Manhattan Project Hanford Works

Plutonium was one of two possible materials beleived to be capable of the fission chain reaction that would release atomic energy. At Oak Ridge, the Manhattan Project produced enriched uranium while the Hanford Engineer Works, along the Columbia River in Washington state, produced plutonium. Over a period of thirty months, the empty site gained three nuclear reactors, three processing canyons, sixty-four underground storage tanks for high-level waste, 385 miles of road, 158 miles of railroad, thirty miles of electrical transmission lines, and hundreds of miles of fence. Richland, Washington changed from a farming town of 500 to a government town of 17,500 with another 50,000 workers housed just to the north.

Chemical Separations Facility at Hanford, under construction in 1944
Chemical Separations Facility at Hanford, under construction in 1944.

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Hanford Engineer Works

Hanford, WA was the second of the major Manhattan Project facilities, after Oak Ridge, chosen for its isolation, readily available hydroelectric power from Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams, abundant supply of Columbia River water, large amount of land, a deep water table, and soil that could support massive structures. To build the Hanford facility, close to a half-million acres were purchased for the War Department by the spring of 1943. The new facility was named Hanford Engineer Works after a riverside village that disappeared into the site.

Hanford was built for $230 million from March 1943 to August 1945 by the Army Corps of Engineers and the DuPont Corporation, the site’s first contractor. It's mission was production of weapons grade plutonium for use in the Trinity bomb and the Nagasaki bomb.

Hanford Production of Plutonium

Glen Seaborg discovered that uranium U-238 can be transformed into fissionable plutonium P-239 by exposing it to high radioactivity in a nuclear reactor where, over time, the U-238 picks up extra nucleaer particles. The process was piloted and proved out at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge. At Hanford, three water-cooled reactors (or piles), designated by the letters B, D, and F, were built about six miles apart on the south bank of the Columbia River. The first Hanford reactor, B Reactor, went critical in September 1944.

B Reactor and a series of other reactors produced reactor fuel rods which were then processed and sent to a separation plant where minute amounts of P-239 were extracted. Four chemical separation plants were built in pairs about ten miles south of the reactors. A facility to produce uranium slugs and perform tests was built near Richland, WA about twenty miles southeast of the separation plants. The first Chemical Separations Building was T Plant, a massive canyon-like structure 800 feet long, 65 feet wide, and 80 feet high that began operations on 26 December 1944. The photo at left shows remote controls for the hot cells of the plutonium separation process, Hanford T Plant, 1944.

B Plant follow T Plant as the second Chemical Separations Building, a little smaller. Both plants used the bismuth phosphate process where the fuel rod's cladding jackets were first dissolved. Then a series of precipitation, centrifugation, and redissolution steps purified the plutonium.

The solution coming out of T- and B-Plants went through a bulk reduction process, a batch process that reduced 330-gallon batches to eight gallons. The final stage was isolation where a paste containing the plutonium was produced.

Delivery to Los Alamos

The plutonium paste was shipped to Los Alamos, NM for conversion to metallic plutonium and the creation of the atomic weapons components. The first shipment of plutonium left Hanford for Los Alamos on 2 February 1945.

The first shipments culminated in the construction of the first nuclear bomb, which was detonated on 16 July 1945, at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, NM. On 9 August 1945, a bomb containing Hanford plutonium was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Five days later, Japan surrendered and World War II ended.

With few exceptions, fission weapons since the end of World War II have used plutonium, not uranium. The Oak Ridge plants were either shut down or converted to other nuclear weapons production processes. Hanford continued to be the primary U.S. production facility for plutonium intended for weapons.

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