The Atomic Heritage Foundation recently received a donation of a historic video of the 25th anniversary celebration of the construction of the B Reactor at Hanford, WA. The video provides a fascinating retrospective of the Manhattan Project, and shows how the project’s leaders grappled with its legacy.
In 1943, construction began on the B Reactor at Hanford, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. B Reactor produced the plutonium that was used in the Trinity test “Gadget” device and the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It continued operating for several decades after the war, until February 1968.
On June 7, 1968, twenty-five years after construction began on B Reactor, Manhattan Project and Hanford Site leaders gathered at the reactor. The ceremony commemorated the important role B Reactor played in the Manhattan Project, and honored the scientists, administrators, and workers who designed, built, and operated it. Click here or scroll down to watch the video.
The Manhattan Project at Hanford
The program opens with historic video and photographs of Hanford, while a narrator describes the history and significance of the Hanford Site. Then the program switches to the ceremony. Top Manhattan Project and Hanford Site leaders participated in the event, including General Leslie R. Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project; Colonel Kenneth Nichols, who served as officer-in-charge at Hanford; and Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg, co-discoverer of plutonium and other elements and who was then the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. For part of the ceremony, the panel spoke in front of the massive front face of the B Reactor.
Seaborg opened the ceremony: “It’s a pleasure to be back here for this 25th anniversary reunion and see so many of my old friends, the people that were instrumental in making this project such a success.” He went on to recall the sense of urgency he and his fellow scientists felt while working on the Manhattan Project: “I felt that this was the only thing to do at the time. We sincerely thought that we were in a race with the Nazis. A nuclear station had been discovered in Germany. We thought that we were therefore in a race for survival. Whoever got the atomic bomb first would certainly have the upper hand.” General Groves agreed: “We would stop and think once in a while, ‘This is a terrible thing,’ but after all, an awful lot of American lives were involved.”
Colonel Matthias explained the challenges finding the perfect site for plutonium production: “One of the requirements was at least 100,000 kilowatts of power. Another requirement was a lot of cool fresh water. The requirements of the construction man, for a good site in a buildable area, was fundamental to them. The desirability of finding an area in which there were as few as possible number of people was also a factor to minimize the relocation problem.” Hanford and the surrounding towns were upended by the project. Native Americans and farmers were forced off their land, with minimal compensation. Neighboring towns Richland and Pasco mushroomed in size. New homes, schools, and every kind of facility had to be built quickly to support the burgeoning community.
General Groves elaborated on the reasons why Hanford was selected as the reactor site. “One was power, one was the Columbia River, and we were more fortunate in that than we realized when we made the choice. The other thing—which was all-important—was an ability to construct year round. Despite all the venomous remarks that have been made about the dust storms, you could work out there.
“The other thing that I think is important to remember is what made this project as a whole a success. Actually, it was the triumph of what I’ve always termed ‘The American Way of Life.’ I think one of the most important features in that was the role played by American management.” Groves, who also oversaw the construction of the Pentagon, understood the importance of maintaining amiable relationships with the American industrial companies he heavily relied upon—while making sure they understood that he was in charge. He persuaded DuPont to manage the Hanford project during the war, and many other corporations from Chrysler to Kellogg made vital scientific and engineering contributions to the Manhattan Project.
Why Did the Coyote Cross the Road?
Renowned physicist John Wheeler was the leading physicist in residence at Hanford during the war. He remembered, “How fast it all went is illustrated by the circumstance that the chairman of one of the very first committees in the early days of the Manhattan Project, when asked what his requirements would be, said that $5,000 ought to do for the year.” The Manhattan Project would end up costing $2 billion in 1945 dollars, or about $26 billion today.
Wheeler continued, “I could remember [Niels] Bohr saying that it would be impossible to think of making a weapon, that it would take the efforts of an entire country to do it. And little did he realize that it would be the efforts of three countries involved, England, Canada, and the United States.” Indeed, the Manhattan Project was an enormous collaborative project. Many scientists from the British Mission made key contributions, along with scientist refugees from Europe such as Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard.
Physical chemist Dale Babcock shared a funny story about Fermi, who was known for his sense of humor and performing mathematical calculations for fun. “Dr. Fermi asked us when we were crossing a certain five-mile area out here to note the number of coyotes that we saw crossing the road. Well, after Fermi had enough data on this, he told us that there was about one coyote to the square mile on the project out here. One day someone came in and said, ‘I hit a coyote today. How do I count it? Did it cross the road?’
“This was a very interesting item to Dr. Fermi. He says, ‘This becomes a collision probability.’ He did a little bit of arithmetic and he says, ‘Why, that says that the cross section of a coyote is only one square centimeter.’”
The Future of Nuclear Energy
Later on in the ceremony, scientists including Norman Hilberry, Lombard Squires, and Seaborg gave a technical overview of B Reactor. They also explained how the T plant worked, and how they settled on the bismuth phosphate process that was used in chemically separating the plutonium from the irradiated fuel rods.
In closing the ceremony, Seaborg waxed philosophical about the potential of nuclear energy: “The great potential power spilled forth from the nuclear furnaces of Hanford is now becoming the fire of the future. It’s the type of fire that will bring more people not only physical comforts, through heat, and light, and power, and water, and food—just to mention a few of the benefits—but a large measure of added knowledge and understanding. The time is not far off when clean, compact, competitive nuclear plants will be the conventional power plants of this day.”
Whether Seaborg was correct in his prediction about nuclear energy is yet to be seen. With concern over nuclear accidents like those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, nuclear power remains controversial in many countries. But in 1968, hope sprang eternal for the future of nuclear energy.
The Hanford 25th anniversary video was donated by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Claude Lyneis. The Atomic Heritage Foundation is grateful to Lyneis for sharing this program about the people who, as the narrator intones, “went into the desert and wrenched the energy from the heart of the atom.”