Gumbo Tours the Beast: Infamous B-Reactor At Hanford, Washington

The author at the control officer's station at the world's first full-scale plutonium production reactor.

The author at the control officer’s station at the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor – now accessible to the public at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

In the scale of human endeavor, we have virtually raced – stumbled perhaps – into the implementation of nuclear fission-based technologies, often at our peril. Having recently completed one of the Department of Energy’s remarkable tours of the B-Reactor at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, this observer was compelled to question where stands the technology which offers so much promise, yet, 70 years ago, consumed well over 300,000 lives in its convulsive birth and appalling entrance on the geopolitical stage.

From the perspective of Hanford’s concrete “coffins”, it is sobering to recall that the benefits of advancing mankind’s ability to power our endeavors from the forces locked within the atom were in many ways only the spin-off of a breakneck project dedicated to plutonium…to death. Shortly after the discovery of fission by Ds. Hahn, Strassman and Meitner in 1938, sketches of a bomb allegedly appeared on other nuclear physicists’ blackboards –  before a reactor concept, and long before a power generating scheme. The danger inherent in the newly discovered natural process was so obvious from the beginning, that two of the three discoverers disassociated themselves from the work and pledged to resist development of weapons which might be derived from fission or its products. Strassman and Meitner’s resistance was ultimately for naught; we know what ghastly devices soon followed their discovery.

The technology created around the fission phenomenon has justifiably been tainted by this deadly association, and from the well-documented gross failures at several notorious reactors. It is absolutely prudent to tread with extreme caution in the nuclear arena, but equally imprudent, in the face of mankind’s inexorable march toward greater energy consumption, to abandon the only known technology that offers the potential to replace dangerous fossil-fueled power generating systems on a scale large enough to make a difference in the headlong pace of carbon emissions.

As we have woefully seen, the consequences of a nuclear misstep can be catastrophic, but so, too, can getting fission-based power generation right be beneficial. The human family produces approximately 10% of its electricity from fission, the US about 20% and France generates 75% of its power from nuclear reactors. If those numbers rise with the successful engineering of quantitatively safer, more reliable reactor and waste containment technologies, then we and our environment will benefit. The creatures of this planet currently face the deterioration of their – our – atmosphere’s life-sustaining properties from oil, gas and coal emissions; not to mention a long list of major environmental dangers associated with solid, liquid and gas resource extraction, transportation and storage. If we refuse to accept alternative energy sources, including new fourth generation high temperature, low pressure, low fissile closed loop fuel reactors, then we must accept a far greater risk to the global environment than we will likely ever face from the failure of an intelligently designed fission reactor or allied systems.

Most rational people do not balk at stepping into the cabin of an aircraft which will soon carry them at fatal speeds, to fatal heights, in fatal temperatures. When we step aboard the airliner we balance the risk of a failure against the benefits of aerospace technology. The nature of engineering is to minimize such risks to insignificant levels. It is what we as a species do, and in the case of the fearsome power of fission, must continue to do even if the technical challenges intrinsic in the safe, responsible operation of reactors are daunting…or even if the legacy of the wastes, the failures, or even the ghosts of so many innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki threaten to haunt us into inaction. Indeed, those ghosts should goad us into an overwhelming effort to eliminate destructive nuclear devices and the mechanisms specific to their construction, to eliminate stockpiles of plutonium, and to restrict production and enrichment of nuclear isotopes beyond what is necessary only for peaceful purposes.

Leaving Hanford, it was difficult not to salute the pluck of our forbearers, who first faced the Hanford Reach with nothing but an impossible, incomprehensible dream in mind – no matter how disgusted one might be at the horrific nature of what they wrought or the filthy legacy of what they left behind. To paraphrase what Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer prize-winning author, said in his lecture at Richland the night before the tour: “We may never witness the trust, coördination and close coöperation of science, government, and industry that we witnessed here again.” Yet in a world calling for more, safer, and environmentally sound applications of power generating technologies descended from what they infamously pioneered there seven decades ago, we must.

If we are to responsibly slip a harness on this beast, we must add another line to Mr. Rhodes’s list of cooperating entities: an educated, open-minded populace.

On April 1st of this year, the Department of Energy resumed tours of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation including the historic B-Reactor and other facilities. A visitor there will not find an answer to the challenges facing the nuclear industry, but he/she will gain valuable insight into the nature – the feel, if you will – of the technology. The tour is  approximately four hours in length and includes two hours in the B-Reactor building and its control room. Tours continue through September 18. There is no fee for the tour, and there is absolutely no danger of exposure to radiation. Tickets may be obtained only by registering on http://www.hanford.gov. Or call 509 376-1647. While visiting the website you might want to review the link describing progress of the Manhattan Project waste clean-up program.

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