Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus is dedicated on June 1, 1961.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 3/03/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10333

On June 1, 1961, the Nuclear Reactor Building (later More Hall Annex) on the University of Washington campus in Seattle is dedicated. Built to provide training and experimental opportunities to Department of Nuclear Engineering students and faculty, the building is also designed to promote nuclear energy to the public. The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), a collaboration between architects, artists, and engineers, working with Albert L. Babb (b. 1925), chair of the department, designed a building with a nearly all-glass upper level to allow the public to observe the reactor and scientists working with it from an observation plaza on the upper side of the sloped building site. The building will be used by the Nuclear Engineering department until 1988, when the reactor will be shut down. Concerns about nuclear energy stemming from waste management problems, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1979, and the failed Washington Public Power Supply System erode interest in nuclear engineering and fewer students pursue degrees in the field. With student numbers declining, the department decides, in 1992, to disband. The reactor will sit idle until after 2001, when concerns raised by the September 11th terrorist attacks prompt the university to move forward with decommissioning plans. The reactor will be removed in 2008, but the building remains and will receive state and federal landmark status. Plans for its future are (as of 2013) undetermined. 

The Nuclear Age on Campus

In the post-World War II era, Cold War fears and optimism for the potential of nuclear energy fueled research efforts, and a number of American universities built small on-campus reactors for research purposes. In the Pacific Northwest, Washington State College (later Washington State University), Idaho State University, Oregon State University, and Reed College, constructed reactors during the 1960s. At the peak, 75 colleges and universities had reactors.

The nuclear engineering program at the University of Washington developed in the 1950s. In 1953 the College of Engineering offered its first nuclear engineering classes. Not long after, college dean Harold Wessman (1899-1989) asked chemical engineering professor Albert L. Babb to develop a program within the existing engineering departments. By 1956 Babb had accomplished this goal. The Department of Nuclear Engineering Department officially formed in 1965 with Babb as its chair, a position he would hold for most of the department's existence. The University of Washington shared its faculty with a graduate program it established in collaboration with General Electric, Washington State College, University of Oregon, and Oregon State University in 1948 at Hanford Nuclear Reservation located on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. Gene Woodruff, a professor in the Chemical Engineering department, later reminisced, "We thought we had the best graduate students in the college of engineering ... . It was a very exciting field at the time" (Mari).

As part of the preparation for establishing a nuclear engineering department, the university built a nuclear reactor on campus to provide training opportunities for students and for conducting experiments. The Atomic Energy Commission granted the university $150,000 toward construction of the reactor and university architect Fred Mann (1913-2002) hired a group of professors who had formed a private firm, The Architect and Artist Group (TAAG), to design the building.

Architecture, Science, and Art

The principals of the firm came from several university departments. Wendell Lovett (b. 1922), Daniel Streissguth (b. 1924), and Gene Zema (b. 1926) all hailed from the Department of Architecture. Spencer Moseley (1925-1998) taught in the Art Department, and Gerard Torrence taught electrical engineering. The group also included landscape architect Robert Chittock, who was not affiliated with the university. They had formed their firm to prepare to bid on projects for the Century 21 World's Fair, planned to be held in Seattle in 1962. The firm's philosophy embraced the modern architects' belief in the integration of architecture, science, and art and they approached the Nuclear Reactor Building project from that perspective.

Additionally, Professor Babb, leader of the nuclear engineering program and soon to be chair of the Department of Nuclear of Engineering for most of its existence, greatly influenced the building's design. Babb believed in the potential of nuclear energy to provide safe and clean power and wanted to expose the public to its potential. To that end, he worked with TAAG to develop a structure that would showcase the nuclear fission process and the work of the engineers that sought to harness it for human benefits. In a later interview, Daniel Streissguth would remember that Babb "wanted to make it a symbol of the School of Engineering, he wanted to show the world what nuclear power looked like" ("Nuclear Reactor Building," 8-6).

The architects were not limited by safety concerns related to the reactor the building would house as it was felt that the reactor itself provided the necessary radiation containment. They did place the reactor on the lower side of the sloped building site to allow the ground to absorb any radiation that might leak in an accident.

The Brutalism Style

TAAG chose to design the building in the Brutalism style. Brutalism architecture is characterized by exposed structure and mechanical systems and massive concrete elements. The concrete is often left rough, retaining the imprint of the wooden forms used during the pouring-in-place construction. The word Brutalism is derived from the French phrase béton brut, referring to the textured surface of the concrete.

A University of Washington architecture student, Abby Martin, described the building's design:

"The defined structural elements of the building provide a frame which has been filled in with broad expanses of plate glass. The structure is precisely and vividly articulated, and every member is essential. The concrete of the main haunch beam is square and solid, while the cast-in-place beams which support the roof are tense in shape; their compacted form opens up the sides of the building for observation. Although the building's shape is animated, the window mullions and the form-work pattern of the cast concrete beams create a regular expression of the grid the building is laid out upon. The use of the glass storefront window system as a thin separation of inside and outside contrasts with the massiveness of the concrete structure. The form of the building is evocative of the forward looking spirit of the period, with an energy in the shape that implies the power that the building was meant to contain" ("Nuclear Reactor Building," 7-1).

Martin also wrote that the University of Washington's nuclear reactor facility was the only one of the university reactor buildings that utilizes its design to make the science of nuclear energy more accessible to the public" ("Nuclear Reactor Building," 7-1).

The Nuclear Classroom

The building has two floors. The larger lower level housed the reactor, a laboratory, a crystal spectrometer (used to analyze the structure of molecules), a counting room (for processing samples produced by reactor experiments), classroom space, workshop spaces, restrooms, and offices.

The university installed an Argonaut research reactor in the building. The reactor began operations in April 1961 at 10 kilowatts, and increased to 100 kilowatts in 1967. It used Uranium-235, a highly concentrated radioactive material, in the form of three-foot by four-inch by one-quarter-inch plates for fuel and water for cooling.

The upper level had a lecture room and the control room for the reactor. Three sides of the upper level were open to the outside, where there was an observation deck. The fourth side was accessible from the inside, for use by students.

Aesthetic Considerations

General contractor Jentoft & Forbes utilized several methods of construction to create the building's concrete elements. The floors were made up of waffle slabs, constructed by pouring concrete into forms with coffered undersides. This allowed for large areas to be made of concrete, without having to accommodate the weight of solid slabs. Pre-cast concrete channels form the roof. The remainder of the building is made of cast-in-place concrete columns and beams.

The building did not include any ornamentation, in keeping with the Brutalism style. The architects planned to leave it entirely unpainted, but university president Charles Odegaard (1911-1999) pressed for some color and the haunch beam and roof channels were painted white. Robert Chittock's landscape design only included non-flowering trees and shrubs, limiting the color palette to shades of green.

The only color introduced in the building design was found in the reactor shield. Spencer Moseley painted the shield blocks in primary colors that indicated their role in the reactor process. In addition to illuminating the blocks' role in the process, the bright colors also drew observers' attention to the reactor.

The Campus Era of Brutalism

The Nuclear Reactor Building was one of a number of buildings built in the Brutalism style on the university campus in the 1960s and 1970s. McMahon Hall, a dormitory, was built in 1965 on the northern end of campus. The Marine Sciences Building and the Oceanography Teaching Buildings were built in the south campus between 1967 and 1969. Kane Hall, a lecture hall, Condon Hall, home of the law school, and Gould Hall, for the Department of Architecture, were all built in the early 1970s. Gould Hall was designed by Daniel Streissguth and Gene Zema, along with several other architects in the department.

The Brutalism style of these buildings contrasted sharply with the existing buildings on the campus, many of which were built in the Collegiate Gothic style recommended by Charles Bebb (1856-1942). Bebb created a plan for the university campus in 1915.

Extolling Nuclear Energy

The university dedicated the Nuclear Reactor Building on June 1, 1961. In addition to a ceremony, the College of Engineering hosted a symposium on nuclear energy to mark the opening of the building. At the symposium, participants extolled nuclear energy's promise. Eugene C. Starr (d. 1988), chief engineer at the Bonneville Power Administration, predicted that nuclear power would be needed by 1975, when demand would outstrip production by hydrological dams and coal-fired power plants. Wilfrid E. Johnson (1905-1985), manager of General Electric's operations at the Hanford Works, "offered to bet Starr that a nuclear-power plant could make a firm bid on power -- at a price competitive with coal plants -- within five years" ("N.W. Need for Nuclear Power Seen").

James E. Travis, Atomic Energy Commission manager at Hanford, likened the investment in nuclear energy to that made by Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) in Alaska, which had paid off handsomely for the United States.

Safety Not Perfect

The reactor began operation in April 1961. Licensed operators supervised nuclear engineering students as they learned how to operate it. The students, all in the Nuclear Engineering graduate program, also conducted experiments using the reactor. Students from the School of Aquatics and Fisheries Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, the medical school, and Mechanical and Civil Engineering also used the reactor for experiments.

The reactor operated at a very low power level, with little risk of meltdown. The only documented accident occurred June 13, 1972, when a capsule holding plutonium failed and plutonium spilled in the reactor room. Anyone who had been in the reactor room in the 24 hours prior to its shutdown was checked for radiation exposure. The only person to register excessive levels of radiation was W. Robert Sloan, the student conducting the experiment using the plutonium. He drove to Richland to be checked and treated for minor radiation contamination.

A response team from Hanford, known as the radiological assistance team, checked out the building and found a small amount of radiation, which they cleaned up using wet rags and mops. They sent contaminated equipment that could not be cleaned to Hanford in shielded trucks to be buried.

Changing Times

When the Department of Nuclear Engineering was established in 1965, 62 graduate students were enrolled. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, enrollment declined as fewer students pursued degrees. Interest in the field decreased as construction of nuclear plants slowed and attitudes changed about nuclear energy. The problems posed by waste management, and events such as the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in March 1979 and the loan default by the Washington Public Power Supply System in 1982 all contributed to the decline in interest. By 1989, only 18 graduate students continued to pursue degrees in the department.

As student use declined, the reactor was put to other uses. Research into nuclear fission, nuclear waste management, and passive safety features for nuclear reactors that did not require operator action to function occurred in the 1980s. The reactor was also used for commercial medical applications and the production of nuclear isotopes for medical use.

Disbanding, Decommissioning, and Demolishing

In June 1988, the university ceased reactor operations. Remaining radioactive materials were taken to Hanford for storage between 1988 and 1990 and the reactor was mothballed. The Nuclear Engineering faculty voted to disband the department in 1992. The university began the process to dismantle the reactor in 1994, but placed the decommissioning plans on hold in 1995.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, raised concerns about the security of the building. Although it was only a remote possibility, the university worried that the building's name would attract someone in search of nuclear material and changed its name to More Hall Annex. By October 2008 the reactor had been removed and the university considered demolishing the building.

An effort to save the building from demolition, led by Abby Martin, a student in the university's architecture program, and the Friends of the Nuclear Reactor, culminated in the nomination the building to the state and federal landmark registers. Though younger than the minimum of 50 years that is required for landmark status, the National Register of Historic Places placed the More Hall Annex on the registry because of its association with significant historical events and because it embodies the characteristics of Brutalism and it is the work of prominent Northwest architects.

Though landmark status provides some protection for historic buildings, it does not guarantee preservation. Despite protests and an attempt to have the building declared a city landmark, the University of Washington tore the building down on July 19, 2016.


Sources:

Knute Berger, "An Historic Hot House," Crosscut, February 29, 2008 (www.crosscut.org); Knute Berger, "Score One for Seattle's Historic Nuke Site," Crosscut, October 4, 2009 (www.crosscut.org); Will Mari, "Step Into the UW's Former Nuclear Reactor," The Daily, May 21, 2007 (http://dailyuw.com/archive/2007/05/21/imported/step-uws-former-nuclear-reactor#.ULKk64bZ3Kc); Abby Martin, Nuclear Reactor Building! Blog, accessed December 15, 2012 (http://nuclearreactorbuilding.blogspot.com/); Hill Williams, "Plutonium Leak: Day of Suspense at U.W. Plant," The Seattle Times, October 1, 1972, p. A-1; Hill Williams, "Reactor Cleanup Required Patience," The Seattle Times, October 3, 1972, p. B-2; "Atom School to be Set Up for Hanford," The Seattle Times, April 13, 1948, p. 1; "Graduate Work on Atom Urged," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1946, p. 14; "Guide to the Albert L. Babb Papers, 1943-2000," Acc. No. 2510-008, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections website accessed December 21, 2012 (http://digital.lib.washington.edu/findingaids/view?docId=BabbAlbertUA2510.xml); "N.W. Need for Nuclear Power Seen," The Seattle Times, June 2, 1961, p. 41; "Nuclear Engineering is Dropped by UW," The Seattle Times, October 26, 1992, p. B-2; "Nuclear Reactor Building," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, available at (http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/08001158.pdf); Hannah Hickey, email to Jennifer Ott, July 11, 2014, in possession of Jennifer Ott, Seattle, Washington; Katherine Long, "UW Can Disregard Seattle's Landmark Law, Judge Rules," The Seattle Times, April 14, 2016 (www.seattletimes.com); Knute Berger, "UW's 'Nuke Building' Bites the Dust," Crosscut, July 21, 2016 (www.crosscut.com).
Note: This essay was corrected on September 16, 2014, and updated on January 3, 2017.


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