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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Answer Is Not A

Sorry to be so long in posting.  I clicked my ruby slippers, flew  back home and have been making up for all the racing around I wasn’t able to do in the tri-cities. 

Now, to answer the first question posed in my previous post.  There is no A.  A is not the correct answer.  There was supposed to be an A Reactor, but for whatever reason, it was never built. The A Reactor area became a buffer zone between the outside world and Reactor B.  So we have no A, but there were a total of eight reactors built.  There were  B, C, D and F.  Then there  was N (for New) Reactor and H,K, and E.  I don’t know why the brilliant minds that created controlled nuclear fission couldn’t get the alphabet straight, but in any case, all the reactors have been razed except for B Reactor, considered the jewel in the crown of the Manhattan Project when it was designated a National Historical Landmark. 

 At the start of the tour, you walk directly into the core of the world’s first production nuclear reactor.    

Whoa, that’s way cool.  You stand there looking up and up and up at 75,000 fuel rods.  The uranium along with some PCBs, asbestos and mercury are still encased there, but the boron rods are in place preventing any reactions.  When they first started up the reactor, they weren’t even sure it would work.  In fact, during the first few start-ups, it zoomed into life and then zoomed itself off.  In one of the short films on the tour, a scientist (I think it was John Marshall) explains how he plotted the deceleration of the reactor.  Ha ha, he chuckles, from the straight decline of the graph, it was obvious the problem was xenon.  What a rascal!  They added 500 rods of uranium, and the thing buzzed to a start ran on just fine with never, ever a safety problem. In fact, I found the safety features impressive considering it was built in 1944.  Remember, too, the whole shebang was designed and built before computers, all done with slide rules.

B Reactor required 27,000 gallons of water PER MINUTE to keep it cool.  The water came from the Columbia River, just spitting distance away, a major water and transportation channel for the northwest, flow, flowing to the sea.  (You remember Gilbert and Sullivan explored along it; wait, no, I mean Lewis and Clark.)  Once the reaction was complete, the rods were removed from the reactor and taken by an interior train to T Plant (again with the alphabet!).  There the plutonium was separated out leaving the nasty, nasty waste products.  The plutonium was transported to Los Alamos, and the waste was stored in tanks.  The current project is upgrading the storage tanks and making them permanently safe so nothing explodes or seeps into the Columbia River.

Interesting stories from Hanford.

(1) The University of Chicago discontinued its football program in 1939.  Because it was U of C, what else would they do with their abandoned football stadium other than allow Enrico Fermi to build a prototype nuclear reactor in it?  Just in case the reaction ran out of control, he hung boron bar above it.  The plan was that, if there was a problem, someone would take an axe to the rope holding the bar, dropping it into the reactor and stopping the nuclear reaction.  Fermi -- wisely, one can’t help but think -- did not want to leave the task to a “long-hair” (scientist) who might have to chop and chop to hit and cut through the rope.  He hired a woodsman to stand there all day with an axe, just in case.

(2) The workers didn’t know what they were building, but they were devoted to helping the war effort.  They all agreed to contribute one day’s pay, about $6.00 per person to buy a B17 bomber plane which they donated to the government to fight in the war.  They called it Day’s Pay.  By the time they tracked down Day’s Pay after the war to bring it back to Hanford, it had been dismantled with so many other, then useless, aircraft.

(3) Fermi himself placed the first piece of uranium into Reactor B. He has an office there, and you can look directly into it. It’s not that impressive as offices go, but if you are a geek, you will empathize with how exciting this was.
Fermi’s assistant, Leona Woods, worked under him at Chicago (she was instrumental in the utilization of Geiger counters).  She wanted to come out to Hanford to measure neutrons from the reactions.  She was pregnant at the time and wore overalls to be discrete about her condition.  Management asked if there was anything they could do to make her more comfortable, and she asked them to create her own bathroom so she wouldn’t have to share with the men.  So they did.  Just for her.  No one insisted she should stay at home with her baby.  [Editorial note: Sometimes I think since then we’ve taken a step or two backwards in women’s rights.] She had two healthy children during her work with nuclear reactors. (I wondered, so I checked.)

(3) Fermi’s office opens onto the reactor’s control room. Nothing was automated; the wall banks of displays (not seen here) were read by one man and written down by another. You can sit in the chair at the center of the controls. It’s silly but fun. 

(4) Now you may wonder, as I did, about the location of Hanford in south-central Washington State which is an impractical distance from Los Alamos where the plutonium was being used to build nuclear bombs.  How did they get it from A to B?  (See?  I can keep my alphabet in order.)  They drove it there.  In cars and such.  The speed limit at the time was 35 mph, which meant the trip took a bit of time.  Ambulances, however, didn’t have to obey the speed limit, so sometimes they’d load the plutonium in ambulances and rush it south. 
Also, I promised you I’d discover why the 500 sq. miles of Hanford was called Hanford.  A man named Cornelius Hanford organized a town way out there in the high desert because he felt the area was perfect for orchards.  Each orchard plot was the size of Chicago.  Just so, you know, you could grow enough trees.  When the government took over the site (chosen from 70 possible sites they looked at for isolation, water for cooling and a power source, in this case the Columbia River and the Grand Coolie Dam), they named it after Hanford. 

The picture below doesn’t show anything important about B Reactor, but I thought it was a useful lever. I always wanted to be cooler, especially in the lunch room. This is what I needed.

Seriously, the tour is GREAT!  Also, unlike the full site tour, you can actually get on this tour.  The docents are charming, the Hanford Reach (that area of the site) is gorgeous, and you’ll walk right into a nuclear reactor.  If you ever find yourself in the tri-cities area, do it! 

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