I grew up in the shadow of the Manhattan Project in the town of Richland, Washington. As a child of the '70s and '80s, the story had long been out about the purpose of the Hanford Area. I graduated from Richland High School in 1990 (Go Bombers!) and even worked in nuclear industry as a summer job while going to college. But in spite of this familiarity, much of the particulars remained a mystery. Hanford is to this day a secure federal site. Even taking a boat up river to the Columbia Reach will get the attention of Hanford Patrol with their off-road vehicles and binoculars. So, I had always dreamed of what it would be like to sneak in, to surreptitiously gain access to the world's once most-secret building, to roam its hallways and imagine what it must have been like when it was alive.
Well, I finally got the chance (without all the cloak and dagger). As part of a research fellowship, I spent a week at B Reactor photographically cataloging its engineering. Following the standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior for historic documentation, I used a large format camera and black and white sheet film.
Prior to World War II, the town of Richland was little more than orchards, asparagus fields, and some buildings at a crossroads until General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers engaged Spokane architect Gustav Pehrson to plan and design the new city to house workers of the Hanford Engineer Works (HEW), one of three sites in the U.S. secretly harnessing the power of the atom for the war effort. The Hanford Reservation along the Columbia River to the north of Richland was 670 square miles, about half the size of Rhode Island.
B Reactor, the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, was constructed by DuPont for the U.S. Army. The reactor design was an industrially sized refinement of physicist Enrico Fermi's CP-1 prototype nuclear pile he built in a squash court under the stands at University of Chicago to achieve the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Why "B" rather than "A"? Originally, the plan at Hanford was to create multiple 100 megawatt (MW) reactors along the Columbia River, designated A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. Land was designated for each reactor site, innocuously named "100 Areas." During early planning, however, it was determined that a 250 MW design was preferred and half of the planned reactors were eliminated. B, D & F reactors remained.
Construction of B Reactor began first and, while the entire 100B site and its infrastructure took a mere sixteen months to build, the reactor building itself was completed in an astonishingly short ten months. The reactor was loaded with fuel and brought to life at 10:48pm on September 26th, 1944.
The reactor core is a roughly 36' cube of graphite with precisely 2,004 process tubes running horizontally through it, the number of which would play a significant role later on. The tubes are filled with slugs, a bit bigger than a roll of quarters, composed of uranium-238 and enriched with fissile uranium-235. (Naturally occurring uranium is a mix of isotopes but is largely made up of the more stable 238 isotope and contains about 0.72% of the 235 isotope which is readily fissionable. Enrichment is the process of isolating uranium-235 and increasing its concentration, typically to somewhere from 2 - 5%.) U-235 fissions, meaning that the nucleus splits into smaller nuclei and ejects two or three neutrons in the process. If enough fissionable material is in very close proximity, and if the neutrons can be slowed down by a moderating material like graphite, there is a higher likelihood that a stray neutron will collide with another atomic nucleus. This may result in another nuclear split in the case of U-235 or in the absorption of the neutron into the nucleus in the case of U-238, creating another isotope, U-239. U-239 is not stable and soon goes through a process called beta decay where it converts a neutron into a proton, changing the element from uranium to neptunium-239. This is not stable and, through the same mechanism of beta decay, transforms into the more stable plutonium-239. This is the product used for bomb making. B Reactor's plutonium would be used in the Trinity Test detonated at Los Alamos, New Mexico and in the Fat Man bombed dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, was a different design which used enriched uranium produced at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee Manhattan Project site.
Prior to photographing B Reactor this spring, I had visited it on three occasions. The first time was in the mid-'90s when my brother Tim was working on his thesis project for architecture, a building he called The Enrico Fermi Interpretive Center. Tim predicted that B Reactor's historic significance would lead to its preservation and was ahead of his time in his understanding about the need for visitation and interpretive facilities. Prophetically, B Reactor now receives between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors annually.
That first time, we were escorted out to the 110B/C site by Ben Bennett, the Director of the Port of Benton County. We didn't get to go inside the building but pre-9/11 security levels allowed us to go all around the B and C Reactors photographing whatever we wanted. C Reactor, a post-Manhattan Project reactor of the same design, had already been stripped to its concrete core and cocooned, a final step in decommissioning that allows the building to sit in stasis. B Reactor, now protected as a National Historical Landmark, will be preserved as it was built with public access as an interpretive site in the newly established Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a joint venture between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Park Service (NPS) provided that funding and protections remain in place.
Since that time, I visited B Reactor twice on tours, going inside the facility. I had read books and seen pictures of the interior but nothing prepared me for the moment that I walked down that corridor, into the loading room, and stood in front of the face of the reactor core. The building is a sort of three-tiered ziggurat. A low and wide corridor of concrete block enters at the side of the loading room, an expansively rising space in the center of the building in front of the face of the reactor. It is a powerful, cathedral-like interior of towering proportions, dramatically lit; an altar of science.
It was my very great pleasure on one of these trips to meet Dee McCullough, instrument supervisor at B Reactor. Dee was sitting right in the control room the night that B Reactor was allowed to go critical for the first time. On the night of September 26th, 1944 the control rods, which absorb neutrons, were pulled back until a chain reaction was achieved. B Reactor operated as expected for several hours until it mysteriously began to lose productivity and the chain reaction eventually shut down. Then, after a time, it would just as mysteriously start up again. Dee said that Fermi went into his office on the other side of the glass from the control room and worked with his slide rule for about an hour. He determined that a build up of xenon, a fission by-product, was poisoning the reaction due to its propensity for absorbing neutrons. As the xenon would dissipate thru exhaust, the chain reaction would pick up again.
During the design stage, it was determined that 2,004 process tubes were more than required to build up a concentration of nuclear fuel to sustain a chain reaction. Consideration was given to reducing the number of tubes and simplifying construction. However, it was decided that the additional tubes would remain in place, unused, and perhaps be repurposed at some point for experimental irradiation. When xenon poisoning was discovered, it was these extra tubes that allowed Fermi to add fuel to the fire, so to speak, and overcome the dampening effect of xenon build-up. If the extra tubes had been removed before construction, plutonium production would have been dead in the water.
Dee told this story to our group and then people moved on to the next part of the tour. I remained, talking with Dee a little longer. There was a wooden swivel chair at the main control panel. It had a small rope with a dog leash latch over the armrests preventing people from sitting in the chair. Dee gave me a sly look and asked, "Do you want to sit in it?" I got a big grin on my face and said, "Are you sure that's allowed?" He said, "Well, it's my chair! I think I can decide who gets to sit in it!" He unlatched the little rope and gestured for me to have a seat.
Dee passed away in 2011 at the age of 97. Thanks to Cynthia Kelly and the Atomic Heritage Foundation, you can hear Dee's (and other Manhattan Project participants') history directly: http://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories/dee-mcculloughs-interview
When I came to photograph this spring, a different chair was sitting at the controls. It looked similar. It was a low wooden chair on casters but it wasn't as worn and it was painted black. So I asked some of the Mission Support Alliance staff at B Reactor about it. "Oh, you want the real chair? Yeah, we'll go get it." Since everybody wants to sit in it, Dee's original chair has been set aside and a new one put in its place. So, I am proud to say that, thanks to Dee's hospitality ten or fifteen years prior, the photos documenting the control room are historically accurate right down to where you sit.