Thursday, July 10, 2014

Selling t-shirts, "I came to B Reactor and all I got was irradiated"

Greetings from chance in a lifetime week here in Eastern, Washington state.  Since the highlight of our trip was the visit to the B reactor on Wednesday, I figured I would write up what has been going down before getting home to Camp Mommy.

I traveled out uber early Sunday morning and we spent the first night in Spokane.  First of all, I thought Spokane was near Seattle, not on the Idaho border.  Regardless, it was beautiful.  Our hotel looked out over a city park.

A group of us went out Sunday night for dinner at a refurbished steam plant. Sadly no pictures, but I can attest to the like mindedness of the participants.  At introductions I mentioned that I had a lifelong interest in nuclear power and creation of Superfund.  Sadly, several heads were nodding.  Can I tell you that this week,
I am with my people.

There are 40 teachers here from across the country and also Japan.  They allowed for a larger group than normal NEH conferences to allow for both history teachers along with science teachers. The presentations have included both areas which has been great for take home info for my students.  I "think" I could draw an copy of Enrico Fermi's first pile reactor from the early 40s after this week.  Most likely, I need to stick to my day job and not embarrass myself that I can teach anything about nuclear physics.

I've always wanted to see the Columbia River and see the beauty discovered by Lewis and Clark.  Now I have a picture of the real deal to use in class.

Monday and Tuesday we were in class all day and discussed the Hanford Plant and it's importance to the Manhattan Project.  In particular we talked about the how and why this location was picked to produce plutonium.  Hanford Engineering Works was built during the last two years of WWII and produced the plutonium for one of the atomic bombs.  It later became the producer of the majority of all plutonium used in ballistic missiles during the Cold War and 8 more reactors were built.  It was closed at the end of the Cold War where only one reactor, B Reactor was declared a national historic place and has been open to a limited amount of tourists a year since 2008.

The area itself is in a 600 square mile reservation. We drove through and past the other plants and a enormous chemical processing plant but were not allowed to get of the bus.  In fact we were not allowed to take video or photos outside of just being in the B reactor.  When I say I felt of the weight of the Federal Gov't yesterday, I did.

I am in awe of how the Federal Gov't could build a place with 50,000 workers and only a handful of people could know exactly what they were producing. At full production in the 1950s this was the B Reactor site. Call me crazy, but this place is a feat of engineering design and this is a site to behold. Below is a comparison to what exists today.

Also in the amazement department, this is pre-computer aided design and all the calculations to create the factory and the process to derive plutonium were done using a slide rule, drafting, and mathematical calculations only. To give you an scale of the size of the reactor (which is unconditioned and was predicted to be up to 115 degrees inside an all concrete building yesterday) here is the "face" of the reactor filled with a series of tubes (unlike this Internet, which is also a series of tubes, right?)

It was totally worth the dry but also intense heat to see the museum and the surrounding areas. Again for scale, the white elevator behind me was tall enough for someone to stand between and pull individual tubes from the grid.

Before we could enter we had to be processed by the Federal Dept of Energy off site location and I signed what felt like a gazillion security documents about what I could and could not take pictures of or take away from the factory.  Uh, hello, I don't want anything that could emit radiation going home with me (um... guy sitting next to me on the bus who had secretly taken rocks from outside for his classroom.) I'm sorry, but regardless of the whole, "let's get through airport security thing, how about this is a Superfund site."  The only thing I want is a tshirt that says "I came to B Reactor and all I got was irradiated."

I noticed that along the tour were dosimeters to measure radiation.  When I applied for this conference I looked up Hanford and what was happening at one of the largest Superfund sites in the country.  In case you are wondering, check out this report about the clean up to be scared out of your pants about what our government did for 40 years in the name of national defense.

I'll just add that this is the most barren, dry place I've ever seen but also really beautiful in contrast to home.  What happened to green, lush Washington State?  Seriously, this was the scene from nearby.  Speaking of dinner, our project directors took us to a trio of wineries for a very nice dinner and wine tastings earlier in the week.  In the "don't drink the water department," let us spend time talking about the hazards of nuclear waste in the nearby Columbia river all day and then drink wine from local wineries.  Nope, not paradoxical at all.

We will be spending part of Thursday on a boat out on the river talking about the impact on the environment and the clean up efforts.  I already have a list of questions to ask because I am going to be that annoying person. I won't be alone though, we have been broken into small research groups to present on Friday.  Our group met this afternoon at a local brewery called Atomic Ale that serves a bunch of local beers all named after Atomic age people and events.

Needless to say there is a old, dirty hippie teacher at every conference I've attended.  Our research assignment is to design a museum installation for a new National Park Service Museum on the Manhattan Project.  After 3 hours of planning and lots of beer our group gave in to his plan to make our presentation about all the negatives of the Atomic age, aptly titled "the room of doom."  I can't wait to see our professors' faces along the the Friday lecturers who are coming to hear these presentations.

We are back in Spokane late Friday and I return home on Saturday.  Just in time to leave late next week for Los Angeles for the Age of Reagan conference.  Because when I saw this yesterday of a 1950s GE (who was involved in reactor management) actor and spokesperson named Ronald Reagan I busted out laughing.

I still can't believe that for the 2nd year in a row I've gotten to visit amazing places of personal interest related to teaching.  No wearing of a Scooby Doo shirt to identify me as the oddball here, I am with my people and proud to be wearing my sunglasses at night.  And no, I didn't push any buttons in the control room and start a nuclear meltdown.

1 comment:

Beth said...

LOVE every bit of this. EVERY BIT!!