B Reactor

Hanford’s B Reactor, the worlds first industrial-scale nuclear reactor, has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. The announcement was made at the reactor on August 25, 2008, by U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett and U.S. Department of Energy Acting Deputy Secretary Jeffrey F. Kupfer. The National Park System Advisory Board had voted unanimously on July 21, 2008, to nominate B Reactor to the Landmark status, and the nomination was subsequently approved by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

B Reactor had previously been recognized as a National Engineering Historic Landmark and a Nuclear Historic Landmark. It now joins Mount Rushmore and the White House as one of America’s most important historic sites. National Historic Landmark recognition has been granted to fewer than 2,500 sites in the United States.

B Reactor was built in 13 months as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II to produce plutonium for an atomic bomb. Construction began on June 7, 1943, six months after physicist Enrico Fermi demonstrated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. B Reactor produced plutonium for the first atomic explosion, the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and for the bomb that was exploded on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, helping to bring an end to World War II.

Four other Manhattan Project sites also have been recognized with Landmark status: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory where the atomic bombs were developed, the Trinity test site in New Mexico, the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Enrico Fermi’s Chicago Pile 1.

B Reactor operated until 1968, when it was shut down and decommissioned. Although the eight other defunct Hanford plutonium production reactors are being “cocooned” as part of the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Site, efforts have been underway since 1989 to preserve B Reactor as a public museum. Improvements to the facility have been made with that goal in sight. The new recognition of its historic significance opens the door for increased public tours and moves it closer to becoming a museum. Seasonal tours of B Reactor offered by the Department of Energy draw visitors from around the country and world. The tours are so popular that online registration fills up in a matter of minutes. For tour information, see B Reactor Tours.

Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian, said, “Before B Reactor there was nothing like it, and since B Reactor nothing has been the same.”


The B Reactor Museum Association (BRMA) was organized in 1991 as a non-profit corporation in Richland, Washington. Our primary mission is to preserve the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear reactor, the B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Site, as a public-access museum. As an historic artifact that changed the world by the production of plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb and for succeeding nuclear weapons, its significance cannot be overstated.

The vision of the BRMA is the long-term preservation and curation of the B Reactor, with public accessibility for unrestricted tours. The museum exhibits will include historic artifacts, dioramas, photographs, films, slide shows, videos, and oral histories. These displays will be primarily about B Reactor, but will also address the natural and cultural history of the Hanford Site, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, and the construction and development of Hanford and the Manhattan Project.

The museum will be within the 105-B reactor building itself and a nearby interpretive center, both near the east end of a proposed State park. The new park will include the south shore of the Columbia River extending from the Vernita rest area on State Highway 240 eastward to the 100-B Area—a distance of about four miles. The park area, the road providing access from Highway 240 (known as Route 6), and the museum and interpretive center will be fenced off from the adjacent restricted-access areas of the Hanford Site. Initially, visitors will travel to the museum by tour bus from Richland or by private automobile via Route 6. In the future, visitors will also be able to reach the museum from Richland by tour trains across the Hanford Site and by tour boats on the Columbia River.

Historical and Scientific Significance

When the United States entered WW II in December 1941, nuclear power was no more than a theory. Driven by the urgency of war, nuclear research rushed ahead at an unprecedented pace. In less than a year, Enrico Fermi turned theory into reality when, on December 2, 1942, in the concrete rooms and hallways under the athletic stadium at the University of Chicago, his graphite and uranium “pile” demonstrated that a nuclear chain reaction could be sustained and controlled. Soon after, the United States government began the Manhattan Project—a top secret, nationwide effort to win the race against Germany to produce the first nuclear weapons.

Within weeks of the Chicago demonstration, President Roosevelt gave his approval for the plan to produce larger versions of the Fermi reactor. Several sites were studied, but Hanford was chosen as the ideal location. The population of the villages of Richland, White Bluffs, and Hanford and their surrounding farms was small and isolated. The Columbia River provided the millions of gallons of water that would be needed to cool the reactors each day, and the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams supplied the electrical power the project demanded.

In March 1943, work began at Hanford. What occurred during the next eighteen months was one of the greatest scientific, engineering, and construction efforts ever attempted. Some 95,000 workers were recruited from throughout the nation to build the needed facilities.

Construction of B Reactor began June 7, 1943, just six months after the Fermi demonstration. The reactor was completed and first started up on the evening of September 26, 1944. As stated by a national engineering society, “The research work, engineering, and planning required to make the reactor operate should be included in history as one of man’s most brilliant scientific and advanced engineering achievements.”

B Reactor produced the plutonium for the first ever manmade nuclear explosion—the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The second atomic bomb used in WW II contained plutonium produced by B Reactor. That bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and has often been credited with bringing about the final surrender of Japan, and ending the war that stands as one of the greatest human tragedies. The history of these achievements and events must be preserved for our children and future generations.

National Recognition

B Reactor was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on April 3, 1992, by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior. The reactor was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1976 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ History and Heritage Committee. In October 1993, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the B Reactor a National Civil Engineering Landmark. In 1992, the American Nuclear Society presented the Nuclear Historic Landmark Award to the B Reactor.

Because the B Reactor has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the DOE must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (16 USC 470) prior to taking any action on the historic site. For further details on the requirements, refer to the Phase I Feasibility Study Report, BHI-00076.

Administrative and Physical Status

Plutonium production at the B Reactor ended in 1968, when the reactor was shut down and decommissioned. The reactor is currently functioning as a controlled-access museum in the 100-B/C Area of the Hanford Site. It is owned and controlled by the DOE, and managed by the Bechtel Hanford Corporation, the prime contractor for Environmental Restoration at Hanford.

After preliminary studies of the B Reactor, the DOE recommended that the building be set aside as a museum, to be opened to the general public at a future but unspecified date. Public tours have been conducted during recent years on an infrequent, pre-planned, and scheduled basis, limited to adults cleared through Hanford security. Tours depart from downtown Richland, generally in government-provided transportation. Government personnel open the building and turn on ventilation and lights as required.

Public entry is permitted to several areas of the reactor. As safety studies are completed and their recommendations are implemented, more areas will be opened to the public.

In 1995, a report entitled 105-B Reactor Facility Museum Phase I Feasibility Study Report (BHI-00076), was prepared for the DOE, in which six alternative plans were evaluated (A through F). The report concludes that the use of the reactor as a museum is feasible. It describes several cleanup and physical improvements to the facility and surrounding area, including improvement of the access road from State Highway 240.

Alternative E describes the development of a day-use park, with river access and a cultural center. The report also recommends that a more detailed “Phase II” study be conducted that would further define the work needed and associated costs to preserve and convert the building for unrestricted public access and enhanced educational opportunities. That report is scheduled to be completed before September 2000.

Phasing in the Museum and Interpretive Center

Use of the 105-B Reactor as a museum with full public access can be accomplished with relatively minor modifications and improvements to the building. Some safety and access modifications will be necessary, including roof repairs, ventilation, fire protection, building accessibility, water quality, and barriers and signs along the tour routes. These building upgrades are described in the Phase I Feasibility Study, and will be further defined and their costs estimated in the Phase II study.

The BRMA recommends that an area of about 3,000 acres be set aside to protect the reactor and the land around it for future use as a cultural and historic preserve. Zoning of this land must be addressed early on to preserve it for future park and recreational use. Land use designation must also consider adequate buffer zones for the land around the anticipated cultural, historic, and recreational activities. One very welcome turn of events finds the B Reactor part of a proposed High-Intensity Recreation zone in the final draft of the DOE’s Hanford Comprehensive Land-Use Plan Environmental Impact Statement.

The grounds around the reactor that are currently enclosed by a chain link fence should be changed as little as possible, in order to retain the austere look that was originally dictated by a fast-moving wartime program when the reactor was built.

The museum project will likely be completed in phases as budgets permit. The BRMA envisions that volunteer help will be used as much as possible. In Phase 1, two paid staff will be required, with volunteers used for overflow crowd conditions, and a third paid staff will be needed in Phase 3. A four-phase scenario for the development follows:

Phase 1

Improved road access to the reactor and limited staffing of the facility are required to provide for routine public access. The preferred access road to the site, Route 6, will be fenced off and improved with signs. There will be a lockable gate near the intersection with State Highway 240. Minimal improvements will be made to the existing parking lot at the reactor. Except for the restrooms, the areas in the building currently open for tours are most likely satisfactory for handicapped and wheelchair visitors.

A cultural preserve and public access corridor will be developed along the Columbia River. This will be an area bounded by the river on the north, Route 6 on the south, and extending from Highway 240 eastward about 4 miles to and including the area surrounding the 105-B building. This area will provide opportunities for picnicking and interpretation of important natural and cultural resources.

The museum will be open during the warm months of the year, and closed during the winter months when a reduced visitor load and poor weather would not justify the operating costs.
There will be appropriate signs on State Highway 240 at the Route 6 entrance near the Vernita rest stop, and signs along the road leading to the museum. Museum brochures will be distributed at selected visitor facilities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Promotional material will also be sent to schools and other interested organizations.

The first phase will focus on preparing the B Reactor interior for a tour program. The floor plan at the end of this document shows the major areas to be open to the public, which include the B Reactor Orientation Room, the Instrument Repair Room, the Valve Room, the Fan Room, the Reactor Front Face, the Accumulator Room, the Control Room, the Spent Fuel Basin, the Lunch Room, the Restrooms, and the hallways connecting those areas.

The B Reactor Orientation Room, immediately inside the front entrance, will include seating for a short orientation video. A full-time receptionist will provide information and operate a small Hanford and B Reactor gift shop.

A guide will be available for those who wish a conducted tour. A museum tour map will be available for those who desire a self-conducted tour. Each area will have an automated audio explanation, slide show, laser show, or video presentation, activated by the push of a button. Audio tape players will be available, with tapes in various languages that explain the history and technology of the major reactor areas.

Exhibits will be added to those presently in the reactor building. The emphasis will be on interactive and computer-controlled exhibits, which will be programmed especially for elementary and secondary-school age visitors. Suitable lighting will be provided, and printing on exhibits will be appropriate for those with corrected vision.

Where possible, dioramas will reflect the mood of the time when the reactor was first started. Furniture in the building will be reminiscent of the middle 1940s. Manikins will be posed as if performing jobs in areas such as the fuel-loading elevator at the reactor front face, the control room and adjoining offices, and in the spent fuel basin. Calendars and all print material will reflect the early days of the reactor.

Phase 2

The guard shack will be built at the gate through the reactor’s perimeter fence, and prepared as a diorama of the early reactor days, with appropriate signs, manikins, and furniture.

n early 1997, discussions began between the BRMA, the Washington Historical Railroad Society, Bechtel, and DOE regarding the possibility of static (immovable) rail displays adjacent to B Reactor. These would include a set of railcars and engines on parallel tracks some ten or twenty feet apart at the back of B Reactor, and maintained and labeled as part of the overall B Reactor exhibits. Visitors would be allowed access to the railcars. This display could be incorporated into any phase of the project, but BRMA suggests Phase 2 might be the appropriate time.

Phase 3

An interpretive center, with operating times the same as the museum, will be constructed near the site of the historic Bruggeman warehouse (not far from the river between the reactor and Highway 240). The center will be staffed by a receptionist/sales person. There will be a small sales area for print material related to the history of the Manhattan Project, postcards, and memorabilia reminiscent of the era. A small theater will offer a variety of visitor-selected orientation videos. The exhibits will focus on the history of the area up to the present, including geologic development, native Americans, early settlers, farm and irrigation development, the Hanford and White Bluffs towns, and the Manhattan Project.

The interpretive center will have a view of the Columbia River and be equipped with tables, chairs and vending machines for snacks. It will double as a rest area and will be accessible to the handicapped. Adjacent to this viewing area will be a Hanford Reach exhibit.

Phase 4

A picnic area will be developed near the interpretive center, with a view of the Columbia river. Some of the picnic tables will have sun and prevailing-wind shelters.

A public-access boat ramp would be built, along with fishing, and related day-use facilities. It is expected that overnight camping accommodations will eventually be provided, along with the necessary support facilities, such as restrooms and showers.

Rail and river tours to the B Reactor would be developed, capitalizing on the stunning landscapes and rich historical foundation of the Mid-Columbia desert and Columbia River.
The rail tour of Hanford would run between Richland and the B Reactor on one of the railroad spurs. The tour would offer Hanford history and shrub-steppe habitat presentations on a leisurely train ride to the reactor. Special dinner events have also been suggested for the tour train. This idea has been discussed with the Port of Benton and several other agencies in the Tri-Cities, and the responses have been positive.

The idea becomes even more attractive when coupled with the possibility of jet boat tours of the river. Visitors to B Reactor arriving by train would return by boat, and those arriving by boat would return by train.

Funding and Management

The entire Hanford Nuclear Site is property of the U.S. Department of Energy, which is responsible for any decisions concerning the final disposition of B Reactor. Funding to modify the facility for public use may need to come from sources outside the DOE.

The Phase I Feasibility Study shows that the cost of converting B Reactor to a museum is about one-twelfth the cost of dismantling it (the fate of Hanford’s other eight reactors). That cost ratio is based on accomplishing all of the enhancements discussed in the Feasibility Study relative to the reactor, river access, and a cultural center.

BRMA is striving to identify sources of private and non-DOE government funding to help support the conversion and operation of a B Reactor museum. A substantial number of ex-Hanford workers and other publicly minded individuals are available to provide volunteer technical and physical support for making the museum a reality. Once the required clean up and improvements are completed, operation of the museum will be assigned to a federal agency like the National Park Service or a state agency.

BRMA has provided much input on the long-term use of B Reactor and other Hanford property when sought by DOE. Such discussions are continuing, both formally and informally. We welcome all opportunities to work with the DOE and its contractors in furtherance of our goal of converting B Reactor into a world-class museum.

The Hanford Reach — the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States — extends 51-miles upstream from Richland, Washington, largely bordering the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The Reach and some 195,000 acres of land along the river were designated the Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000. Much of the land has been a buffer zone, undisturbed since the early 1940s, for the former plutonium production site.

Eighty percent of upper Columbia River fall chinook salmon spawn in the Hanford Reach. The biologically diverse landscape of the monument is the largest remnant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem that once blanketed the Columbia River Basin. The land supports several species of rare insects and plants and is home to many birds and mammals. In addition, hundreds of prehistoric archeological sites have been found on monument land, making it especially important to regional Native American tribes.

The Hanford Reach National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in coordination with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Proclamation establishing the Hanford Reach National Monument

B Reactor has received broad recognition for its historical importance:

  • In 1976 it was listed as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  • In 1992 the National Park Service entered the reactor into the National Register of Historic Places.
  • In 1993 the American Nuclear Society presented the Nuclear Historic Landmark Award to the reactor.
  • In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers named it a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
  • In 2008 the National Park Service designated it a National Historic Landmark.

Hanford’s Historic B Reactor slide show

BRMA’s 2005 slide show presentation includes schematic drawings of the facility and its operation, an historical operations timeline, details and photos of the existing tour route, preservation actions to date, future preservation plans and value, and BRMA information.