Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History



The B Reactor and surrounding buildings


  • Introduction


    The Atomic Heritage Foundation and the B Reactor Museum Association welcomes you to Hanford's iconic B Reactor.

    Cindy Kelly: Hello, I’m Cindy Kelly, President and founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I love history, and you are going to love this. You also will come to love science and engineering and the marvelous things that you will see at the B Reactor.

    The Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, was dedicated to getting a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. With the help of the B Reactor Museum Association and other friends, Congress passed the legislation in 2014, and today we have a three-site national park. The B Reactor here at Hanford is kind of the icon of the park at Hanford.

    What happened in the 1990s was that Congress said the Department of Energy should clean up all of the contaminated properties that they own, because of their work during World War II and the Cold War to build this arsenal of nuclear weapons. Of course, Hanford was very much involved in all that, and was quite contaminated.

    The B Reactor, one of nine reactors lining the Columbia River, was just swept up in this call to demolish. So the B Reactor is amazing. It’s still standing. It was supposed to be cocooned. That means they were going to take it all down to just the little core in the center and put an aluminum cap on, lock it up, and throw the key away. So they would leave it there for decades, cooling off.

    But, fortunately, people like the B Reactor Museum Association that was founded in 1990 with very dedicated engineers and scientists who had worked at Hanford for years and knew and appreciated the marvel of this B Reactor, the first in the world to reduce industrial-scale plutonium. It went from tiny, little microscopic quantities to this huge reactor and other facilities that were enabled to give them enough for the first atomic bomb.

    The B Reactor Museum Association and other allies in Tennessee and in Los Alamos, where the other two Manhattan Project centers were, we allied and got Congress to pass the legislation, and today you are able to come and see this marvelous thing.

    As an introduction, what follows is a whole series of very interesting things. You can refresh on what is this atomic fission and look at the piece called “A Is for Atom.” You can listen to Hank Kosmata, who is going to give you the history that started in the 1890s that led up to scientists knowing that there must be a lot of energy inside the atom, that if we could harness it, it could be used either as a huge weapon, or to fuel our energy’s needs for centuries to come.

    So sit back, tune in, and enjoy this programming, “Know Before You Go.” Have a great time when you come to the B Reactor. 

    Narrator: Welcome to B Reactor! Before your tour, there are a few people I’d like you to meet, a little history I’d like to share, some things I’d like to show you. Each will enhance your visit to this engineering marvel that was built in a little over 15 months. Let’s get started.

    Del Ballard: Hello, I’m Del Ballard, one of the founding members of the organization, the B Reactor Museum Association, or as we like to call it, BRMA. I’m a civil engineer and have worked on a number of the Hanford projects since my arrival in 1951.

    By the late 1980s, all reactor operations for plutonium production at Hanford had ended, and the Department of Energy was making plans to dispose of all the reactors. Their plan was to demolish everything on each site, except the structures around the reactor cores, and to roof over those structures with long-term, weatherproof materials. This would lock them away for at least 75 years in a process that they called cocooning. There were to be no exceptions. That was to be the fate of the B Reactor.

    Knowing the historical significance of B, and strongly believing that this history should be preserved, a number of us Hanford engineers and scientists decided to see if we could find a way to save B Reactor from the wrecking ball. Our first step was to form the organization called BRMA. That was in 1990. I have been an active member of that group since that time. I was secretary for the first five years, served as president in ’03 and ’04, and have been the organization’s treasurer since 2005. Our organization is now in the 26th year, and we were therefore extremely pleased to be a part of the ceremonies held last year to celebrate the signing of an agreement between the Department of Energy and the National Park Service. Now that we have a historical park, the preservation of B Reactor is assured.

    It is strongly recognized that B Reactor played a very significant role in bringing us to this point. We are very proud of that accomplishment and look forward to welcoming many new visitors to the reactor. Based on the many tours that BRMA members have guided through the reactor, we believe that the material we are making available to you in this section of the website will help you appreciate the amazing things that those nuclear pioneers accomplished. This material will help you understand how the reactor works, and thus will thereby enhance your future visit to the reactor.

    Gene Weisskopf: I’m Gene Weisskopf. I joined BRMA in 1995, was president from 2000 to 2002, and I’m currently the organization’s secretary.

    In 2000, BRMA accepted a major assignment from the Department of Energy to prepare what is called an “Historic American Engineering Record” for B Reactor. The official designation is HAER #WA164. I had the good fortune to be the lead writer and project coordinator for that project. It gave me an incredible opportunity to dig deeply into the history, the construction, and the operation of the reactor, and equally importantly, get to know many of the people who were intimately involved in the construction and early years of B Reactor.

    Since I had never worked at Hanford or in the nuclear industry, this was a whole new world for me, as most likely it will be to many of our expected new visitors. The 219-page HAER document was published in May of 2001. To the visitor who decides they want to know the B project in great detail, this is the ultimate source. In addition to a very detailed discussion of how the reactor is constructed and operated, there are many firsthand stories from people who were there at the beginning, which highlight significant issues during these activities. There is also a very large collection of engineering drawings and photos that are very helpful to supplement the writing. So, for the visitor that gets the B bug and wants to know it all, we have the book for you.

    Maynard Plahuta: Hi, I’m Maynard Plahuta. I’ve been a member of BRMA since 2005, and currently I’m the president of organization. I was employed by the Department of Energy for 35 years. In that process, I was heavily involved with the R&D contracting efforts, particularly the contract administration of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory here in the Hanford site.

    It’s important to recognize that the importance of the accomplishments made by the people setting up the B Reactor, and the construction and the construction management skills that were done during that time, are really a significant part of American history.

    I’m also excited to say that it was a pleasure to be working with Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. She, along with working on this project with local business leaders and governmental leaders and particularly the delegations from our state. I want to recognize specifically the effort that Congressman Hastings made in getting the legislation [Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act] into the House of Representatives, and the eventual passing of the legislation and signed by the president in 2014.

    I also want to recommend that you take advantage of some new exciting implementing information that we’re going to provide in conjunction with Cindy Kelly at the Atomic Heritage Foundation. We will be using her website, which is the Ranger in Your Pocket. The prime purpose of this effort will be to enable students particularly and their teachers to learn more about the reactor, and also give new-coming people visiting the site a heads-up as to what they will see when they get here and understand what they’ll see when they get here.

    I welcome very much all of you to join us at the B Reactor, and have a pleasant and wonderful time when you come. Thank you.

    Hank Kosmata: I’m Hank Kosmata. I became a member of BRMA in 2000, served as the president from 2006 to 2008, and I’m now the vice-president. I came to Hanford in 1954 to work as a reactor design engineer. I began work at a group called Reactor Design Analysis. At that time, the two K Reactors were under construction. Except for being larger in size and operational power level, these two reactors were essentially the same as B and the other five identical reactors then in operation.

    In 1955, my management asked me to take on a project of developing a conceptual design for the next production reactor, in the event one was determined to be required. This was an amazing assignment that allowed my access to many different engineering and scientific experts at Hanford, to request information from the number of experiments, and to visit many equipment manufacturers and development labs around the country, all for the purpose of obtaining the necessary information I needed to develop the reactor concept. I issued the conceptual design report in December of 1956. A year later, we were asked to build that reactor, which became the N Reactor, that last production reactor at Hanford, a dual-purpose reactor producing both plutonium and electrical power.

    I stayed with that project through the detailed design, the construction, and the early operating years. That whole experience gave me a great appreciation for those nuclear pioneers who a little over a decade earlier had been seeking the same kind of information, asking the same kind of questions, as they undertook the conceptual design and then the final design and then the construction of B and its early operation. Of course, I had the great advantage of all the information that had been gained from their first probe into a new world of science of engineering.

    This experience led me to BRMA, to join the effort to preserve this icon of American history, and to make it available, educational, and enjoyable to visitors like you. In 2004, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start-up of B Reactor, BRMA arranged for what we considered to be the first comprehensive extended tours of B Reactor, with busloads of visitors arriving all day. BRMA members were the tour guides. We started the tours with a history lesson that gave the visitor an understanding of the significant events in atomic physics over the 50 years before the start of the B project.

    We then explained to them the key physics reactions that occur in the reactor, and gave them an understanding of how the reactor worked, how it was controlled, how the fuel was loaded and discharged. In interviews with the departing visitors, we were told that these extended introductory explanations were very helpful to them, and greatly enhanced their visit.

    Now, we understand that all visitors have different levels of previous knowledge and different levels of desire as to the amount of details that they’re interested in hearing. For that reason, it’s difficult to design tours to meet the interest and needs of all visitors. Fortunately, we now have a way to deal with this issue.

    Our partner, Atomic Heritage Foundation, recently developed and released a wonderful website, “Ranger in Your Pocket.” And BRMA has its own website. These websites give us a platform to present a rather comprehensive background summary of information, which we believe will greatly enhance your future visit to B Reactor.

    The real advantage of the dedicated portion of the websites, “What You Know Before You Go, “is that each potential visitor can visit it at their leisure, examine parts of it as suits their own interest and knowledge, and experience and review parts of it more than once to fully prepare themselves. So that when they finally actually visit the reactor, they’ll have a real head-start and will be able to more fully appreciate the several models and exhibits BRMA has prepared, and will be able to better understand what really happened at this historic site.

    In this history lesson, we’ll be talking about atoms, electrons, neutrons, protons, ions, and isotopes. If your memory is hazy about some of these items, or if you’re one of the younger visitors who may not yet have been introduced to these concepts, we have a way of helping you.

    DuPont was in charge of designing, building, and the initial operation of B Reactor. Until the first atom bombs were used, very few of the thousands of their employees had any idea of the purpose of B, or how it worked, because of the security surrounding the project.

    DuPont had asked to be replaced as a prime contractor as soon as the war was over, and General Electric replaced them. Almost all of the workers stayed on when DuPont left, and GE brought in a new management team. GE soon realized that although they were now in the business of breaking and making atoms, it would be helpful if their workforce had a better understanding of the atomic world.

    To fix this, they commissioned the Walt Disney Company to make an animated film called “A Is for Atom.” We’ve included this film at the end of “What You Should Know,” and for those of you who want to learn or brush up on the basics, we recommend you jump ahead to that feature before you begin with the history section. 


    To return to the "Know Before You Go" tour, click the "Back to Tour" button at the top of this page.

Quick Fact:
Welcome to B Reactor! Prepare for your tour of the world's first industrial-scale nuclear reactor, built during the Manhattan Project at Hanford, WA.