Manhattan Project National Historical Park – The Hanford Site

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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 a 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 its 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 these 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 in 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.

Manhattan Project Visitor Station

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.

This site’s sole purpose is to tell the history of this location, the United States, and even the world. This location had a direct impact on the outcome of World War II. That is the goal at all three Manhattan Project sites.

B Reactor Tour

A bus will take you from the visitor station (2000 Logston Blvd, Richland, WA 99354) on a 45-minute bus ride out to the B Reactor on the Hanford Site. After arriving you will head inside to the front face of the reactor. There you get a short video presentation and an in-depth explanation of how the reactor works by one of the docents on site. They explained and showcased the concept behind this graphite-moderated single-pass water-cooled reactor so well, it almost lets you build your own. If questions arise during the presentation you can ask and the docents will happily answer your questions.

B Reactor Map (Courtesy of National Park Service)

Can you imagine standing where they used to load the reactor with uranium fuel? I never expected to be able to, but yes you can. After that, you will head on a short walking tour where the docents explain the different stations throughout the reactor building. The docents are amazing and try to add some fun to their stories which makes it even more interesting.

After the short walking tour, you are free to roam around inside the reactor building and have a closer look at all the different stations again and ask the docents many more questions. My highlights of the building were the front face of the reactor, the valve pit, and the control room. There is a way to look at the rear face of the reactor, where they pushed out the fuel cells to send them out for further processing to get the plutonium out of them. You can only look at the rear face through a window, you cant actually stand there like at the front face.

Outside of the B Reactor, you can take a closer look at one of the rail cars used to transport the fuel cells and get the opportunity to get good photos from the reactor building itself.

Pre-Manhattan Project Tour

The tour starts at the same location as the B Reactor Tour and you will use the same route to get to the Hanford Site. From there on out, everything changes. You will make a few stops along the route which will take you back to the visitor station. The first stop is at the Brugemann Homestead. You get to know more about the history of the family who lived here and get to see the remainders of the farm’s warehouse. All the other buildings are gone. The warehouse is fenced in as it is not safe to go inside. The fence doesn’t make for good photos either, I wish there would be an alternative solution.

The bus ride continuous and will take you past the B-Reactor further down towards a pump station of the Hanford Irrigation and Power Company (HIPC). This pump station was used to pump water out of the Columbia River into the Hanford Ditch, a water channel running from here down to Hanford to irrigate the fields of the farms. From this location, you get a good look at the K West and K East Reactors.

HIPC Pumphouse

On your way to the last standing building of the Town of White Bluffs, you will pass it first and make a stop at the White Bluffs Ferry Landing before returning to it. People used to cross the river here with a ferry and you can see the remainders of the boat ramp. This site is not publicly accessible but you can go and drive to the other side of the ferry landing and it is open to the public. On top of the nearby pole is an Osprey nest. Keep your eyes open and you might see one in the nest of flying around.

As mentioned, the bus will turn around at the ferry landing and stop at the last, still standing, building of White Bluffs. The 2018 Tour season is the first season ever people get actually to go inside the bank building and see what it looked like. The Department of Energy restored the building and it is now safe again. There is still work to be done on the interiors and they will keep working on it to restore it as close as possible to its original state. The frame of the vault door went missing a long time ago. A duplicate was created off a still existing vault of the same type and is currently undergoing its final touches before being installed in the bank. It’s amazing what they did to the building when you look at the photos of how they found it.

On your way to the last remaining building of the Town of Hanford, you pass the D and DR Reactors. Hanford’s last remaining building is the High School building which got used as the administrative office during the construction of the B Reactor and its support facilities. When you stand in front of the high school you see only a dessert with not much around it. Imagine that around 50,000 people used to live here during the construction of the reactor. This was the location of the work camp with a size of about 2 miles by 3 miles.

The High School Building was the last stop on our tour and from there on we headed back to the visitor station in Richland. On our way back we saw elks out in the shrub-steppe desert and the docents pointed out LIGO and the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF).

This tour really gives you a glimpse into the past and what it was to live out here. The docents were very knowledgeable and shared many details about life in this area. Gene and Kevin led this tour and showcased all the buildings and brought back history. Kevin was also one of the docents on my B Reactor Tour.

In addition to the Tours

The visitor station showcases some of the gifts you can buy at Whimzees. Whimzees is located at the very far end of the building. When you walk out of the visitor station make a left and follow the sidewalk all the way down to the end of the building. There are some signs too leading to the gift shop. Check your tour times as the gift shop might be closed when you get back. You can find some interesting SWAG there like patches, T-Shirts, and even a vial of graphite dust for the hardcore fans.

After a four-hour tour, you are probably hungry and thirsty. If you visit the Shrub Steppe Smokehouse Brewery next door, you get 10% off the price when you tell them you took one of the tours.

Additional Tour: Hanford Site Cleanup Tour

In addition to the tours offered by the National Park Service, the government offers a tour for US-Citizens only to see the progress of the ongoing cleanup efforts at the Hanford Site.

These tours run on a very different schedule than the one offered by the National Park Service. Check the Hanford Site Cleanup Tours website for the schedule and all the detailed information. Registration for the tour can be done on the same website. However, a limited amount of walk-in spots are available during every tour.

The Cleanup tour lasts about 5 hours and is subject to immediate cancellation at any time due to unanticipated circumstances.

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