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July 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Hanford's B Reactor a national park?

Posted by Kate Riley

It's not Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon for sure, but Hanford's B Reactor this week won the backing of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to become part of the National Park Service.

But the world's first full scale nuclear reactor is a spot that is awesome in its own right and merits such commemoration and preservation as a birthplace of the U.S. nuclear legacy, for good and for ill. I've visited the reactor, built during World War II, a couple of times and it is astonishing to think of the innovation of that era, a bit of a gamble for a nation at war. The control room is old school with dials and gauges that marked rolls of paper with roving pens -- a far cry from any modern digitally operated factory.

Salazar is recommending to Congress that a natioal park be created to commemorate the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. In addition to the B Reactor, plants at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oakridge, Tenn., would be included. This is an important milestone for a years-old effort.

The massive project was conducted in secret in this semi-arid shrub steppe of the Columbia Basin. Many people in the nearby communities had no idea what all the construction and people were doing, something that former Seattle Times reporter HIll Williams notes in his recent book, "Made in Hanford -- The Bomb That Changed the World."

The ending of the war with Japan certainly was hastened by the devastation wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The B Reactor produced the plutonium in the Fat Boy bomb that devastated Nagasaki.

The haste of developing this new technology also contributed to the great burden that the Hanford site bears because of the waste stream produced by B Reactor and several others built through the Cold War. Billions have been spent on a cleanup project and so will billions more.

Now Congress must decide on Salazar's recommendation, but the proposal has the support of Washington state's congressional delegation, especially U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

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