Hanford’s B Reactor

I spent my Labor Day weekend sitting inside an old nuclear reactor, gazing up at a wall that holds over 2,000 cylinder rods that once produced plutonium for our nation’s atom bombs. Located just outside of Richland, in eastern Washington State, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation spans 586 square miles on high desert plains. The Columbia River marks the site’s eastern boundary where its waters once served as the depository for the reactors’ contaminated effluent. Belly-high barbwire fencing, with smokestacks positioned next to its aging boxy structure, surrounds Hanford’s dry austere landscape, taken from the Wanapum tribe 66 years ago.

At noon on this particular Saturday a group of us climbed onto a bus in Richland to tour Hanford’s notorious B Reactor, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 2008. Constructed by DuPont in the early 1940s, B was the first full-scale plutonium production plant in the world. This summer the Department of Energy, along with the help of the Fluor Corporation, provided regular public tours of the reactor, hoping that one day the facility would be turned into a national museum of sorts.

By all accounts, the B Reactor is historic. For starters, it’s the most polluted nuclear site in the U.S. "It was the perfect marriage of science and engineering," one of our guides expressed almost tearfully. "The brave men that built this left us a history we should not ever forget." I certainly agree that we ought not forget the B Reactor’s true legacy, a tale of death and environmental destruction, the remnants of which are with us today.

Perhaps most significantly, the plutonium produced in B was used as fuel for the "Fat Man" bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945 at the behest of President Truman. An educational video explained this fact to tourists, but the scenes that followed were not of the over 80,000 men, women, and children who eventually died as a result. Bodies were broiled with radiation, maimed, and so badly charred that friends and family were left with unrecognizable skeletal fragments. Yet, not one photograph of this was on display in the footage shown on the big television screens. Instead we were told that "six days later the war ended." Hallelujah and pass the Kool-Aid.

Of course, it was not Truman’s nuclear bombings that ended the war and crushed the morale of the Japanese. In 1944, the War Department set up the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, primarily to determine the effectiveness of Allied, and more specifically American, strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and in Asia against the Axis powers. Other areas covered were medical treatment of casualties, intelligence and counter-intelligence, and war production and distribution.

Shortly after the war, the survey interviewed the civilian and military leaders in Japan. As the report noted: "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

The environmental impact of Hanford was also not represented in the glossy flyers handed out to visitors at the end of the tour. The Columbia River, which maintains the country’s most productive salmon fishery and provides irrigation water for tens of thousands of Northwest farmers, was—for over two decades—polluted by radioactive runoff from B.

It went something like this: in order to cool off the uranium slugs that were used to produce plutonium, water, after being treated, was pumped from the Columbia River and flowed through the aluminum tubes that held the uranium in order to reduce the slugs’ high temperatures. Around 75,000 gallons of water rushed in at regular river temperatures every minute and was then released back into the Columbia at around 200 degrees Celsius. Early studies showed that young salmon were most susceptible to the effluent’s radiation and by the late 1950s, salmon runs in the mid-Columbia began to rapidly decline.

As historian Michelle Gerber writes in On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, "In 1959, Hanford biologists reported that the number of Chinook salmon spawning in the vicinity was only about 19 percent of 1958." Gerber adds that nearby towns along the Columbia were also affected: "In mid-1947, river water at Pasco and sanitary (city) water at Kennewick first showed detectable levels of gross beta-emitting radiation…. Values in the river water at Richland were even higher, reaching up to four times that at Pasco by late 1948."

Studies to this day are seeking to unravel the extent to which the Columbia River is still being contaminated by several of Hanford’s slow-leaking radioactive tanks, which are at the heart of the largest environmental cleanup this country has ever undertaken. Interestingly, Michelle Gerber was trailing along behind our tour group, jotting down notes and chiming in on occasion. It’s too bad her knowledge of the environmental consequences of Hanford was not shared with visitors that day.

It wasn’t just the Columbia River that Hanford’s reactors filled with radioactive toxins. Smokestacks released the reactor’s toxic debris when winds were strongest. They were built 200 feet high so as not to contaminate the facility workers below. However, when production of plutonium reached its peak during the Cold War, plant operators were forced to ignore the wind patterns and released radioactive soot into the air throughout the day. Only two years into operation, radioactivity levels at two testing sites—as well as the nearby cities of Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, and Benton City—exceeded acceptable levels of radioactive contamination.

At certain periods, such as the December 1949 "Green Run," when raw uranium fuel slugs were being processed, winter storms hit the region causing heavy deposits of radioiodine (I-131) and Xenon (Xe-133) to rain down on local communities. Samples taken during the incident were 1,000 times the government’s recommended level. Towns 70 miles away, such as Walla Walla, registered high readings.

The product produced inside the B Reactor helped to kill countless people and the poisoning of the land, air, and water from this one facility outshines the catastrophe of Three Mile Island. Yet none of our guides on the tour shared any of this with us that day. 


Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005) and, along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland(AK Press, 2008). Photos are by Chelsea Mosher.