Nuclear Sightseeing: The B Reactor And What It Teaches Us

Also published here.

The front face of the B Reactor gives visitors a sense of the scale of this engineering achievment. Photo Credit: US Department of Energy. Click to enlarge.

Last week, while most of my friends in the nuclear weapons analyst community traveled to New York City to assess the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, I headed to a remote corner of south-eastern Washington State to explore the origins of the US side of the Cold War nuclear arms race.

For years, I’ve had a goal of visiting as many of the Manhattan Project sites as I could; I’ve been to the Trinity Site, and I’ve visited the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos. As I’ve mentioned before, many years ago, I’d worked at the Hanford Site as a chemist, but had never gotten to tour the historic B Reactor. It was finally opened for official public tours only in recent years, as part of the ongoing effort to promote preservation of the reactor as a designated National Historic Landmark.

There has been some controversy associated with preserving the B Reactor and turning it into a museum. The controversy stems from the fact that it was used to produce the plutonium that for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki in August 1945, as well as plutonium used in some of our earliest Cold War nuclear weapons. As Jeffrey Lewis said at, some people fear “that the exhibits will be one-sided hagiography of the nuclear weapons enterprise…”.

Though that potential exists, I am happy to say that the B Reactor exhibit and tour was absolutely accurate, straightforward, and simply presented the facts, emphasizing the engineering feat that the reactor represents rather than taking one side or the other regarding the ultimate use of the plutonium that it produced.

The building itself is quite a ways out in the desert (in what is called the 100 Area), and very stark in appearance, as you might imagine. Upon entering the building, we heard a short presentation, and were then taken on a guided tour. We were allowed to wander around after that. I’m still trying to find words for how the place affected me. To be sure, it’s rather amazing to think that it eventually worked so well, and was crafted so carefully in a relatively short period of time; construction was started in June 1943, and completed slightly over a year later. All of this was done without the benefit of computers or any of the other technology we take for granted in the nuclear industry today.

What the place impressed upon me the most, however, was that it completely changed the course of history. It represents the only wartime use of a nuclear weapon; it also represents the beginning of the buildup of nuclear weapons during the Cold War (including the huge environmental consequences) and the potential that humankind has for either planned or actual destruction. It represents one of the primary reasons for worldwide tensions that really didn’t end with the Cold War.

Whatever your opinion about nuclear weapons, it’s absolutely impossible to deny that the B Reactor has historical significance.

Back in 2004, on the sixtieth anniversary of the B Reactor’s completion, Pulitzer Prize-winner and nuclear weapons historian Richard Rhodes gave a speech that is worth reading in its entirety. Of particular note is the following:

The B Reactor went on after the war to produce plutonium to fuel the burgeoning U.S. nuclear arsenal. Now we’re attempting to arrange its preservation as a historic site and a museum. Bills have passed both the House and the Senate funding a review by the National Park Service of preserving Manhattan Project sites in Tennessee, New Mexico and here in Washington as a distributed national park. Why should they be preserved? Should we be proud of the work of the Manhattan Project in the years of the Second World War? Should we be ashamed? Should we look the other way, or should we remember? Or are such questions inappropriate where the physical preservation of our common past is concerned?


I hope you’ll consider my analysis of the influence of the nuclear discovery on the world. If I’m even partly right, then you have, here in your midst, one of the world’s most significant historical sites, a place where work was done that changed the human world forever and for the better, that has already contributed to a vast reduction in human suffering — in manmade death.

In the fullness of time, that change may well lead to the prevention not only of world war but of all war. When science demonstrated that matter, properly arranged, is all energy, it revealed a natural limit to national sovereignty that made unlimited war suicidal. No one had conceived of such a limit before. War had seemed to be, and had grown to be, unlimited. We have been forced by a new knowledge of the natural world to find less destructive processes to settle disputes, and if less destructive processes can be substituted, by necessity, for world war, there is no reason why such processes can’t substitute for limited war as well. We have every reason to hope and to expect that alternatives to even limited war — negotiations, regional communities, international law — will continue to emerge in the shelter the natural limitation has created. In the long run, Robert Oppenheimer may turn out to have been right with both his predictions. The B Reactor embodies the social reality of that millennial transformation. We should save it while we still can.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

Before I made my trip, I was leaning toward agreeing with Gov. Gregroire and others that the B Reactor should be more firmly preserved as part of the National Park System. After visiting the reactor, I’m completely convinced.

It is a part of our history that everyone should see; it’s something that should absolutely not be neglected, mothballed, or torn down.

The B Reactor has something to teach us about human nature, human ingenuity, and certainly about a war — the Cold War — that never got “hot”. As Rhodes pointed out, there’s a reason to remember why.

Whatever your feelings on nuclear weapons, the tour is worth taking. They’re all full for this year, but keep it in mind for next year.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gen JC Christian and Page van der Linden, Moody_Loner. Moody_Loner said: RT @plutoniumpage: Whatever you feel about the Manhattan Project, you should take the B Reactor tour: [...]

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