Doesn’t have the title something secretive in it? Does Manhattan Project not sound like another conspiracy theory?
The Manhattan Project was the code name for the events, science, people and engineering that led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Trinity was the code name for the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon and was part of the Manhattan Project. Little Boy and Fat Man were the code names for the two thermo-nuclear bombs dropped on the city of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan just three days apart from each other. While Little Boy was an Uranium-Bomb, the Plutonium for the Fat Man was produced in Hanford. Why Manhattan Project? The main project office was located in Manhattan. Don’t confuse it with the Philadelphia Experiment. The Manhattan Project had three major sites. Hanford Site, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
All three sites are now part of the National Park Service. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) continues to own, maintain and operate it’s Manhattan Project sites for public access while the National Park Service (NPS) provides visitor services at the project sites.
Here we want to focus on the Hanford Engineer Works aka Hanford Site. It is located on 586 square miles in Eastern Washington along the Columbia River. Hanford and White Bluffs, two small towns, used to exist on what is today called the Hanford Site. About 1500 residents of this two cities and native Americans were forced to leave their homes with almost no warning as the government took over the land in 1943. The world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor was built and operated here.
Why this location?
The Manhattan Project was top secret and the government wants to keep it that way. This location was ideal for a number of reasons:
- It is a very secluded location. As this was the world’s first reactor, nobody really knew what they are getting into and this would keep people save as it is far away from civilization, except for the people who got evicted from their homes.
- The Columbia River will provide cooling water for the reactor.
- Grand Coulee Dam just got finished a few years earlier and will provide the electricity for the site.
- The geology was perfect here to use local materials for construction.
Construction of the Facilities
Workers were needed to build the reactor and the support buildings. People from all over the country were hired for this project but due to its secrecy, only about 500 of the 51.000 construction workers knew what they were building. These many construction workers made Hanford the 4th largest “city” in Washington State. The construction camp had the largest general delivery post office in the world and the world’s largest trailer court. Construction at Handford Site started in October 1943.
In just eleven months the B Reactor and its support facilities for the extraction of uranium were built. The reactor went online in September 1944. The B Reactor was not the only reactor at Hanford. At its peak, Hanford had nine reactors (B Reactor, C Reactor, D Reactor, DR Reactor, F Reactor, H Reactor, K-East Reactor, K-West Reactor, and N Reactor) and five large plutonium processing complexes.
Only little is left from the towns located here before the construction. Hanford High School (the last building of the historic Town of Hanford), White Bluffs Bank (the last building of the historic Town of White Bluffs) and the old Bruggemann family orchard (a warehouse constructed of river-rock) are the only buildings still standing from the Pre-Manhattan Project era.
National Park Dedication
In November 2015 all three Manhattan Project sites were dedicated to the National Park System. None of the reactors at Hanford are in operation anymore. B Reactor was ultimately shut down in 1968 and was designated as a museum. The last reactor at Hanford shut down 1988. In 1990 workers began the process of “cocooning” the reactors. In this process, 80% of the reactor and its support structures will be demolished. The 20% left, which includes the reactor core itself, will be enclosed in water and airtight in concrete and steel for the next 75 years. This allows the radiation to decay to a safe level in which further dismantling can continue.
There are two tours offered at this location: The B Reactor Tour and the Pre-Manhattan Project Tour. Both tours run from around end of May to about mid of November each year. More info can be found on their website. Registration for one of the tours is available on the same website as well. Both tours are free of charge.
Visiting the Hanford Site
While I looked up the website for the current day to book a spot on the tour, the current day was not listed anymore. I decided to drive over to the Visitor Station instead to see what is on display there. Luckily I talked to one of the staff members and they were able to put me on the second tour of the day.
The B Reactor Tour operates from Monday through Saturday, while the Pre-Manhattan Project Tour mostly runs on Weekends. If you are planning to visit this site, make sure you book your spots ahead of time. It is only possible to do one tour a day as the tour times overlap and you won’t be able to do both on the same day.