Under a Hanford nuclear reservation cleanup schedule, dismantling of the B Reactor could have begun as early as 2009. The department instead will maintain the reactor while the National Park Service decides whether it should be preserved and made available for public access.
"The B Reactor stands as a tribute to the ingenuity and dedication of the men and women who pioneered a nuclear technology in the hope that our nation's security would be preserved for future generations," Assistant Energy Secretary Jim Rispoli said in a statement. "The steps we are taking will ensure we give this remarkable facility every chance to be permanently preserved for the public to see."
The federal government created Hanford in southcentral Washington in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, and B Reactor was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor. 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 nuclear 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.
The reactor was shut down in 1968 and decommissioned.
Former nuclear workers and concerned residents have been trying for years to preserve the reactor as a museum. President Bush signed a bill in 2004 requiring the government to study the potential for adding historic Manhattan Project sites, including B Reactor, to the national park system.
The reactor also has been nominated for national historic landmark status, and a Department of Interior committee unanimously recommended the recognition in December 2007.
Five of Hanford's nine plutonium production reactors 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 work is part of the continuing cleanup at Hanford, the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, at a cost expected to top $50 billion.
"We've been concerned for a long time that this was a race we might lose. All around B Reactor, the other reactors of that period are being cocooned," said Hank Kosmata, president of the B Reactor Museum Association in Richland.
Kosmata, 78, came to Hanford in 1954 as a reactor design engineer, working on the N Reactor during design, construction and operations. He now aids the Energy Department with public tours of the site, including B Reactor.
"It was such an extremely important event in the history, really of the world. It was, for the first time, a demonstration that a production reactor could be built, could produce a chain reaction, could produce plutonium, which was an incredible event," Kosmata said, "and of course, it had a significant role in the end of World War II."
On the Net:
B Reactor Museum Association: http://www.b-reactor.org/