40 for 40: Benton County
Hanford B Reactor

By Holly Chamberlainprevious story | next story | all stories

Placed on the Washington Trust's Most Endangered Historic Properties list in 2004, the 1944 B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland is one of the youngest yet most significant resources for which the Trust has ever advocated.

The back story behind this National Historic Engineering Landmark and National Historic Landmark is now well-known, but was once one of the most secure secrets imaginable. World War II military realities caused the federal government to establish the Hanford Engineer Works in 1943, along with its Manhattan Project partners at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Project purposefully separated the sites to keep their mission of creating an atomic bomb classified. Thousands of people were recruited to work at the sites without knowing the nature of their endeavors.

Hanford’s geographic remoteness, geological advantages, and riverside setting made it a logical location for an enterprise requiring secrecy, flat building sites, sand and aggregate for construction of large concrete structures, and huge amounts of water for cooling reactors. Those attributes in wartime overrode the rights of the approximately 1500 residents who were removed from their farms and small communities in the 625 square miles acquired by the government for the swiftest possible construction of the B Reactor and the many other necessary and also significant ancillary facilities. As the first full-scale, self-contained plutonium production reactor in the nation, the B Reactor is a symbolic nexus for the nuclear energy-related activities of the wartime era, and many of the ensuing Cold War industrial ones as well.

The gradual shift over time from Hanford as nuclear industrial production and research locus to cleanup site raised questions for preservationists as well as site managers. What structures, if any, does one try to save at a place that is immensely historically-significant but highly contaminated? Is there a point to saving buildings that the vast majority of the public might never see? When does environmental remediation overshadow using historical sites for public education? Do you document and record and then demolish or mothball? (How does one mothball nuclear reactors? Plywood over the windows just doesn’t cut it.) Are there any ways to make it possible for people to visit safely? Hanford’s clean up mission, officially begun in 1989, has become historic in its attempts to create answers to those questions.

The Washington Trust’s role in this process was to work with governmental, political, and grassroots partners to help raise awareness of these questions and seek answers through Most Endangered status. President George W. Bush signed a bill in November, 2004 requiring a federal study about the possible addition of Manhattan Project sites to the national park system. The Washington Trust advocated for this, along with the B Reactor Museum Association, Department of Energy decision-makers, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and then-Representative Doc Hastings. The B Reactor was removed from the Most Endangered list in 2008 because the study had recommended including the property in a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, along with sites in the other “secret cities” of Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. In December 2014, legislation sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell was passed to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the Washington Trust listed that achievement as one of the "Best Moments in Preservation" for 2014. Park planning is underway, but the public can already tour the B Reactor and see its intact control room and exhibits.

The unprecedented successful construction and operation of the B Reactor was one of the most significant international engineering and scientific accomplishments of the 20th century. The far-reaching cultural, moral, and environmental implications of its task of producing weapons-grade plutonium have left a complex legacy of the interaction of humans with each other and the planet for current and future generations to manage and interpret. 

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights many of our programs and shows just how much need there is for strong preservation connections across the state. If you would like to support our work and spur more positive outcomes for Washington's historic resources, please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust to support the advocacy work we do. Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

Here's to 40 more years of saving places that matter across Washington! Please sign up for our special weekly e-newsletter to recieve stories like this in your inbox all year long.

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