Hanford B reactor now on list of potential National Park sites
WASHINGTON – The Hanford Reach reactor where engineers extracted plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki is now on the National Park Service’s list of potential historic parks.
In mid-October, President Bush signed legislation allowing the Park Service to study whether the Hanford B reactor and other facilities key to the Manhattan Project should become part of a national park. Hanford is the site of the first large-scale nuclear reactor, and it culled plutonium from tons of uranium for the world’s first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945.
“It’s a broad story with many facets,” said Del Ballard, a retired Hanford engineer and president of the B Reactor Museum Association in Richland. He described the reactor as the “crown jewel” among the site’s nuclear research milestones, many of which led the way for advances in medicine, energy and other fields, as well as the atomic threats of the Cold War.
The reactor building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. However, its preservation and public access to the site have varied under the Department of Energy, which controls waste cleanup projects and nine reactors across 586 square miles of southeastern Washington.
“The DOE does not want to be in the museum business,” said Cynthia Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. The study will address the feasibility of a national park, who would control the buildings within it, and how a park would be paid for, she said, adding she was happily surprised that the cash-strapped Park Service didn’t oppose the study at a Senate hearing.
“There are a lot of things to work out,” Kelly said, “but there’s no rush.”
If Congress approves funding for the study, it will be completed in two years. While the study is being conducted, the department will put on hold the possible destruction of the B reactor.
The Washington delegation worked on passing the study for more than a year, said Jessica Gleason, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco. But it is late in the political calendar to find the money to fund the study, which the Park Service estimates could cost as much as $750,000, she said. In coming weeks legislators will try to work the study into next year’s budget, but it will be delayed if funds are not set aside this year.
The Park Service has been reluctant to christen new parks in recent years, partly because of a backlog of unfunded maintenance projects at existing parks. If Hanford’s reactor and other Manhattan Project buildings fall under its control, Kelly said the Park Service would likely work with state and local entities to run them. A planned visitor center at Hanford Reach National Monument is an example of how that cooperation might work, she said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the area and would partly fund the center, but much of the cost would be paid by private donors and local governments.
Funding aside, the Park Service would still have to contend with a museum located in a large, remote area that is still the site of an enormous nuclear waste cleanup.
“Part of the issue at Hanford is that it’s a work in progress,” Kelly said. Much of the study’s money would go toward assuring the preserved areas are safe for visitors and would not be susceptible to terrorism.
Although some point out that Hanford B’s reactor core is still radioactive, Ballard said visiting the building is “safer than going in their own basement, in most cases.”
Presently, curious visitors can take boat rides on the Columbia to see the reactor, and some can tour the area with the permission of the DOE.