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Gene Weisskopf
President, BRMA

From an editorial in The New York Times on September 12, 2001:

It was, in fact, one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as “before” and “after.”

From the B Reactor HAER document, Chapter 4, “The Time Between Before and After”:

In the case of the B Reactor and the Manhattan Project, an expert analysis is not needed to understand the ultimate historical significance. The wartime crash program came to a resounding end in a single instant in time, an instant that forever separates the before from the after, the history that was from the history that was to come. That instant is indelibly etched into the consciousness of the world.

The BRMA extends its thoughts and sympathy to those whose lives were directly and forever affected by the World Trade Center disaster on September 11. People lost friends, family, and loved ones. The world has changed.

If the BRMA had a weekly newsletter, I might have been through all this by now. But the catastrophe in New York has not yet filtered through these pages, and it must, because this shattering event affects everything in a thousand different ways, directly or indirectly.

In fact, as you’ll read in my other article in the newsletter (if you care to), the events in New York created an indelible link to the B Reactor Museum Association and the history that we’re trying to preserve and present to the world. Maybe everyone else is doing the same thing, putting pieces together to fabricate a new understanding of the world as it is today. We give blood, send money, wave a flag, say a prayer, or sing a song, all in an effort to form a new universe from the pieces of the old.

I suppose that the newer generations now have their own Hindenburg and Pearl Harbor, although the Word Trade Center seems to dwarf the scale of those two well-known disasters. I already miss not having a Roosevelt or Churchill, who could grasp the essence of a nationwide struggle and orate the country into a sense of direction, giving a foundation of leadership. I especially miss the bright flags and uniforms of the enemies back in 1941, which made marching off to war, east or west, a whole lot easier.

But, like many others, what I miss the most is the shadow of innocence that was crushed with the lives of some 5,000 people under the rubble of two 110-story skyscrapers.

As in times past, I hope that our “after” will evolve into an even better world than our “before.”

BRMA Board Members – 2001

President: Gene Weisskopf
Vice President: Jim Stoffels
Secretary: Madeleine Brown
Treasurer: Warren Sevier

Committee Chairs:

Health, Safety, & Engineering: Del Ballard
History, Artifacts, & Exhibits: Lyle Wilhelmi
Membership: Joe Hedges
Public Relations: Jim Thornton
Editor: Gene Weisskopf

It’s Not Atomic Bombs

Gene Weisskopf

The tragedy in New York has still not filtered through my own psyche—the thousands of lives that were extinguished in a matter of hours, the billions of dollars of real estate and airplanes that were turned into dust in a single morning, and the lasting, painful effects of the gaping hole that was burned into the national consciousness, still waiting to be healed. I’m simply not equipped to grasp the scale of this horror, even though I watched it all happening on TV that September 11 morning (or, now that I think about it, perhaps because I watched it on TV).

There’s a further reaction this event awakens in me and brings slowly to the surface, triggered by the word “ground zero,” which has been used over and over again in reference to the rubble that was once the World Trade Center. There are few words that can describe the broad expanse of devastation, especially to listeners thousands of miles away who strain their imaginations to envision and empathize with the extent of the damage and suffering.

And yet, here I am in Richland, Washington, in the B Reactor Museum Association, and I realize that “ground zero” is our term, a phrase that was born after Alamogordo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, when humanity was struck with the realization that atomic weapons had arrived. New words were needed to describe the earth-shattering weapon—kiloton, mushroom cloud, critical mass, air burst, fallout, and “ground zero” to designate the point directly beneath the atomic bomb explosion.

There is an overpowering lesson I’m trying to understand from the “ground zero” of the World Trade Center. Namely, that in all its horror and stark devastation, it is a far cry from ground zero in our sense of the word, from the perspective of the advent of nuclear weapons.

One major difference between an atomic and a traditional chemical explosion is that the area of devastation would be measured not in hundreds of feet from ground zero, but in miles.

So compared to a nuclear explosion, what happened in New York City is a tiny, laboratory experiment in ground zero. Seeing the destruction in New York from a hundred different angles each day after the catastrophe, I can see that understanding the effects of nuclear weapons can’t come from only scientists, because the facts and figures we hear simply don’t resonate in the human mind. But seeing, even if from afar, the rubble, smoke, and ruins, the deaths, injuries, and incalculable losses from the collapse of the two towering skyscrapers, brings the meaning of annihilation almost all the way down to the basement level of our most basic of human understanding. And this was only a glimpse of the effects of an actual nuclear blast. The seemingly infinite disaster in New York turns into a finite snapshot on the lower end of a scale of horror that begins at a nuclear ground zero and stretches far beyond the outer reaches of my imagination.

And the need for the word “ground zero” started right here, when the plutonium production plant at Hanford produced the fissile material for the world’s first atomic detonation. The massive explosive power of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is far beyond our imaginations, equivalent to about 12,500 and 22,000 tons of TNT (kilotons), respectively. Yet, those bombs were miniatures compared to the thousands that followed in the world’s nuclear arsenals. The mechanics of the bombs were made vastly more efficient, allowing smaller bombs to produce ten and twenty times more explosive power. And then the effects were boosted a thousand-fold by the introduction of the thermonuclear bomb—the hydrogen bomb

Dr. Frank A. Moscatelli, a professor of physics at Swarthmore College, calculated that the total energy released in the World Trade Center disaster—the weight of the airplanes, their speed at impact, the jet fuel, and the mass of the buildings—was equivalent to the explosion of 600 tons of TNT (0.6 kilotons). That’s not even three percent of the energy released by the Nagasaki bomb and, according to Dr. Moscatelli, it was the gravitational collapse of the buildings that supplied most of the energy.

In other words, if you remove the effects of gravity from the total energy expended in New York that day, you end up with the equivalent of a small fraction of a kiloton of TNT. And that’s why my realization of a nuclear “ground zero” came to the surface.

The largest weapon in today’s U.S. nuclear arsenal is a thermonuclear bomb, with an explosive yield of 1.2 megatons of TNT. (The even larger bombs brandished in the past are no longer employed.) A megaton is a million tons or 1,000 kilotons—50 times the power of the Nagasaki bomb.

If a one megaton thermonuclear bomb were detonated at ground level in front of the World Trade Center in New York, the resulting ground zero would be surrounded by an area of complete destruction 3.5 miles in diameter. Think of that—before the blast it would take a good hour to walk across that area. Ninety-eight percent of the population within this 3.5 mile area would be killed. Does anyone know how many people were within 1.75 miles of the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning?

The map shown below illustrates the destruction from ground zero at the World Trade Center in a series of concentric circles, with the innermost one being the zone of complete destruction that was just described. The number shown on each circle is the pressure from the blast at that distance from ground zero, starting at 12 pounds per square inch for the inner zone. The map and blast estimates are taken from the Blast Mapper Web site at:

where you can set off a virtual thermonuclear bomb almost anywhere in the world.

In the second band of destruction stretching out to 2.7 miles in all directions from ground zero, only the skeletons of substantial buildings might be left standing. All buildings the size of single-family homes would be completely blown away, leaving only their foundations. Fifty percent of the population in this zone would be killed, and most of the rest injured. This is an area of 23 square miles, compared to an equivalent destroyed area in 1945 Nagasaki of about 4 square miles.

But the blast effects go even farther, with deaths, injuries, and damage sprawling out to the outer ring in the map, a full 7.4 miles from ground zero—170 square miles centered at the heart of our largest city.

The effects of this blast go far beyond the shores of Manhattan Island, but there’s yet another aspect to consider—this scenario is for a nuclear blast, which would create huge amounts of radiation and, because it was detonated at ground level, huge amounts of radioactive fallout. According to Blast Mapper, if typical easterly winds were blowing in New York City, anyone downwind within 90 miles of the blast (essentially everyone on Long Island) would be killed as the radioactive cloud of dust drifted over them—the ones closest to the blast within hours, ones farther away within days or weeks.

With the scenario created by this single, one-megaton bomb, I think we’ve far exceeded the abilities of our human imaginations to grasp the reality. I was already dumbstruck by the reality of 5,000 people being snuffed out as the towers collapsed. And yet, what happened there was a microcosm of what nuclear warfare is all about.

But there’s still more. With the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in the world, it’s not just a single bomb that would be dropped on a city the size of New York. Today’s nuclear missiles can have multiple independently targeted warheads that would be spaced in their descent to do the most damage. Of course, while New York was being vaporized, it would be likely that every major city in America would be falling to the same fate. (But let’s hold our opinions on the likelihood of building an effective missile defense for another time.)

That’s where I stop. My imagination cannot grasp even a tiny piece of the nationwide disaster that a nuclear war would bring. But by confronting that nightmare of a future possibility, the worst disaster ever to hit the heart of the United States—one I watched on TV the morning of September 11 while sipping a cup of coffee—has been put into glaring perspective. The suffering, deaths, and devastation in New York are real. We have a ground zero within our own borders.

And I have been given a glimpse behind B Reactor’s dull, concrete façade, and realize, once again, that its historical importance in human evolution stretches far beyond my own feeble imagination.

What’s Been Going on Since July 1, 2001

7/3 Gene talks with Keith Maupin, the long-time Richland resident and Hanford worker who wrote the essay about Richland High School’s “bomber” moniker, “The Bomber, the Bomb, and the Bombers.” Keith has taken on the job of historian in the attempt to clear up the confusion over why Richland HS became the Bombers. Did the school vote in that name because of Richland’s role in the Manhattan Project, or because Hanford construction workers had donated a day’s pay to pay for the bomber “Day’s Pay?”

His essay has some real punch. He wrote it as an amateur—he’s not a professional writer and certainly was not trained as an historian. The subject matter is intensely local while also being somewhat mundane, at least on the surface. Beneath the surface, however, there’s a huge current of divergent feelings. On the one hand, this community wants to brag about and show its pride in the history that was made in this “city that built the bomb.” On the other hand, it has long desired to put that world-changing and often controversial past behind it and shed itself of the “Atomic City” image.

Keith’s essay exhibits more than a touch of “attitude,” and wonders if there has been an attempt to revise Richland’s history through continuous misstatements about the origins of the “Bombers.” Although his essay seems to paint no definitive conclusions, the direction in which it leads the reader is revealing, invigorating, and thoroughly refreshing. Copies of his essay are also available through the BRMA for $1 to cover the duplication costs.

7/6 Del Ballard and Gene meet with Michele Gerber for lunch to discuss how the BRMA’s interests overlap with the Hanford Reach National Monument advisory panel, on which she is a member. She’s handling historical and cultural aspects of the Reach planning, and therefore is a good connection for the BRMA. We gave her a copy of our Vision statement and also a document we gave to Darby Stapp back in March concerning B Reactor “themes” and future uses of Hanford lands. Unfortunately, at this time nobody knows how the Reach Monument will be managed, what will be encouraged or discouraged, and so on.

7/10 Del, Roger Rohrbacher, and Gene meet at Bechtel with Dru Butler and Pauline Mix to try to “streamline” the process of scheduling and running tours to B Reactor. The overriding issue it seems, is that no one at Hanford is ultimately in control of tours and how they are arranged. But Bechtel is the entity actually in charge of the reactor, and therefore has a lot of influence on how well the process moves along.

Gene also speaks with Pat Nolan in Bechtel’s graphics department about duplicating the B Reactor HAER document. Gene will put together a CD for printing the entire document with figures and photos.

7/12 We receive an e-mail and later a phone call from David Barsky, who may be producing a short piece for the History Channel’s “This Week in History.” But his week of interest is not the week of September 24, 1944, when B Reactor was started for the first time, but November 20, 1960! He was following a reference that on November 25, 1960, “the first nuclear reactor used for research and development went online in Richland.” That seemed to point to Hanford’s PRTR, the Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor in the 300 Area. Gene e-mailed him back some information and a photo of the PRTR and wished him luck.

7/13 Gene speaks with George Rangel at Bechtel, who’s working on a brochure to hand out to B Reactor visitors. We sent him several documents we have used to explain the reactor to visitors, and he will pick our brains a bit more.

7/13 Gene talks with Byron Ricks, a writer who will be doing an article for “Adventure” magazine, a National Geographic-related publication, about the Hanford Reach. He’s working with Paula Call at the Fish & Wildlife office in Richland, but is also very interested in B Reactor. An interesting conversation ensues, as Byron picks up on the wonderful contrast between the world’s first nuclear reactor, the nation’s second largest river, and the fact that one reason the Reach is so beautiful is that it’s been locked behind Hanford’s barbed wire for 50 years. The historical importance of B meshes perfectly with the natural and cultural importance of the Monument lands and river. We plan to meet with him at the reactor when he’s here to tour the Reach.

7/15 Gene calls BRMA member Bill Michael in Colorado to thank him for his letter to the EPA concerning the upcoming EE/CA decision. Bill has a been a strong although distant supporter of the BRMA, and his letter was a powerful thumb’s up for B’s preservation.

7/17 Tour at B Reactor for several from Battelle, including its direction Lura Powell. Great interest and questions. Afterwards, we ponder the importance of what often seems like esoteric, arcane, and cryptic basic research that seems to point no where. In the 1930s, almost no one thought that nuclear energy would ever be industrialized, and certainly not any time soon. And yet, with a few shifts in world events (like Germany’s invasion of Poland, etc), the possibilities of nuclear energy quickly became a reality, first at B Reactor and then, 10 months later, in a blinding flash at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

7-31-01 The writer Byron Ricks comes to B Reactor for a tour before he canoes down the Columbia. Paul Vinther, Dee McCullough and Gene show him around, with Gene supplying some historical tidbits while Paul and Dee regale him with personal stories and explanations. Byron was very good at asking questions, listening, and understanding the significance of what he was seeing. A photographer with him took a lot of photos.

7/31 Another tour at B Reactor, this time for a busload of Bechtel National vitrification managers. Paul, Dee, and Gene serve as the tour guides. A good group who knew reactors. Gene had put together a “welcome” document for them that pointed out how their job of emptying the waste tanks in the 200 Areas will be a continuation of the Manhattan Project. When DuPont built Hanford, they made the decision to simply store the highly radioactive wastes in steel-lined concrete tanks until after the war, when a process could be developed for handling the wastes. Over 50 years later, that time has finally arrived. Another point of historical interest is that somewhere in those tanks are the original by-products of the very first batch of hot fuel from B Reactor, which was processed at T Plant at the end of 1944.

8/2 Gene meets with DOE’s Marla Marvin to discuss how B Reactor tours are arranged. Also in attendance were Mary Goldie, Dee Lloyd, and Chris Smith from DOE, and Dru Butler from Bechtel. Gene had put together a 2-page document highlighting some of the tour-related issues. For example, how does DOE (through Fluor) decide who gets a tour and who doesn’t? While small groups are hosted by Battelle and other Hanford contractors, outside groups have traditionally had a very hard time finding the hoops to jump through to arrange a tour.

One very positive outcome is that Marla says, and Mary Goldie confirms, that any group of 10 or more who asks for a tour of the site and B Reactor will get the tour—no constraints and no selection criteria. On the other hand, no one would commit to saying how large a budget was available for tours, but at least they sounded willing to take a chance that they wouldn’t be hit with a hundred tours a month. Also, no one would commit to stating DOE’s intentions regarding tours. Does the DOE want to encourage or discourage tours of the site? The outcome of the meeting was definitely positive, although it’s doubtful that the DOE will be scheduling weekly tours any time soon. But they will also try not to turn away requests for tours.

8/2 Roger Rohrbacher and Gene drive out to the reactor with Robert Shuster, who’s hoping to write an article for “Preservation Magazine” about efforts to preserve B Reactor. They proceed to reenact the glory days of Hanford production and add authenticity to the hot August day by driving out to the reactor in Robert’s little Hyundai automobile, without air conditioning and with windows wide open!

8/6 The 56th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Gene notes that “The New York Times” reprints their 8/6/45 front-page article in their “On This Day in History” section

and finds the following references and misreferences to Hanford:

“In December, 1942, the decision was made to proceed with construction of large-scale plants. Two are situated at the Clinton Engineer Works in Tennessee and a third at the Hanaford [sic] Engineer Works in the State of Washington.”

“In the State of Washington the Government has 430,000 acres in an isolated area, fifteen miles northwest of Pasco. The settlement there, which now has a population of 17,000, consisting of plant operators and their immediate families, is known as Richmond [sic].”

“What is this terrible new weapon, which the War Department also calls the ‘Cosmic Bomb’? It is the harnessing of the energy of the atom, which is the basic power of the universe. As President Truman said, ‘The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.’”

8/21 Rob Shuster calls Gene & Roger to follow up on his B Reactor tour; discuss B- and BRMA-related issues.

8/28 A budget meeting at Bechtel at which the DOE and Bechtel discuss the Detailed Work Plan (DWP) for the upcoming FY2002 budget. Gene attends and is also given the chance to make a few comments about the budget and B Reactor. At this time, there is $1.3 million allotted for B Reactor hazards mitigation (cleanup), and there are funds budgeted for 40 tours to B. Mary Harmon from DOE in D.C., wondered why tours weren’t offered on a regular basis throughout the year. Welcome to Hanford, Mary!

Gene points out that there’s a need for a long-range plan for B Reactor, which would make it easier for both DOE and Bechtel to plan, budget, and do the work. He wonders why Keith Klein’s letter of August 6 refers to on-going planning etc. Mike Hughes suggests that Klein’s letter needs to be clarified. This is especially so since the 2002 DWP specifically mentions that no funds are available for creating a long-range plan for the reactor. The discussions seem to be limited to short-term cleanup efforts while avoiding anything museum-related. Mary mentions that Congress has not appropriated any money for museum-related work, but she also agreed that a B Reactor museum, as Gene likes to point out whenever possible, would fit into the DOE’s mission of energy research, education, etc. Dennis Faulk from the EPA suggests that there would be two or three milestones added to the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) concerning B that would ensure the work is done in a timely manner.

9/5 Dru Butler sends us the data from the most recent radiological readings on the tour route at B Reactor. Virtually all of the tour route shows nothing above background levels. The only area that needs consideration is the fuel storage basin viewing room, but even there the dose rate at the window (closest to the basin) is 0.05 to 0.30 mrem/hour, enough to concern only a full-time worker who would have to spend hundreds of hours there to approach the maximum allowable annual dose for workers.

9/17 While hosting a tour at B Reactor, Gene gets to see his first rattlesnake at the reactor. The Hanford “dog catcher” was there (animal control, etc), evicting the small adult rattler from the parking lot, where it had been found under Don Eckert’s car.

9/24 Gene talks with Dennis Faulk at EPA about progress in the B Reactor EE/CA decision. He says that the process is being delayed because the EPA is grouping the milestones for B along with all other 100 Areas milestones, and they’re being negotiated with DOE as one lump. So B won’t be nailed down for awhile, but should be by the end of the year.

Critical Mass

Welcome to the new members who have joined the BRMA in the past few months. It’s been 33 years since B Reactor was shut down for the last time, and we’re still working to ensure its preservation.

Melvin & Eleanor Finkbeiner Richland
Harold Harty Richland
Cathie Hobbs Olympia
Mary Lou Hobbs San Pedro
Hank Kosmata Richland
Bill & Bette Porath Kennewick
Kathy Rhoads Pasco

You can take pleasure in knowing that your involvement with the BRMA will help bring the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor into the public consciousness. And once enough people know about it. . . . .