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AFTER CROSSING MILES of desolate yellow landscape in southeastern Washington state, I halted at the base of a 120-foot behemoth, an enormous edifice of skillfully laid gray bricks holding the artifacts and the ambience of one of the world’s great scientific mysteries. In the long morning shadow cast by a mid-September sun, I shivered as I looked around Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where wartime engineers stealthily sculpted 390 tons of steel and cement to contain the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. With reverence, I stepped forward and began a Department of Energy-sanctioned tour of Hanford’s
B Reactor, which made the fuel for the first and the third atomic bombs.

The giant structure’s interior suggested an early Space Age science-fiction flick, a sarcophagus of nameless gadgets, flashing lights, and warning signs. I had barely drawn my first breath of dank, musty air when I encountered a bronze bust of Colonel Franklin T. Matthias of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who selected the Hanford site and oversaw
B Reactor’s construction.

Washington may call itself the “Evergreen State,” but the region Matthias encountered in December 1942 was the opposite: a wind-whipped semidesert nurturing little more than sagebrush. Sparse population, an established rail line, safe distance from the vulnerable coast, and access to high volumes of power and water from the Columbia River made Hanford the perfect lab for one of the costliest and riskiest science experiments ever. The terrain—sand and gravel that had washed westward in ice age floods from what is now Montana and come to rest on a thick layer of basalt—made an ideal base for colossal concrete structures.

Standing in the way of construction were a few hundred agricultural entrepreneurs. In the 35 years since their arrival, these hardy growers had harnessed the Columbia, America’s fourth largest river, to irrigate plots of dusty shrub-steppe into orchards and fields that yielded apples, grapes, peaches, pears, strawberries, asparagus, and dryland wheat. The fruits of this cornucopia went to Seattle, 200 miles northwest—that is, until March 1943, when the government informed Hanford-area farmers that under eminent domain an important but unnamed war effort would claim more than 400,000 acres. By June, the agricultural burgs of White Bluffs and Hanford had been plowed under, leaving little more than the name Hanford.

Tour docents seated my group in B Reactor’s makeshift classroom, stirring foggy memories of my high school physics class as they explained how, in 1938, scientists split the nuclei of the element uranium, releasing energy in a reaction called fission. In June 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project, assigning the Corps of Engineers to build clandestine, secure laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to wrangle that energy into a weapon.

Hanford joined the Manhattan Project roster six months later. Scientists knew that plutonium, a recently discovered man-made element, was not only fissionable but easier to isolate for explosive use than naturally occurring uranium. The trick was making enough plutonium. In December 1942, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist working in the United States, achieved the first controlled chain nuclear reaction, providing a practicable method.

The result towered before us: a 36-by-36-by-28-foot block of graphite, encased in steel and run through with a network of 2,004 horizontal aluminum tubes. To operate the 1,200-ton reactor, engineers slid thousands of eight-inch slugs of uranium metal fuel into the tubes and manipulated reaction speeds. The result: plutonium. The transformation took an average of 100 days, after which workers cooled the irradiated slugs and shipped them by rail 10 miles south to T Plant. At that facility chemical baths extracted the astonishingly small amount of plutonium; each ton of processed uranium yielded eight ounces of weapons-grade stuff.

With class dismissed, we visitors could ramble on our own, armed with only a crude map and adjurations to tread carefully. “When they built this great facility, it was not planned for tourism,” warned docent Larry Haler, who retired in 2011 after 38 years at Hanford. All evidence seconds that caution; from the pervasive chill to endless gauges measuring everything from humidity to radiation levels, B Reactor screams, “Watch it!”

The maze of now-deserted hallways and rooms, decommissioned in 1968, was a project of the DuPont Company, which in spring 1943 recruited tradesmen nationwide to build a heavy industrial complex in secret. To accommodate the swarm of workers—45,000 in June 1944—DuPont laid out the world’s largest trailer park and built gender-segregated barracks. A temporary town, Hanford Engineer Works, became the country’s largest voting precinct. Hanford had a brewery, machines able to whip up 1,080 sandwiches an hour, and a baseball league made up of teams representing each trade. Hardly anyone working on the project knew its purpose; rumors ranged from airplane fuel to nylon stockings.

An astute visitor will notice that all clocks on the premises read 10:48, the moment on the night of September 26, 1944, when the reactor achieved fission for the first time. In February 1945, army officers aboard passenger trains discreetly relayed a stainless steel flask holding 3.5 ounces of semi-liquid plutonium to bomb designers at Los Alamos. By June, Hanford had shipped the bombsmiths enough plutonium to build two 13.6-pound softball-sized cores. One was used in the Trinity Test device, detonated at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, the other in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped August 9 on Nagasaki, Japan Three days before, uranium-fueled “Little Boy” had wreaked havoc at Hiroshima.

In the reactor’s valve room, I clambered across metal walkways from which engineers monitored a cooling system designed to pipe nearly 30,000 gallons of Columbia River water a minute through the reactor to prevent overheating. Water entered at 50-some degrees Fahrenheit and a minute later flowed out at about 140 degrees. A retention station cooled the irradiated water for three or four hours before dumping it back into the Columbia, to latter-day environmentalists’ dismay.

Elaborate methods for running the cooling system in a power failure got a test on March 10, 1945, when a Japanese incendiary balloon bomb struck a power line 35 miles south of the reactor. The reactor shut down for only seconds before a coal-fired steam system had the coolant flowing again.

Although B Reactor is best known for its World War II role, an abundance of mint green paint and late-model gas masks confirm that the Cold War kept the operation running into the 1960s. In 1968, B Reactor became the fifth of Hanford’s eight original reactors to close, eclipsed by N Reactor, which stopped producing plutonium in 1987, ending Hanford’s active life. Contractor Mission Support Alliance, which restored
B Reactor for public visitation, started offering tours in 2009. Competition for a seat on the bus is stiff, but access will likely expand: last November, the Hanford site, along with its Oak Ridge and Los Alamos relatives, officially joined the national park system, as the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

For now, tourists interested in Hanford beyond B Reactor have to settle for blurred glimpses through a tour bus window. Every few miles a cocooned concrete facility or an ill-fated field of blackened stumps interrupts the monotony with a reminder of the region’s defense and agrarian pasts.

Although the nuclear complex erased the original farming communities, Richland, a town on the site’s southern border, grew from 250 residents when DuPont arrived to more than 15,000 by the time a special August 6, 1945, edition of the Richland Villager revealed Hanford’s secret. Richland and nearby Pasco and Kennewick now make up the Tri-Cities, Washington’s fourth largest metropolitan area. The complex at Hanford still dominates the local economy; a large number of residents work in the decades-long and continuing environmental clean-up or at scientific enterprises that pepper the dusty acreage. And World War II still resonates in rows of cookie-cutter houses built to shelter that first generation of engineers, and in fans’ “Proud of the Cloud!” cheers for Richland High athletic teams—all of them known as the Bombers.