Tri-Cities Washington – Hanford B Reactor and the Manhattan Project

On July 19, 2017, we made our way to Pasco, Washington. We stopped in Easton at Turtle RV Town for breakfast. The only waitress provided great service for the customers. The food, on the other hand, was a bit mixed. Great pancakes, over-cooked ham, yucky eggs, and okay decaf coffee. After passing through mountainous areas, farms and vineyards, desert, and lava rock hills and canyons, disappointment set in when we arrived at the Pasco KOA. The campground sat right next to a freeway. And I thought the traffic in Poulsbo, Washington, was bad. At least semis didn’t drive by all hours of the night.

The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center was our first stop in the Tri-Cities.


Hanford Reach Interpretive Center


The museum includes exhibits on geology and formation of the Columbia River, flora and fauna, Native American artifacts, Manhattan Project and towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, atomic era and the secret weapons project, and the post-cold war activities.


Display at Interpretive Center
Display at Interpretive Center

Before houses were built, workers lived in trailers. Although they looked comfortable, I’m thankful my modern fifth wheel contains at least a bathroom. Twenty trailers in Hanford had to share the restroom facilities


Photo of Trailers Where Workers Lived
One of the Trailers Where Workers Lived
Galley and Bedroom Portion of the Trailer
Living Area of Trailer

Hanford, along with Los Alamos in New Mexico and Oak Ridge in Tennessee, was designated as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in November 2015. Hanford’s part of the project was the production of plutonium.

Energy Output of Uranium Pellets Compared to Other Sources

The next day, we headed out in search for the Manhattan National Historic Park. We drove around an area where a map indicated it was located only to find an abandoned building and then the Columbia Generating Station. Maybe we could get directions there.

We drove down the drive headed toward the guard shack, the road split into three lanes. I saw a sign directing all drivers without a badge to the far right lane. Jon missed the sign and headed straight toward the armed guard in military garb. The guard signaled to stop and gave us a threatening stare. He signaled us to pull forward and covered his sidearm with his right hand, as we approached. I prayed he wasn’t a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of guy.

Jon rolled down his window with a chuckle and said, “Uh, obviously we’re lost.” The guard relaxed his tense posture and scolded us for not following the sign directions. He didn’t know about the park but thought we needed to take a tour. We made a U-turn; I’m sure to the relief of the guard. I pictured him telling his buddies about the crazy tourists who drove their GMC pickup on site with a generator and a 5-gallon gas container strapped to the front rack of their truck.

Next, we stumbled across LIGO Hanford Observatory. LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detectors. Their website says, “LIGO is a sophisticated physics experiment designed to detect gravitational waves from some of the most violent and energetic events in the Universe. By making gravitational-wave detections, LIGO will provide physicists with the means to answer key scientific questions.”

LIGO Hanford Observatory Sign
LIGO Visitor Center and Administration Building
Equipment Used to Measure Gravitational Waves

No one was on site to give us a tour and explain in layman’s terms what the displays meant, so we wandered around trying to make sense of the exhibits that far exceeded the level of our undergraduate physics courses. LIGO founders Barry C. Barrish and Kip S. Thorne from Caltech and Rainer Weiss from MIT were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Visit LIGO if you’re interested in the measurement of gravitational waves and the benefits made to science.

On our way out, the woman who greeted us when we came in handed us directions to where we could arrange to take the tour. Finally, someone who knew what to do.

We headed back to town, made reservations for the next day to take the B Reactor tour, and stopped at the Ice Harbor for a beer. The building is not much to look at, but they have good food and beer.

Ice Harbor Brewing Company

The next day, we met the tour group at the National Park office, watched a short movie, and then climbed aboard the shuttle bus for the B Reactor. This is where the government produced plutonium for the first atomic bomb used during WWII and for bombs during the Cold War. The plant was decommissioned in February 1968.

National Park Service and Department of Energy Office

All that remains of the 30 buildings and 20 service facilities of B Reactor operations is the reactor building, main exhaust stack, and the river pump house, which is used for current site activities, which consist of a cleanup project.

Entrance to B Reactor
Back Side of Reactor Building

Inside the building, docents gave a presentation explaining the workings of the reactor. Then we had plenty of time to roam around and look at other areas and listen to more detailed presentations of the control room and the valve pit.


Workroom Showing Front Face of Charging Tubes in Pile


Close up of the Charging Tubes
Model of Reactor Core
A Portion of the Control Room through Enrico Fermi’s Office

Seven hydraulic accumulators served as an additional safety measure in the event of a power outage or other event that threatened the pile. The accumulators would pump oil to insert shim rods to shut down the reactor.


Accumulators Used as Safety Measure

Adjacent to the workroom room was the valve pit where the main connections and valves controlled the process water lines from the pump house to the pile.



Closeup of the Valve Pit
Valve Pit



Reactor Operation
B Reactor Cross-Section

A few more photos from the B Reactor Tour.

Supply Cabinet
Workers’ Locker Room

The safe housed classified papers.


The Safe Was Used Only for the Most Important Papers

We enjoyed learning about the B Reactor, but the tour guide and the docents threw out so many terms, facts, and information it was difficult to remember everything that was said. Fortunately, there is a virtual tour and plenty of other information available online to learn more about Hanford and the B Reactor. A Google search of Hanford, B Reactor, and Manhattan Project will give a student of any age plenty of meaty data, history, and other information to dig into.

We finish up our visit to the Tri-Cities in next week’s blog post.

Safe Travels



7 thoughts on “Tri-Cities Washington – Hanford B Reactor and the Manhattan Project

    1. For me the mishaps are memorable because the events are extraordinary. It’s not every day we get into such a pickle. I’m glad you were able to laugh along with us.


    1. All the wood inside reminded us of our first trailer we bought, an old used Kenskill. Except ours was smaller with only a bed tucked in the back, a dinette, and a galley. Very cramped with a toddler and baby, but it was better than a tent. Laura slept in a bunk with a railing above our bed, and we broke down the dinette to fit Kevin’s portable crib in the niche. It worked great until the kids no longer fit in their sleeping spaces.


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