History buffs, former weapons workers and local officials have been seeking recognition for the Hanford nuclear reservation's B Reactor for six years. Their goal: to save it from being dismantled or permanently cocooned as part of the cleanup of the highly contaminated site.
The announcement Monday doesn't guarantee the reactor will never be torn down but likely opens the door for more public tours and moves it closer to becoming a museum.
"Building the B Reactor was a feat of engineering genius. So, too, was the construction a testament to the excellence of working Americans," said Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Department of Interior. "There was no wiggle room for error."
The government made Hanford and the B Reactor the centerpiece of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to build an atomic bomb in the 1940s. More than 50,000 workers moved to south-central Washington's open sagebrush plains for the massive project on the banks of the Columbia River.
Construction began on June 7, 1943, six months after physicist Enrico Fermi turned the theory of nuclear power into the reality of the Atomic Age. In short order, the reactor produced plutonium for the first man-made atomic blast, the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
Eight more reactors were built at Hanford to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, leaving a legacy of pollution that has made Hanford the nation's most contaminated nuclear site with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.
Five reactors at the site have been dismantled and cocooned, which involves removing extra buildings around the reactors, demolishing all but the shield walls surrounding the reactor cores and sealing them in concrete.
The B Reactor was shut down in 1968 and decommissioned. Under a cleanup schedule managed by the Department of Energy, dismantling could have begun as early as 2009. However, the department said it would maintain B Reactor while the National Park Service decides whether it should be preserved and made available for public access.
A Park Service advisory board last month recommended designating the reactor a National Historic Landmark, recognition currently granted to fewer than 2,500 sites. Four other Manhattan Project sites have been similarly recognized: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and the Trinity site in New Mexico, the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Fermi's Chicago Pile I.
The B Reactor previously was recognized as a national engineering historic landmark and a nuclear historic landmark.
Hank Kosmata, president of the B Reactor Museum Association in Richland, noted that achieving National Historic Landmark status took longer than building the reactor.
"There's an enormous amount of things that can be learned here, whether it's about Enrico Fermi, the history of nuclear energy or how a nuclear plant works," said Kosmata, 78, who came to Hanford as a reactor design engineer in 1954. "We want people to be able to stop in and spend some time here. That's our ultimate goal."
He now aids the Energy Department with Hanford tours that include the B Reactor. About 2,000 people have visited the complex this year.
The Energy Department replaced the building's roof this summer to help maintain it. Next year, department officials plan to expand the number of building tours without impeding cleanup, said Jeffrey Kupfer, acting deputy secretary.
"We need to get people here to see what can be accomplished when the best minds are put to a task," Kupfer said.
The B Reactor altered the course of World War II and changed global electricity sources, environmental restoration technology, science and medicine, said Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian.
Visiting such historic places teaches us about ourselves - who we are, what we will fight for and what we are capable of, she said.
"Before B Reactor, there was nothing like it," Gerber said, "and since B Reactor, nothing's been the same."