequently escaped through ruptures and leaks in the fuel cladding.

Irradiated fuel storage pool

After being irradiated, short-lived radioactivity in the fuel was allowed to decay for several months before chemical processing to recover the plutonium was undertaken (typically, unless one was doing a “green run,” in which case you would process it right away).  In common with the reactor discharge face area, radiation levels in the fuel storage pool at B Reactor remain a little too high for public access.  However, the wooden decking over the pool can be viewed through a window.  The cause for the high residual radioactivity is none other than our old friend, cesium-137, which escaped from damaged fuel.

Above and below the reactor

At the “pile top” we find the gravity-aided vertical safety rod (VSR) mechanisms, as well as hoppers full of boron carbide balls–a last-ditch shutdown feature in case the VSR guide tubes warped from thermal-mechanical damage in the core.  Below the reactor is a small basement (the “Beckman room”) where reactor flux measuring instruments were located.  Today, the basement contains an impressive stash of radioactive tools and fuel handling equipment, probably left in position from shutdown in 1968.

Cooling water systems

B Reactor employed a once-through cooling circuit: water was drawn from the Columbia River, treated, pumped through the reactor’s process tubes, allowed to “cool down,” both thermally and radiologically, in an outdoor basin, and then discharged back into the river.  The discharge water sampling station in B Reactor allowed chemists to monitor their effluent, alerting them to damaged fuel or water treatment problems.  Today, the sampling station remains a bit radioactive, with the rare-earth activation nuclide europium-152 being wholly responsible for the measured gamma radiation there.

Reactor grounds

The back yard of B Reactor has some interesting stuff, like pallets full of channelized reactor graphite and drums full of unused boron carbide shutdown balls.  Several railroad cars used to transport irradiated fuel are now permanently displayed on the grounds, and these are sizzlin’, producing peak gamma exposure readings in excess of 5 mR/h, all due to residual Cs-137.

One comment

  1. Lovely selection of pictures and spectra, thanks!



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