A few years back while vacationing in the Tri-Cities area of Eastern Washington, my wife and I took a tour of the Hanford Site near Richland. The Hanford Site contains nine nuclear reactors used to produce fissionable materials in atomic weapons. These reactors were all shut down by the fall of 1989 and are now being cleaned up and entombed to protect the environment. However, the very first one built—B Reactor—has been designated a national landmark and refurbished for tours.
The tour was a fascinating experience and I would highly recommend it if you are ever in the area. The fact that the whole project was put together during World War II, in such a short amount of time, is amazing. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in different sites across the country and most did not know what was being produced—only that it was critical for the war effort.
A whole city was created at the Hanford Site, with housing, shopping, hospitals, schools, and entertainment facilities for those who worked there. Of course, the creation and use of atomic weapons is a very serious matter and I am not trying to comment on either side of the issue. Instead, I want to look at how and what these people did to accomplish something that had never been done before. For example, simply providing dessert for the workers required machines to create over 7,000 pies for just for one meal served in the cafeterias that totaled eight football fields in size.
The reason I bring this up is to highlight an engineering achievement. The original design for the reactor came from scientists at the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) in Chicago, and they specified that the reactor needed to be built with 1,500 fuel tubes. However, the engineers from DuPont who built the reactor argued for additional fuel tubes even though many scientists seriously objected. The engineers based their request on years of experience building industrial plants. In the end, they won the argument and were able to build the reactor the way they wanted. Although it was a significant increase in cost, the engineers completed the reactor with a total of 2,004 fuel tubes.
Early in the morning on September 27, 1944, the first nuclear reaction started in reactor B. Engineers decided to only use the original 1,500 fuel tubes in the first test and the reactor performed above expectations. However, after less than a day of operation, the reactor experienced a problem that caused it to lose power and shut itself down. This problem initially baffled the reactor operators, but they eventually discovered the issue was caused by xenon that had been produced as a by-product of the fission process. The operators determined that the solution was to increase the power of the reactor. After some recalculations, the full array of 2,004 fuel tubes was loaded and the reactor was back to full power with the xenon problem eliminated by December 26.
To read this entire column, which appeared in the September 2018 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.